Tag Archives: urban

How Did We Get Here?

Last Thursday, I participated in a (virtual) presentation for my university’s Senior Academy. The focus was upon the election, and since most of us are laser-focused on November 3d, I thought I’d share my remarks, which followed a colleague’s presentation on partisanship and political psychology.

___________________________________

Like most of you, I’ve followed the ways in which partisanship and our incommensurate realities have affected our elections, but since 2016, I’ve been obsessed with a different question: How did we get here? What explains our current tribalism? What explains the 35 or 40 percent of Americans who continue to support Donald Trump?

I’ve concluded that the answer is deceptively—and depressingly—simple: the central motivation is racism (with a fair amount of misogyny and religious bigotry thrown in.) The tools that Mitch McConnell and his ilk use—tools that allow a minority of American citizens to effectively dominate the majority—are elements of our legal and electoral structures that have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had.

There’s growing awareness of several of those structural defects: both parties gerrymander, for example, although the Republicans are much better at it; the Electoral College, which has given us a President who lost the popular vote twice since 2000; the filibuster, which as currently used effectively requires a Senate super-majority to pass anything; and the dubious legality of a variety of thinly-veiled vote suppression tactics.

There are other systemic flaws that we are only beginning to recognize, especially the degree to which population movement and demographic change have turned the U.S. Senate into a massively unrepresentative body. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. As a result, fewer than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators.

Republicans currently hold a Senate majority while Senate Democrats  represent well over half of the American population.

Recently, Nate Silver sorted the country into four categories—or as he called them, “buckets”– those with fewer than 25,000 people living within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban.

Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent were rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

Silver then looked at the Senate, and found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has “two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. Silver says it’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. Rural residents also tend to be more Christian, more socially conservative and less tolerant of diversity than residents of urban areas. Don’t get me wrong; these folks deserve representation. But they don’t deserve wildly disproportionate representation.

When we connect the dots, we realize that the dominance of rural interests at both the state and federal level owes a lot to gerrymandering. Since rural folks tend to be Republican and urban areas these days are solidly Democratic, when Republicans draw the district maps—as they do in Indiana—they cut up urban areas and put the pieces in districts that are largely rural. It’s been estimated that for purposes of the Electoral College, each rural vote is worth 1 and a third of each urban vote.

This isn’t the way a small-d democratic republic is supposed to work.

One reason we’ve gotten to this point is because we’ve neglected civic education, and have ignored the importance of informed civic engagement.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although many don’t.)

Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–you can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. We desperately need a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and that recognition requires knowing what “properly” looks like.

We actually are fortunate that Donald Trump is so visibly incompetent and corrupt that even an electorate that is constitutionally-illiterate can see it. If the polls are right and the monumental turnout we are already seeing is as anti-Trump as it seems, we will have narrowly escaped an existential threat.

Still–over a third of the voting public is more concerned with protecting white privilege than repairing our democracy.

We have our work cut out for us.

The Crux Of The Problem

The Senate–which has managed to do pretty much nothing during the pandemic (granted, it wasn’t exactly productive in the months before that, either)–is rushing through the process of confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

There are many aspects to this unseemly exhibition, but one that has been less remarked upon is the connection between the Senate’s growing problem of disproportionate representation and that body’s importance to the seating of Supreme Court Justices.

A recent post by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com connected those dots.

Silver says that the constitution of the Senate poses an “enormous problem for Democrats”–not simply because the parties as currently constituted map onto urban and rural representation. (Democrats dominate in cities; Republicans triumph in rural areas.) As he points out,

 because the Senate is responsible for confirming Supreme Court picks, that means the Supreme Court is a huge problem for Democrats too. Sure, Democrats might win back the Senate this year — indeed, they were slight favorites to do so before the Ginsburg news. But in the long run, they’re likely to lose it more often than not.

You can probably grasp intuitively that a legislative body which provides as much representation to Wyoming (population: 580,000) as California (population: 39.5 million) will tend to favor rural areas. But it’s a bigger effect than you might realize, so let’s run some numbers. At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you.

Using this metric, Silver broke the country down into four categories: those with fewer than 25,000 people within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban. Using this (somewhat arbitrary) classification system, Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

He then looked at the Senate, and– surprise! (no surprise; I’m kidding)– found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has” two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

And of course, this has all sorts of other downstream consequences. Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite. It’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. (In 2000, around 69 percent of the U.S. population consisted of non-Hispanic whites.)

The post goes through a lot of mathematical calculations, which you can see if you click through, but the bottom line is stark:

the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally. That’s likely to make the Republican majority on the Supreme Court pretty durable.

