Urban Archipelago Redux

Last Sunday’s New York Times had a visual representation of the urban/rural political divide. 

The article pictured a variety of neighborhoods, and asked readers to guess how that neighborhood had voted in the 2020 Presidential election. It was stark, visual evidence of what has been called the “big sort,” in which people have essentially voted with their feet, residing in neighborhoods composed of generally like-minded Americans. The only dubious areas pictured were suburban, where residents were more evenly divided.

It was reminiscent of the Urban Archipelago described by Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger several years ago, in the wake of the 2004 election.In the years since, the divisions between blue cities and red rural areas has become even more pronounced. America these days isn’t really divided between blue and red states; it’s divisions are far more frequently between blue cities and the red states in which they are located.

That conflict was the subject of a very interesting article in The Week, titled “How Red States Silence Urban Voters.”

The article began by noting that a major storyline of the pandemic had been Donald Trump facing off against Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newson; after the election , that storyline was reframed as President Biden urging caution versus GOP governors, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, throwing their states open without masks.

But below the surface, there’s been a possibly more consequential fight over COVID that has not received nearly as much attention. It’s not between the president and the states, but between red state governors and their blue cities, which almost universally promoted mask mandates and other mitigation measures — and by all evidence were the key element staunching the spread of the virus in those states.

That red state-blue city conflict on COVID also reflects a more far-ranging battle, itself part of the ideological right turn in the Republican Party over the last decade, in which Republican-dominated states have attacked local government power, as cities even in red states become more liberal and non-white. The recent Georgia legislation giving the state the power to override local election boards is of a piece with wave after wave of state legislation that has preempted local minimum wage laws, overturned local gay rights bills, and nullified local paid sick days bills.

Virtually every large and moderate-sized city has imposed mask mandates. Several Red state Republican governors have not simply declined to impose state-wide restrictions, but have moved to overrule and invalidate mask mandates in effect in urban areas–despite the fact that all available evidence supports their effectiveness in reducing infections.

If this success on masking shows the importance of local government action, the shutdown of that local flexibility by red state governors last month reflects the broader trend of expanding state preemption of local power in large swathes of public policy.

If the conflict between cities and their red states was limited to Covid precautions, that would be worrisome enough, but the quoted paragraph is correct–increasingly, state officials and legislators responsive to rural constituents are moving to curtail the ability of city officials to respond to the needs and expressed desires of urban residents.

Republicans have blocked cities from raising the local minimum wage above the state’s rate in rural counties. The article details several instances, and reports that 25 states now prohibit local minimum wage laws.

Voting laws are moving in the same direction. Much of the political fire during the aftermath of the 2020 election came from Trump and others demanding state governments override the election counts made by local boards of elections. While state leaders and legislators in the end could not come up with plausibly legal excuses to do that, in 2021 they have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions, many of them aimed at severely limiting the power of local governments over elections.

I have previously posted about Indiana’s legislative bias against Indianapolis and the other urban areas in our very red state, but we are clearly not alone. One academic study found multiple examples: states have prohibited cities from requiring fire sprinklers in new homes; from banning fracking;  passing firearm regulations; requiring paid sick days; decriminalizing marijuana; banning plastic shopping bags; passing discrimination protections for LGBT workers; regulating e-cigarettes; imposing regulations concerning land use; passing undocumented immigrant protections; regulating factory farms; banning police drones; regulating local airports; initiating municipal broadband services; creating anti-GMO policies and more.

As the article points out, this is largely a story of Black and Latino voters gaining a governing voice in local governments, “only to have that voice made worthless as the power wielded by those local governments has been reduced or eliminated.”

I don’t know what the answer is, but this is a huge problem, and it is one of several ways in which rural Americans are punching above their weight–exercising political authority wildly disproportionate to their numbers.

 

There Once Was A Party…

One of the newsletters I receive is that of Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a history professor, and her obviously deep knowledge of U.S. history permits her to contextualize the news of the day in ways that most of us cannot.

A recent letter is a great example. It’s also profoundly sad–at least, to those of us who once belonged to a very different Republican Party.

Richardson begins by reminding us that the GOP’s roots “lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854.” That was when it became clear that southern slaveholders effectively controlled the federal government– and were using that control to protect and spread the institution of slavery.

At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.

Most of us think of Lincoln as the President who fought the civil war and emancipated the slaves. Richardson focuses on what is considerably less well-known, his policy preferences–especially his belief that government should provide a national infrastructure.

Back then, both Lincoln and the Republican Party believed in an activist government.

Richardson points out that the early Republican Party introduced the first national taxes, including the  first income tax. They used government to give “ordinary men” access to resources. In 1862, the GOP passed the Homestead Act, a measure that gave away western lands to those willing to settle on it. The party established Land-Grant Colleges, established the Department of Agriculture, and provided for construction of a railroad across the continent. They joined with Democrats to build more than 600 dams in 20 western states.

