The Fundamental Difference Between Red States and Blue States
The rural/urban divide in the United States is fundamentally about who counts as a “real” American.
The COVID era has brought us numerous shocks. There’s the unfortunate fact that we’ve never really come down from the first wave; there’s the fact that the president deliberately downplayed just how bad it was, all because he allegedly didn’t want to panic the populace; there’s the fact that we are now perilously close to seeing 100K cases a day. Winter, indeed, is coming.
Most disturbing, however, was the revelation that members of Jared Kushner’s team eventually abandoned a national testing strategy because it was believed to not make sense politically. Since the virus was, at that point, mostly ravaging blue states, it seemed to the “political folks” like a waste of valuable resources. Naturally, the White House denied this narrative but, considering how they consistently lie to everyone’s faces and considering how Trump has a vociferous and open hostility to “Democrat-run” cities and states, the account seems very plausible and indeed probable.
I was reminded of this unfortunate story while reading a recent piece in The Atlantic about why a certain segment of the population approves of Trump’s (by all meaningful measures abysmal) handling of the pandemic. For them, his bluster and show of strength is yet another manifestation of his masculinity, his “strength,” and his defense of a certain type of American identity. To boil it down to its simplest form: it’s toxic masculinity. Again.
It’s no secret that a significant source of Trump’s electoral success was his ability to tap into the cultural anxieties of a particular group of people, namely white men worried about their alleged declining status in American life. There’s a veritable cottage industry of publications trying to figure out why it is that these men are so angry, and I’ve seen so many pieces from the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic that I could probably recite the typical narrative in my sleep. What’s more, there’s also an ever-louder chorus of voices calling for “coastal elites” or “blue state people” to stop being so condescending and start listening to their red state/rural brethren.
But there’s a deeper truth buried beneath all of this flim-flam about white male grievance and supposed coastal condescension, one that those of us who live in blue states — or who live in blue areas of red states — need to reckon with. The truth is that those who live in red America don’t think that we are real Americans.
Let me be clear about two things. First, I recognize that not everyone who lives in a red state is happy about the fact that they’re a red state. To take but one example, the election of Doug Jones in Alabama a few years back suggested that there were many in that state, Black women foremost among them, who were tired of being second-class citizens. Second, and conversely, not everyone who lives in a blue state likes it that they live in a blue state. Here in Maryland, for example, there have been several calls from the Eastern Shore counties — which skew Republican — to secede from the rest of the state.
The red state/blue state dichotomy, however, is useful for illuminating a very real divide in this country about how people think about what this nation was and should be, and in some ways it might be more accurate to say that red and blue map pretty nearly over rural and urban, what some have identified as one of the most important splits in the American republic.
It is true, as numerous people have noted, that those who adopt a blue state perspective tend to look at their red state counterparts as a little backward, a little bit behind the times, even a little quaint. Even I, who was born and raised in a red state mentality, have that attitude (and I make no bones about it). However, never for a moment would it occur to any of us to make the claim that our compatriots aren’t real Americans. We might disagree with them, we might look down on them, but we would never say that they aren’t as American as we are.
However, that isn’t really true of the other side. One need look no further than Trump. He repeatedly rails against “Democrat-run” cities and “Democrat-run” states, which is obviously meant to get under the skin of his enemies (most of which happen to live in blue states). More sinisterly, he also claimed that the national death rate from COVID-19 wouldn’t be as high if the deaths from blue states weren’t included, and that the US would be more competitive without them, as if the lives of blue state residents weren’t as worthy of value as their red state counterparts (read: his die-hard supporters).
However, this mindset isn’t limited to Trump, though he is obviously he is its most visible and destructive manifestation. One hears it all the time, often from older people, most of whom make some remark about this not being the America that they knew anymore, that they don’t recognize “their own” country. Hearing this, you’d be tempted to think that they’re talking about immigration, and certainly some of them are. Unfortunately, though, just as many if not more are talking about other things that they find unsettling: the increased visibility and vocalness of trans and queer people; the push for civil rights; the calls for police reform.
I’ve heard some variants of these comments from my own family, and I know what they really mean. What lies beneath these expressions is a profound belief that those others that are overtaking America, whether they’re trans or black, Muslims or immigrants from Latin America, are not real Americans. They perceive the increased presence of these subaltern groups in American public life as nothing less than an affront to their own status as Americans. These other people are undeserving, and the fact that they tend to live in urban/blue areas makes it all that much easier for those who live in rural/red areas to continue to see them as so antithetical to their concept of Americanness that they must be punished. No wonder that they vote for Trump so vigorously, since he is, as so many supporters put it, a big middle-finger to those they think are looking down on them (or, as Adam Serwer put it so memorably, the cruelty is the point).
As a member of one of these groups, I can tell you that it’s a dreadful thing, to know that your fellow Americans view you as less than a fellow citizen. Of course, this feeling isn’t new. Those of us who were Democrats in the aftermath of 9/11 vividly remember the way that Republicans hijacked the notion of patriotism, making it so that those of us who looked askance at Bush’s excesses in his prosecution of the “war on terror” were somehow less patriotic, less American, than die-hard members of the GOP. It’s even worse when you’re a queer person and have to take the blame for every Democratic defeat by a Republican touting “traditional values.” Trump has taken this issue and dialed it up to 11.
If Joe Biden wins the election in a few days, one can hope that, among other things, he can begin the process of healing the enormous rift that exists between red and blue, rural and urban. And, much as it galls me to say it, it will probably be up to those of us who espouse a blue state mentality to offer the olive branch to the other side, to welcome them back with open arms. Only then can we hope to rebuild our country. Together.