Tag Archives: urban rural divide

Gerrymandering–One More Time

Can you stand one more diatribe about gerrymandering? I’m returning to the issue because states across the U.S. are busily engaged in the electoral “rigging” that Republicans claim to abhor…and because– unless the voting rights act passes– Congress will succeed in protecting the process into the future.

Talk about “voter fraud”–how about the process, beloved by the GOP, of defrauding literally millions of voters of meaningful participation in the selection of their representatives?

Here’s my last column for the Indiana Business Journal, where–for the umpteenth time–I tried to explain what is so very pernicious about the process, and why it is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.

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With the (tardy) release of the last census, states are embarking on redistricting. In states where the party controlling the legislature draws the lines, that means gerrymandering—creating districts favoring the party currently in control. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans.

The results of gerrymandering are pernicious.

Gerrymandering gives rural voters (who reliably vote Republican) disproportionate influence. Thanks to gerrymandering, most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voices are vastly overrepresented. (The last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.”) State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. It thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.
Last year, the Cook Report calculated that one out of twenty Americans currently lives in a competitive Congressional District.

That lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why vote at all?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed by even a token candidate.

Credit where credit is due: Republicans are much better at gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2011, the GOP’s “RedMap” project was wildly successful, with Republicans winning many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have produced. (One unanticipated consequence of that success has been especially damaging: The people elected to Congress from deep-red districts that mapmakers had created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the rabid voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right. They have brought government to a halt.)

Here in Indiana, as legislators once again prepare to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their representatives, continuing disenfranchisement of city dwellers will have very practical consequences. Just one example: the connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

Indiana’s urban areas have been “carved up” and the “carved up” portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city-dwellers, who have a tendency to vote Democratic. As a result, when the legislature allocates money through distribution formulas for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state than to cities like Indianapolis, where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live.

If you don’t care about the connection between gerrymandering and democracy, think about the connection between fair and equal representation and state distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim.

 

 

Urban Symbolism

There are a number of elements that tend to reinforce America’s increasing urban/rural divide–the sorts of differences that emerge among people who live in areas that are more or less densely populated. But we shouldn’t overlook the influence of symbolism–longtime images of dubious accuracy that have cemented our mental images of the country’s cities and countrysides.

Probably the strongest image that comes to mind when we hear the word “countryside” is bucolic–something between “Green Acres” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Mention “small town America” and we think “Mayberry.” Urban imagery is very different and much darker–as Paul Krugman pointed out in a column back in July, we tend to call up the various hellholes portrayed on television and in works of fiction.

But why do so many Americans still believe that our major cities are hellholes of crime and depravity? Why do so many politicians still believe that they can run on the supposed contrast between urban evil and small-town virtue when many social indicators look worse in the heartland than in the big coastal metropolitan areas?

To be sure, there was a national surge in homicides — although not in overall crime — during the pandemic, for reasons that remain unclear. But New York is still safer than it was a decade ago, vastly safer than it was 30 years ago, and, for what it’s worth, considerably safer than, say, Columbus, Ohio.

These stereotypes persist, despite the fact that, if anything, the roles have been reversed. While cities continue to have the challenges that occur when large numbers of people live together, emerging data locates more serious problems in the much-storied “heartland,” where–as Krugman noted– large numbers of men in their prime working years don’t have jobs and where “deaths of despair” have been steadily increasing.

If the waning accuracy of our urban/rural mythology was simply a product of imagery lagging reality, that would be one thing. But as Krugman and others have pointed out, the Republican insistence on the accuracy of that imagery is having destructive, even deadly effects on policy.

Some reporting suggests that one of the reasons the Trump administration downplayed the Covid-19 pandemic in its early stages was the belief that it was solely a large-city, blue-state problem; there were definitely many assertions that the risk was severe only in places with dense populations. And there were many pronouncements — some of them with an unmistakable tone of glee — to the effect that the pandemic would kill big cities and the states that contain them.