There is a lot to unpack in this article, beginning with my extreme discomfort with its underlying premise that the Supreme Court is merely another arena for American political partisanship. Granted, judicial philosophy has always been a significant cause of dissension, but it is only in the last few years that the judiciary has effectively been reduced to the status of partisan prize–as a tool for imposing political hegemony through the legal system, rather than a safeguard of fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law.

What the article does make very clear, however, is the disturbing and undeniable fact of minority rule. White rural Republicans–who are advantaged by the current situation–like to recite that America is a republic, not a democracy, as if that somehow rebuts the fact that a true republic is a representative democracy. (Look it up.)

This situation is at the crux of our national problems. America is currently ruled by an unrepresentative minority–and the effect of that reality includes but is certainly not limited to the GOP’s intentional corruption of the nation’s judiciary.

Taxes, Politics And The Urban/Rural Divide

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His columns appear in the Indianapolis Business Journal, among other publications, and while I have my disagreements with certain of his research perspectives, he often raises issues worth considering.

Last week, he focused on the urban/rural divide–and what we might call a “maker/taker” taxation paradigm.

Hicks began by cautioning against the prevailing image of rural America as a monolith. It’s an important caution: rural communities differ from each other economically and in the degree of diversity of their populations.

That said, they also share common challenges and characteristics.

Over the last century, America’s rural counties haven’t really grown. We have roughly the same number of rural residents as we did in Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, but urban America is more than five times larger. Four out of five Americans live in urban counties as designated by the Office of Management and Budget. To be fair, many of the urban counties have plenty of row crops in them, and rural counties have many small cities. Also, much of the growth in urban places came in formerly rural counties, as has always been the case. Still, urban counties differ in other meaningful ways that are likely to influence future policy. The second big issue is taxes and spending.

Rural places are large beneficiaries of federal dollars. By some estimates, per capita spending by the federal government is twice as high in rural than urban places. Most of this goes into agriculture subsidies, so rural communities probably don’t perceive the spending. Most may not actually benefit from it. Still, that is a legitimate critique offered by urban taxpayers, who foot most of the bill. Rural residents ought to be more conscious that these large subsidies provide few benefits for their community, while alienating urban taxpayers.

There’s no national study, but here in Indiana, rural places are also big beneficiaries of state tax dollars. This is per a 2011 study jointly authored by Ball State and the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute. In that study, we estimated that rural places get more than $560 more per resident in taxes than they pay, while urban places get almost $160 less per resident than they pay. It is a plain fact that state and federal taxpayers subsidize rural places at the expense of cities and suburbs. What is not so clear is whether or not this spending makes a meaningful difference in the lives of rural people. I suspect it does not. This is almost certainly true in every other state.

Not only do state and federal distribution formulas advantage rural areas over urban ones, but Hicks notes that rural communities tax themselves less than urban places. In Indiana, per capita taxes are approximately ten percent lower in rural areas than they are in urban counties, and it is likely that this is true nationally.

As Hicks acknowledges, this pattern means that taxpayers in growing metropolitan places–places that need to repair and extend their infrastructures and municipal services–are subsidizing static and declining rural areas. He suggests there will be a reckoning–and certainly, in Indiana, with our ill-advised constitutionalized tax caps, that reckoning will come sooner rather than later, because the state’s urban areas are being starved of desperately needed resources.

What Hicks doesn’t mention is a significant political reason for this disparity in resources: gerrymandering.

In Indiana–and other red states where Republicans control redistricting– a majority of electoral districts have been drawn to ensure that they contain majorities of reliably Republican voters–and those voters are overwhelmingly rural. The result is that a super- majority of the state’s lawmakers are responsive to rural interests and dismissive of the needs of the urban areas that have been carved up by map-makers–despite the indisputable fact that the urban areas are the state’s economic drivers.

Talk about “makers” and “takers”!

It’s one more inequity we won’t get rid of until we get rid of gerrymandering.

Cities And Democracy

Jane Jacobs was one of the great urban theorists of the twentieth century, and an enormously provocative thinker. (Her Systems of Survival is one of my all-time favorite books–in my opinion, right up there with the Death and Life of Great American Cities.) 

A recent article about Jacobs focused on a less-well-known aspect of her work: her abiding concern about the fragility of democracy.

As the author noted,

Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.

The article began with a description of an Appalachian village–Higgins, North Carolina–where Jacobs’ aunt was a social worker. The town was a depressing example of decline, an example of civic failure that evidently deeply concerned Jacobs.

In a year when American democracy has courted despotism, Jacobs’s work offers a warning and a challenge. Her goal was never merely to enlighten urban planners. In her work she argued, with increasing urgency, that the distance between New York City and Higgins is not as great as it seems. It is not very great at all, and it is shrinking.