FDR is usually–and appropriately–credited with enlarging the scope of government in order to deal with the Great Depression, but as Richardson reminds us, Republicans who followed accepted the premise that government should provide for the common good–and that it has a special obligation to fund and maintain the national infrastructure.

Three years after he became president, Eisenhower backed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, saying, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” The law initially provided $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of road; at the time, it was the largest public works project in U.S. history.

So what happened? Why are today’s Republicans not just disinterested in governing, they are positively allergic to the notion that government should provide for the common good by building and maintaining the country’s physical and social infrastructure.

In this moment, Republican lawmakers seem weirdly out of step with their party’s history as well as with the country. They are responding to the American Jobs Plan by defining infrastructure as roads and bridges alone, cutting from the definition even the broadband that they included when Trump was president. (Trump, remember, followed his huge 2017 tax cuts with the promise of a big infrastructure bill. As he said, “Infrastructure is the easiest of all…. People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warns that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” that will require “massive tax increases.”

Republicans under Lincoln provided the first justifications for investing in the nation, and for taxing citizens to fund those investments.

The government had a right to “demand” 99% of a man’s property for an urgent need, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT). When the nation required it, he said, “the property of the people… belongs to the [g]overnment.”

I probably wouldn’t go as far as Morrill, but it’s hard to rationalize what passes for philosophy in today’s Republican Party with the party’s history–not just the devolution into White Supremacy, but the 180 degree shift from policies supportive of the common good to policies favoring the wealthy.

Remember that old TV ad that told us “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile”? This isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) GOP, either.

Be Careful What You Wish For

There’s an old saying to the effect that karma is a bitch. A decade or more after Citizens United and Mitt Romney’s pious declaration that “corporations are people too,” we may be seeing an example.

My friend Mike Leppert has a weekly blog, and last week he considered the current state of corporate-GOP relations.He pointed to emerging policy differences between some of America’s largest corporations and the Republican Party that has for many years reflexively relied on their money and support.

Leppert–and a significant number of other pundits–focused on a statement made by Mitch McConnell in the wake of corporate criticisms of GOP efforts at vote suppression.  McConnell warned corporate America  “to stay out of politics.” He hastily added that he wasn’t  talking about political contributions. Those, evidently, should keep coming.

As Leppert noted,  it was tantamount to telling the business community to pay up and shut up.

On Wednesday, McConnell admitted he had not spoken “artfully” the day before, but continued to warn against “economic blackmail,” which is his description for the corporate responses in Georgia to its recently enacted voter suppression law.

It wasn’t all that long ago that local Chambers of Commerce were functionally an arm of the GOP.  Their interests were the same; as Leppert says,  both loved low taxes, small government, little to no regulation–“money-making stuff.” But demographics really can be destiny. Those white male Country Club Republicans can no longer count on running things.

There is less and less money in alienating black and brown people. Women and LGBT people generally don’t think much of voter suppression either. And all of these groups of Americans represent customers, talent, and yes, even investors in companies of which the GOP used to rely. The country club members just aren’t as enamored with where the Republican Party has been heading lately, and since I brought it up, country clubs aren’t as desirable as they used to be either.

Add to that observation the fact that the GOP has changed rather dramatically since the heyday of country-club Republicanism. It’s no longer a business-friendly interest group; it has devolved into a White Supremicist cult waging culture war. Whatever one’s differences with those bygone country club Republicans, a significant portion of them described themselves as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” and they have been horrified by the current iteration of the GOP. Tax cuts can only go so far in insuring partisan fidelity.

The disenchantment of Corporate America with the GOP may have been exacerbated by efforts in Georgia and Texas to suppress minority votes, but it has been building over time. In January, following the insurrection at the Capitol, the New York Times reported on a survey of corporate executives.

To better understand this moment it is worth considering the results of an informal poll of 40 top executives conducted by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management. Mr. Sonnenfeld regularly gathers C.E.O.s to gauge their views on the most important issues facing their companies, and he did so virtually this week amid increasing alarm in the business community at what they witnessed in Washington. The results are revealing. Here’s a selection:

Did President Trump help incite last week’s violent attack on Congress?

Yes: 100 percent
No: 0 percent

Should President Trump be impeached and removed from office?

Yes: 96 percent
No: 4 percent

Was it right for the social network tech firms to block President Trump from their platforms?

Yes: 85 percent
No: 15 percent

Should business PACs and trade associations cut off donations to legislators who aided sedition?

Yes: 100 percent
No: 0 percent

Should business halt all political donations?

Yes: 42 percent
No: 58 percent

There was more, but these responses and several others should have served as a warning to McConnell and his ilk not to take the relationship between Republicans and Corporate America for granted.

The short-sighted folks who cheered the decision in Citizens United said they wanted free speech for business. Evidently, it didn’t occur to them that the interests of the business community and the Republican Party might diverge, and that those free speech rights might be exercised to express disapproval of the GOP.