Of course, the harm done goes well beyond Trump’s fatally-flawed pandemic response. Support for the GOP is disproportionately rural, and the party responds to that reality by insisting to its rapidly radicalizing base that the inhabitants of rural America (overwhelmingly White and Christian) are the “real” Americans–and that their tax dollars are being siphoned off to support urban neer-do-wells.

Besides helping to cripple our pandemic response, the myth of rural virtue and urban vice means that many Republican voters seem unaware that they are among the major beneficiaries of the “big government” their party says it wants to eliminate. That is, they still imagine that the government spends money on urban welfare recipients, not on people like them.

For example, do red-state voters know that federal spending in their states — much of it taking the form of benefits from Social Security and Medicare — greatly exceeds the taxes they pay to Washington? In Kentucky, the most extreme example, the annual inflow of federal money per capita is $14,000 greater than the outflow.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in those urban hellholes of Republican imagination enjoy the benefits that only density can provide–not just the inviting coffee shops, restaurants and bars, multiple entertainment and education options, bike paths, parks and museums that are the stuff of tourism advertisements, but the salutary lessons to be learned through interaction with people who are, to varying degrees, unlike ourselves.

There are plenty of downsides to both urban and rural life, and good policy should address them. We need to figure out how to provide healthcare and stimulate economic development in rural areas. We need to improve police training and provide more affordable housing in our cities. Etcetera. But–as with so many of the truly serious challenges we face–we can’t solve problems we adamantly refuse to see.

Substituting mental images for complicated realities obscures our vision of both urban and rural America.

 

Speaking of Two Americas…

As I noted yesterday, sociologists and historians tell us that economic insecurity and inequality provide fertile soil for racial and cultural resentments. Economic stresses don’t create those resentments, however.

Like everything else, economic conditions are experienced through a cultural lens–that is, how we interpret economic circumstances and react to them depends upon the value structures and worldviews of the people doing the interpreting. When an observer says “those people are voting against their own self-interest,” for example, that observer is applying her own definition of “self-interest”–a definition that may not be shared by the voter.

In other words, although economic conditions often trigger socially undesirable behaviors, efforts to draw a straight line between cause and effect can lead us astray.

Two recent Washington Post articles focus on some stark differences in values between urban and rural America. The first, titled “Rural Divide,” reports on a study of rural voters.

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns — finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”

That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with about 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”

Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.

The rural/urban divide was dispositive in the 2016 election, given the way in which the Electoral College favors rural states.  Hillary Clinton won urban counties by 32 points, while rural and small-town voters backed Trump by 26 points. But the percentages of rural and urban voters who were economically distressed was the same.

Although rural voters expressed concern about jobs and economic growth, researchers determined that the “largest fissures” between Americans living in cities and those in less-dense areas were based in “discomfort about the country’s changing demographics.” Rural residents were far more likely than urban dwellers to believe that immigrants are a burden to taxpayers, and that African-Americans receive undeserved government benefits.

That sense of division is closely connected to the belief among rural Americans that Christian values are under siege. Nearly 6 in 10 people in rural areas say Christian values are under attack, compared with just over half of suburbanites and fewer than half of urbanites. When personal politics is taken into account, the divide among rural residents is even larger: 78 percent of rural Republicans say Christian values are under attack, while 45 percent of rural Democrats do.

Commenting on that survey and its conclusions, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin was blunt: She began by dismissing the widespread belief that rural inhabitants voted for Trump because he paid attention to their economic plight.

We’ve never really bought that explanation, in part because Trump voters on average were richer than Hillary Clinton voters. Now there is powerful evidence of a disagreeable truth: Trump’s base was far more motivated by cultural provincialism and xenophobia than by economic need…

Trump magnificently exploited the resentments of white Christians and their anxiety about cities, which he falsely portrayed as experiencing a crime wave…

As we reenter a national conversation about anger, polarization and rhetorical excess we should expect more diligent, reasoned behavior from both politicians and voters. It is a gross exaggeration to tell rural voters that Christianity is under assault because they cannot dominate societal rules (e.g., businesses cannot discriminate against LGBT customers, official organized school prayer violates the First Amendment). It’s flat-out false to say we are being swamped by illegal immigrants. This sort of propaganda lacks a grounding in reality and amps up the already dangerous political environment, which in turn paralyzes our democracy.