Jacobs’ first book, Constitutional Chaff was a compilation of failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress and direct election of a Senate that never went out of session. In the introduction to the book, Jacobs argued that this diversity of conflicting perspectives “reflected the soul of American democracy as vividly as the ratified document itself did.”

In her “magnum opus,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argued that a city–or for that matter, a neighborhood– absolutely requires diversity: “diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style.”  She also insisted that concentrating numbers of people in relatively small areas, far from being problematic, is the foundation of healthy communities. Dense, varied populations are desirable, Jacobs wrote,

because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.

If vitality comes from diversity, decline comes from homogeneity. Early indicators of decline in places like Higgins–a decline we increasingly see in small towns across many states, including Indiana–are :

“cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.

The article’s conclusion brings the lesson home.

No reader of Jacobs’s work would be surprised by the somewhat recent finding by a Gallup researcher that Donald Trump’s supporters “are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones.” These zones are latter-day incarnations of Higgins: marooned, amnesiac, homogenous, gutted by the diminishment of skills and opportunities. One Higgins is dangerous enough, for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.

Assuming voters successfully “vote blue no matter who,” one of the multitude of daunting tasks a new administration must undertake is the rescue of small-town America.

I have no idea how.

 

The Urban-Rural Divide…Elsewhere

I’ve posted before about the urban/rural divide, and why it’s politically consequential.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal quoted Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, for the proposition that the differences in the United States aren’t really “red versus blue” but “urban versus rural.” That observation has been echoed widely, as the differences between residents of rural and small-town America and those who live in urban areas have become steadily more pronounced.

Religion–a historically important generator of conflict– is one such difference: urban Americans are more than three times more likely than their rural counterparts to say that religion isn’t particularly important to them. (Attitudes on social issues reflect that difference: rural residents are far more likely to consider homosexuality a sin and to oppose same-sex marriage, to oppose abortion, and to support restrictions on immigration.)

A survey by Pew in 2018 found white rural residents twice as likely as white urban dwellers to insist that they don’t enjoy a social advantage by reason of their skin color.

Rural residents are more likely to be older and poorer and more likely to be isolated than urban dwellers. They are also far more likely to be Republican.

Despite the fact that some 80% of Americans now live in cities, the structure of America’s electoral system continues to significantly advantage rural voters, especially but not exclusively through the operation of the Electoral College. Whether what is called the urban/rural split is defined simply as city versus country, or by a more complex cultural regionalism, those ubiquitous red/blue maps attest to the measurable and consequential differences between urban and rural Americans.

This situation, according to the Washington Post, is not exclusively an American phenomenon.A report from 2016 suggests a very similar state of affairs in Europe.

What shaped European politics over the past two years might appear to some like a revolution of rural Europe rising up against the establishment and economic winners.

Support for Britain leaving the European Union was highest in rural areas in the June referendum.

It is also “rural France” that might empower far-right politician Marine Le Pen next year.

In Germany, the urban establishment underestimated the backlash the recent influx of refugees would provoke in less densely populated areas.

In rural northern Europe, the article tells us, younger, better educated men and women have moved to cities to find employment. That statement also describes states like Indiana, where small towns continue to empty out as young people depart for more densely populated cities.

Even in federal republics like Germany, which lack the dominance of one single capital city, an urban-rural disconnect is increasingly visible. Whereas Berlin has attracted foreigners and Germans alike, its surrounding areas have seen a rapid demographic change. Supermarkets have closed, and bus connections were canceled as a result. It is a pattern which can be observed all over Europe at the moment.

The description of those who have stayed in Europe’s rural areas is familiar here too: a feeling of being left behind has replaced the pride of place that used to characterize small villages and hamlets. Rural residents exhibit a sense of abandonment and replacement that the article suggests is largely responsible for the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit.

When people feel left behind, they want someone to blame.

And as these native Britons feel trapped with no economic future, they see images of an increasingly diverse population in the cities. To many Brexit supporters, concerns over an influx of immigrants were among the reasons they voted to leave the E.U.

In Germany, similar feelings have created a different kind of backlash: anti-immigration protests and anti-refugee attacks. Economically distressed eastern Germany has seen the vast majority of those attacks. That region, an area which consists of five states excluding Berlin, accounts for only about 15 percent of the German population. Yet the majority of anti-immigrant attacks took place in the country’s east in 2015.

In one way, it’s comforting to recognize that we aren’t the only country experiencing this problem. But while “misery loves company,” commiserating with that company doesn’t solve our problems.

A country with a functioning government would work to address the problems of rural decline–try to ameliorate the isolation and frustration that feed racial and ethnic resentments. But we don’t have a functioning government.

We have an administration that needs to keep fueling those rural frustrations and resentments. They are the sentiments that motivate the GOP base.