Karma is a bitch.

Excuse me while I experience a bit of schadenfreude.

 

A Perfect Representative

Okay–I can’t resist. Let’s talk about Matt Gaetz–not because of his evident sexual misdeeds, but because even without considering those, he is an almost perfect example of  the caliber of individual representing today’s GOP.

Gail Collins captured his essence in a recent New York Times column.

As it stands, Gaetz is a spectacularly unproductive Florida Republican who never managed, during his first two terms in the House, to get a single bill that he sponsored signed into law. (We are still crossing our fingers for that post-office-naming he co-sponsored.) Meanwhile, by Forbes’s count, he has appeared on Fox News at least 179 times since taking office.

Collins had a lot of snarky fun comparing Gaetz’ current situation to past scandals (Tidal Basin, anyone?), but most of those involved people who had actually accomplished something–people of at least some substance who betrayed their promise or otherwise fell from grace.

Gaetz–whom Collins accurately calls a “fanboy”–spent the Trump years with his attention  focused on building his “personal brand,” rather than on learning the intricacies of legislating, or  forging relationships in Congress. He was much more interested in getting on television and getting close to the new president.( He was especially interested in being on what one colleague called “The Trump Train.”) There are multiple reports that he bragged about his relationship with Trump and about his own sexual “exploits”–including reports that he repeatedly showed Congressional colleagues pictures of naked women with whom he claimed he’d slept.

A CNN article listed some of the reasons Gaetz is considered “unserious” by even his Republican colleagues. (“Unserious” is a nicer word than “asshole.”)

Gaetz courted controversy in numerous ways, earning him notoriety in the House — along with television appearances in conservative media.

In 2018, he was criticized after he invited a conservative troll with a history of Holocaust denial to the State of the Union.

A year later, Gaetz threatened Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen ahead of his 2019 House testimony, tweeting, “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat.”

He was admonished by the House Ethics Committee and investigated and cleared by the Florida Bar over the tweet, which he deleted and apologized for.

During the House’s first impeachment inquiry, Gaetz led a band of Republicans in a stunt to “storm” the House Intelligence secure committee spaces where the impeachment interviews were being held. And last year, Gaetz wore a gas mask on the House floor to vote on a coronavirus funding package.

 In other words, Gaetz is a perfect representation of today’s Republican Party. He is obviously uninterested in governing. Instead, he seems intent upon performative “conservatism” aka “culture war.”  

In that–if not the behavior that led to his current legal problems–he is a typical Republican.

An opinion piece by Ezra Klein included a perfect description of today’s iteration of the GOP. Klein was trying to explain Joe Biden’s unanticipated willingness to forsake efforts to persuade Congressional Republicans to engage in genuine bipartisanship. 

In a discussion of Mitch McConnell’s role in GOP intransigence, Klein wrote.

Over the past decade, congressional Republicans slowly but completely disabused Democrats of these [bipartisanship] hopes. The long campaign against the ideological compromise that was the Affordable Care Act is central here, but so too was then-Speaker John Boehner’s inability to sell his members on the budget bargain he’d negotiated with President Barack Obama, followed by his refusal to allow so much as a vote in the House on the 2013 immigration bill. And it’s impossible to overstate the damage that Mitch McConnell’s stonewalling of Merrick Garland, followed by his swift action to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did to the belief among Senate Democrats that McConnell was in any way, in any context, a good-faith actor. They gave up on him completely.

Today’s Congressional GOP is a marriage between terminally unserious “culture warriors” like Gaetz, Nunes, Jim Jordan and their ilk and those who–like Mitch McConnell–are willing to ignore the common good and the needs of the country in their pursuit of self-aggrandizement.

There’s no negotiating with either faction, because they aren’t there to govern.

 

 

The Journalism We Need

Yesterday”s post was about the conundrum posed by social media sites. But social media isn’t journalism–and even when it focuses on news items, it is no substitute for journalism.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press for obvious reasons. When citizens are uninformed about their government, they are unable to ensure that it is acting appropriately, meeting its responsibilities. They are unable to cast informed votes.

The Internet and social media have dramatically changed the way in which citizens get their information, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the avalanche of news, spin, propaganda and conspiracy theories that populate today’s media. The ability to “choose one’s news”—to indulge our very human confirmation bias—has had an enormous (and I would argue negative) effect upon American governance.

An article from Resilience–an aggregator website–is instructive.The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of the “journalism of verification.”

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important than presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information  compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. The result is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

The problem is most acute at the local level.

What we lose when we lose newspapers that practiced the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government. Civic engagement and especially local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out. Studies of cities that have lost their newspapers confirm that the loss is followed by diminished civic and political activity. It also leads to higher costs of borrowing, because those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

Emerging data shows that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing have significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races, as well as lower voter turnout. Newspaper closures have been linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go.

When I taught my class in Media and Public Affairs five or six years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?” Those lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.