No kidding.

The Urban Archipelago

In the wake of the 2004 election, the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, wrote a wonderful rant about what they titled “the urban archipelago.” Looking at the red and blue of the election map, they saw that cities were blue dots in even the reddest states, and explained that division by a vast difference in urban versus rural values.

The most recent issue of The Atlantic confirms the nature of America’s divide: it is between cities and “what remains of the countryside.” The article states what is becoming increasingly obvious: “virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer where people live, it is how people live.”

This really isn’t news, although it is an important and under appreciated feature of American life. When I was in City Hall back in the 1970s, Indianapolis routinely faced the resentment of rural Hoosiers, a resentment reflected in the legislative priorities of those who represented them. That animus continues–we can’t get genuine home rule, or even legislative permission to decide for ourselves whether we will pay an extra tax in order to provide our residents with decent mass transit.

As Gail Collins noted in a column a few months ago, people living in urban areas understand the need for government–paved roads and public safety and garbage collection and all those other services that are necessary when people live in close quarters. That farmer out at the end of the gravel road, who rarely even gets a visitor and isn’t worth the effort of the burglar, doesn’t see much reason to pay taxes.

It goes deeper than just the need for public services, however. Living with other people shapes a certain worldview. It creates an identifiably urban value structure. As the authors of the Urban Archipeligo wrote in that seminal essay,

Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity. We’re for a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion–not as some crazy aberration, but as an equally valid approach to life. We are for the right to choose one’s own sexual and recreational behavior, to control one’s own body and what one puts inside it. We are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…..

Unlike the people who flee from cities in search of a life free from disagreement and dark skin, we are for contentiousness, discourse, and the heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints. We’re for opposition. And just to be clear: The non-urban argument, the red state position, isn’t oppositional, it’s negational–they are in active denial of the existence of other places, other people, other ideas. It’s reactionary utopianism, and it is a clear and present danger; urbanists should be upfront and unapologetic about our contempt for their politics and their negational values. Republicans have succeeded in making the word “liberal”–which literally means “free from bigotry… favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded”–into an epithet. Urbanists should proclaim their liberalism from the highest rooftop (we have higher rooftops than they do); it’s the only way we survive….

Let’s see, what else are we for? How about education? Cities are beehives of intellectual energy; students and teachers are everywhere you look, studying, teaching, thinking. In Seattle, you can barely throw a rock without hitting a college. It’s time to start celebrating that, because if the reds have their way, advanced degrees will one day be awarded based on the number of Bible verses a person can recite from memory. In the city, people ask you what you’re reading. Outside the city, they ask you why you’re reading. You do the math–and you’ll have to, because non-urbanists can hardly even count their own children at this point. For too long now, we’ve caved to the non-urban wisdom that decries universities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. Guess what: That’s why we should embrace them. Outside of the city, elitism and snobbery are code words for literacy and complexity. And when the oil dries up, we’re not going to be turning to priests for answers–we’ll be calling the scientists. And speaking of science: SCIENCE! That’s another thing we’re for. And reason. And history.

The recent article in The Atlantic confirms this division of values, noting that in November, 37 states voted on 174 ballot measures, and that the rural states that cast (entirely symbolic) votes against Obamacare were the same states that ban same-sex marriage and any use of marijuana.

The problem is that in Indiana–and many other states–we don’t really have “one person one vote.” Rural areas are vastly overrepresented. Taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas. And the people who populate the General Assembly have lots of incentive to keep things that way. This last election put the values of rural Indiana firmly in charge.

The next four years are going to be very painful for those of us who live in Indiana’s Urban Archipelago.