A regional approach to American political divides yields another interesting political spectrum. Colin Woodard, author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America”, contends that the divides in our politics are less rural vs. urban, and more rival European colonial cultures. He effectively argues that the cultures handed down by Puritans, Barbados slave lords, Scots-Irish frontiersmen, English Quakers and Dutch, Spanish and French settlers continue to influence regional cultures and voting patterns. Distrust of government, respect for authority and tradition, freedom of individual expression, tolerance, self-sufficiency, privilege of the few and social engineering are all legacy cultures handed down for generations.
Woodard argues that U.S. politics “revolves around the tension between advancing individual liberty and promoting the common good. Blue culture champions the building and maintenance of free communities, while red culture maximizes individual freedom of action.” Sounds like the “balanced center” of the founding fathers. The common good regions, ranked from high to low blue partisanship, include Left Coast, New Netherland, El Norte, Spanish Caribbean, Tidewater, Yankeedom and Midlands. The individual freedom regions, ranked from high to low red partisanship, include Greater Appalachia, New France, Deep South and Far West.
The data shows the cultural differences between these regions historically have a greater effect on politics than the size and density of communities. In all 4 red regions, urban and rural counties vote the same, as do all counties in the blue El Norte region. In Yankeedom and the Left Coast regions a split between urban and rural happened for the first time in the 2016 Presidential election, when Trump made a plethora of communitarian campaign promises to flip the rural counties. Only the Midlands and Tidewater regions, representing 15% of the U.S. population, consistently split between urban and rural counties. However, since these urban and rural splits have an outsized electoral college impact, swinging the 2016 election, the urban/rural divide has received heightened attention.
Today, 55% of Americans live in Suburban areas, 31% live in Urban metros and 14% live in rural communities. However, 63% of U.S. counties and 72% of the land area in the U.S. is rural. Racial and ethnic diversity, immigration and aging changes have affected America unequally, intensifying the differences between more and less populated areas, by creating gaps in poverty, education and employment. While Urban and Suburban areas have seen substantial growth, an influx of younger immigrants and increasing diversity, Rural communities have had little growth (52% have lost population, esp. young people), becoming more white and older. These changes no doubt contribute to voting patterns and the increasing urban/rural divide seen in the 2016 election.
Here’s an interesting map from Ken Field, author of the book Cartography, a guidebook for mapmakers. It shows each of the 135 million votes in the 2016 presidential election as dots to distribute them proportionally. This map better illustrates the population concentrations of more urban areas, which vote more blue, surrounding suburban areas, which vote more purple, and the less populated, but large land mass represented by rural communities voting more red.
Regional differences are clearly another factor affecting U.S. politics. One the founders anticipated and addressed by protecting rural preferences in the Senate and with the electoral college. While urban voters argue that rural voters have outsized influence, rural voters feel urban voters are insensitive to their needs and both feel the other side views them negatively. Rural America has economic challenges that similarly affect other minorities and need to be addressed throughout the country. Although some would argue minorities and our diversity creates tribalism and insurmountable challenges, our history shows them to be a competitive advantage. Our politicians seem to have gotten lost in identity politics and appear unable to work together for the greater good. Perhaps the American public working together can once again put Country over party.
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