Tag Archives: Will Wilkinson

The Southernication Thesis

I have previously posted about Will Wilkinson’s Density Divide. That paper was firmly grounded in research; Wilkinson reserved his more speculative observations for venues like Substack.Those observations may be–as he readily acknowledges–more speculative, but they certainly accord with what I see when I travel around the country and/or read news reports.

The linked article begins with a description of the growing uniformity of a rural America that once reflected the cultures of the immigrants who originally settled in them. Now, however, most of those differences have disappeared.

One of the puzzles of the 2016 election, and the catastrophe of the Trump presidency, is how populist white nationalism finally prevailed at a time when Americans, taken altogether, were less racist than ever. This is one of the questions I take up in the “Density Divide.” But I left out one of my favorite answers to this question largely because it’s too speculative and I didn’t have the data to prove it. My hunch is that rural white culture, which was once regionally varied and distinctive, became more uniform by becoming increasingly Southern. I call this the Southernification thesis.

The Density Divide provided convincing evidence that white ethno-nationalism worked to elect Trump, although it had failed to elect Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, and explained that new success on the growth of  residential self-selection, which had made lower density parts of the country more homogenous, ethnocentric and socially conservative. But Wilkinson says that even though he is convinced that the density analysis is correct as far as it goes, it provides an incomplete explanation without something like the Southernification thesis. “Before it could be successfully organized politically, America’s increasingly ethnocentric non-urban white population needed to be consolidated first through the adoption of a relatively uniform ethnocentric white culture.”

What I’m still groping for is solid empirical confirmation that the Southernification of white rural America did happen and, if so, how it happened. Now, I have few doubts that it did happen and is still happening. Indeed, it’s hard to think of better impressionistic evidence than the spread of Confederate flags far from the South into all parts of white rural America.

It’s hard to dispute Wilkinson’s observation that the Civil War, and the battle between North and South, lives on both culturally and geographically. Only the geography has changed: the North, as he says, “has drifted out of the countryside and concentrated itself into our cities. At the same time, America’s rural and exurban counties have slowly become more and more homogenously Southern. The South has risen again … in rural Maine?”

I’ve seen the Stars and Bars flying from Iowa barns. You can see them at Minnesota county fairs. They pop up everywhere. In rural Idaho, Colorado, Oregon — places that weren’t even states during the civil war. [Correction: actually, Oregon became a state in 1859. I regret the error. Still…]

Wilkinson quotes David A. Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist, on the figures emerging from the recent census :

Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation’s ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation’s counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010.

[…]

The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of “red states” and “blue states” caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners. 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the reality of the current urban/rural divide, and the extent to which it has replaced the North/South divisions that led to the Civil War. The question, as always, is “what do we do?” The answer to that question is made much more difficult by an electoral system that privileges the rural residents of the “new South”–a system that gives vastly disproportionate power to rural Americans who are adamantly resisting the consequences of “one person, one vote.”

We are beginning to see what Civil War between rural and urban America looks like. It is being carried out by the growing domestic terror attacks by groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and various Neo-Nazi organizations.

Who knew the South would rise again in places like rural Iowa and Minnesota…?

 

A Depressing Analysis

Despite overwhelming relief at the victory of the Biden/Harris ticket, those of us horrified by Donald Trump and his enablers are still coming to terms with the fact that some 70 million people voted for four more years of the disaster we’ve just experienced.

Unlike those Republicans who continue to insist that up is down and Trump was somehow cheated out of a win, we live in the real world. We recognize that those 70 million votes were cast. The question is: why?  Trump’s hardcore base is demonstrably racist, but surely, America isn’t home to seventy million racists willing to dispense with functional governance so long as dark-skinned people and “foreign elements” are kept in their place.

Will Wilkinson considered that question in a recent column in the New York Times. He identified three factors that made the election difficult for the Democrats: partisan polarization, obscured by the inaccurate polling; the strength of what he labeled the “juiced” pre-Covid-19 economy; and the success of Mr. Trump’s denialist, open-everything-up nonresponse to the pandemic.

How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.

Wilkinson looked at Trump’s war of words against governors and mayors — especially Democratic ones — who refused to risk their citizens’ lives by allowing economic and social activity to resume, and to Republican messaging that defined the contrast between the parties’ approaches to the pandemic as a battle between individual freedom and over-reaching government.

The Republican message couldn’t have been clearer: Workers should be able to show up, clock in, earn a normal paycheck, pay the rent and feed their kids. Democrats were telling the same workers that we need to listen to science, reopening is premature, and the economy can’t be fully restored until we beat the virus. Correct! But how does that help when rent was due last week?

Make no mistake, it was unforgivably cruel of Republicans to force blue-collar and service workers to risk death for grocery money. Yet their disinformation campaign persuaded many millions of Americans that the risk was minimal and that Democrats were keeping their workplaces and schools closed, their customers and kids at home, and their wallets empty and cupboards bare for bogus reasons.

Democrats fell into the trap Republicans set with their dogged refusal to do anything about the uncontained pandemic. Wilkinson concluded that the “spell of polarization” turns every issue into a clash of political identities. As a result, “real” Republicans largely dismissed the pandemic as a hoax, a dismissal that conveniently excused the President’s manifest failure to deal with it.

This rings true to me–so far as it goes. But political polarization alone does not and cannot explain why millions of Americans chose to occupy an alternate reality and to dismiss evidence that was staring them in the face.

Constructing a world where the deaths of one’s neighbors are attributed to something–anything– other than COVID, a world in which a President’s too-obvious-to-ignore lack of competence is a sign that he’s being hobbled by the “deep state,”a world  in which that President’s lack of humanity is explained away as “telling it like it is,” a world where science is “elitist” and warnings from doctors are politically-motivated efforts to diminish the President–such a  world requires a media infrastructure.

There are multitudes of alternate reality purveyors:  websites and cable channels and talk radio hosts willing to confirm the accuracy of your preferred “facts” and the superiority of your chosen tribe.  Trump will go, but that media infrastructure will stay.

I think I need a drink.