The Lagging Geographic Basis of (Liberal) Social Change

Read any reasonably serious, but conventional, discussion of the 2016 election and the geographic shape of American politics and you’ll find some version of the following statements:

· Rural America is red, urban America is blue.

· Suburban American is split.

· The geographic distribution of votes favors Republicans and will continue to do so.

· As a result the Republican party can gerrymander legislative seats into the indefinite future.

· The distribution of votes by state has a similar dynamic.

All of this is true but it also masks the longer term trend, which strongly favors the left. That long term trend is a gradual bluing of America wherever the economy is growing and urban areas expanding. This is a process that has been going on now for close to fifty years I’d guess. Donald Trump and the Republican party may slow it down or even reverse it for a few years, but I don’t think that they can stop it for more than that.

One manifestation of this is the gradual infringement of liberal urban areas on declining rural counties. Wisconsin is a classic example and this article is an excellent (and I mean that sincerely) example of the conventional analysis. Its thesis: the movement of newcomers from the Minneapolis area into rural Pepin county and counties like it has moved long-time residents to the right. As a result, Wisconsin is now a red state and likely to remain that way.

All true. But also, I suspect, false (not deliberately so) in all the ways that matter. By focusing on where the county is today, the article fails to think about the future over a 5 to 10-year period. The long term residents who are there now are older and inexorably dying. Their children have left town to move to the cities, and likely have or will join in large numbers the new Democratic coalition in those areas. Meanwhile the newcomers will continue to move in. Heck, one of them is already the leader of the county government if I understand things correctly. So I’ll bet that within a decade Pepin county will once again be a Democratic stronghold.

I’ll bet that not just because I’m somewhat arrogantly confident in my opinions (though to be honest, I am) but because I’ve lived through similar processes before. I grew up in Nassau County, once a completely reliable Republican county both locally and at the national level. Forty years later, it’s a very competitive county and is likely to remain that way, though with the changing demographic profile of New York I suspect that it will become still bluer over time.

Or take my current residence: Monroe County, NY (Rochester). Yeah, if you look at our county legislature, we still look Republican. But that’s misleading. In the 17 years I’ve lived here, Democrats have significantly overtaken Republicans in party registration, we regularly vote for Democrats in Presidential elections, by margins that aren’t even close, and suburban town governments are beginning to slip out from under Republican control. Only Democratic factionalism and gerrymandering really give Republicans much hope of retaining power for more than a few years.

Going back even further, in college I spent two years in Cleveland and two in Philadelphia. Remember Ralph Perk and Frank Rizzo? Probably not. One was a Republican, the other a racist and nominal Democrat. Both won election by substantial majorities, if memory serves. Neither could run successfully for dog catcher in either city today.

Then I spent a decade in California, during the first era of Jerry Brown and the Republican reaction that followed. Silicon Valley back then elected Republicans, not right-wing Republicans to be sure, to all kinds of office. Today, not so much.

Or take Loudon County, Virginia. When I lived in Maryland it was a conservative county, strongly Republican in its preferences. And growing like hotcakes. The media all described it as the future of Virginia, a future hostile to Democrats. In 2016, Clinton carried the county with 55% of the vote.

Now, each of these is in some sense a unique case and each of them can be explained away. But they are also diverse enough that I think there is something larger going on. I don’t pretend to fully understand it, and I don’t find the explanations couched primarily in demographic and generational change fully adequate either, though they definitely are important. But its real and its driven us from a country that was approximately 55%–58% Republican for most of the 70s and 80s to a country that is about 52% Democratic in the 2010s.

This change is irregular and slow, even at times seeming to meander backwards but nonetheless inexorably moving forward now for a quarter century. I think this tidal movement will continue because I think it is rooted in profound economic and social change processes going back hundreds of years, not just 25. Can the Republicans as presently constituted reverse it? No, but they can block it for a while. Can the Democrats accelerate it? Yes, but only marginally. For us, who live in the flow, short term blocks and marginal change are critical and thus worthy of effort. After all, human time is vastly shorter than historical time. But at least for those of us who are to some degree on the left, we can be reasonably confident that just as the Mississippi flows unvexed to the sea, so the tide of American history flows with us.

Attribution: The Mississippi flowing unvexed to the sea is from Lincoln’s reaction to the capture of Vicksburg.