Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Return of the city-country divide 

A few days ago I pointed out an article by Patrick Cox, who argued that the big political division in the United States is not so much between the blue states and the red states as between the country and the city, with suburbs in the middle but leaning towards the country. According to Cox, the presidential vote most closely correlates with the population density - the higher the density the higher the Democrat vote.

When I asked my readers for their ideas to explain why the urban areas vote strongly for the left and the rural areas and suburbs for the right, I did not quite expect as many different and interesting suggestions. Demography and its political, economic and social consequences is a topic that never ceases to fascinate me, and by the looks of it, it gets many others going, too.

Just in case you don't want to wade through all the comments, here's a brief summary of readers' explanations for this political divide:


Several readers recalled research which suggests that overpopulation among species, and therefore increased competition for resources, creates more stressed, callous and dysfunctional populations. As Dale Newland summed it up: "Population density in animals increases social pathology such as infanticide. Why do we think humans are so different?" Leftyism as social pathology? Harsh.


Reader Eric points to something very obvious: ethnic minorities, a core Democrat constituency, tend to be strongly concentrated in urban areas (with some exceptions of course, I might add, like the rural black and rural Hispanic counties in Texas, which with the exception of the Austin area, provide the only specks of blue on the electoral map of the state).

Molotov from the black conservative/moderate blog Booker Rising thought this issue was the clincher in the debate: "[Cox's article] ignores one huge mitigating factor that separates big cities from rural areas: the high concentration of racial minorities. Blacks and Hispanics (which together are about 26% of USA's population) are some of America's most urbanized residents. If [Cox] can show that controlling for race and class, the urban-country divide resides then it may be on to something. For example, 27% of northern Florida blacks (more rural area, which is part of the Bible Belt) voted for Bush. Only 4% in Miami, which is in southern Florida, did so."

Age and family structure:

Cities attract a lot of young people. Young people are usually much less wealthy than average and generally, for a variety of reasons, lean more towards the left. Another overrepresented urban group - single people, too, lean towards the left - partly because they also tend to be young, and partly because it's the subsequent acquisition of responsibilities such as family and mortgage that seems to make people more conservative.

Older people with greater income and more assets tend to move out of the city and into suburbs. They tend to be more conservative, particularly if they also now have families to support. Needless to say, a lot more families live in suburbs than in the cities. As reader Raposa sums it up: "I think that people who could be 'accepting' of things when it's just them become more safety and culture conscious when they have children. They move out from the cities in search of lower crime, better schools, and nicer parks. So, in a sense, the suburbia conservatism is self-selecting. As people start to worry about their children, their viewpoints turn more conservative and they leave the cities."

Wealth differentials:

Many readers have suggested that cities have more poor people who are dependent on welfare - a large part of the general left-wing constituency. I don't think that's necessarily the case - partly because rural areas and small towns also have their welfare poor , and partly because overall, the less urbanized and less densely populated red states attract more government spending (including social spending) than the more heavily urbanized blue states.

However, there is a twist on this idea that probably should be taken in conjunction with the concept of young/old city/suburb divide; as reader Michael writes: "I really think it boils down to the ownership society." In cities, larger proportion of residents rent accommodation, whereas outside cities a lot more people own their houses. Ownership, in turn, tends to correlate with more conservative attitudes to life. Memo for the Republicans: keep growing the ownership society.


There was a strong school of thought among readers which I would call "Soddom and Gommorah" approach to urbanism. Seeing cities as centers of corruption and depravity is certainly as old as cities themselves (certainly present among the ancient Greeks, taken by the early Christians and proudly continued by agrarian conservatives). My readers were not as harsh - or even necessarily censorious - but still they noted that:

- "people seeking to escape the restrictions of morality, for one reason or another, move to the cities for anonymity and like-minded libertines" (PacRim Jim)

- "people who live in big cities are looking for a wider experience than they could get in their home towns" (Kate Shaw)

- "in the city anonymity is your best friend. You can be anybody, do anything. Liberation of body will follow through to mind" (Dunerati)

Cities, therefore, not only make liberals - they attract them from elsewhere.


Life in rural areas or small towns, and life in cities are obviously very different. Many readers argued that each environment shapes people's outlook in different ways, and therefore ultimately leads them to vote differently.

The basic distinction is that smaller communities change more slowly, therefore inculcating their residents with more conservative habits of mind. Cities, on the other hand, are changing fast and so their inhabitants are more accepting and tolerant of difference, change and experimentation.

The differences, however, go deeper - to how you live. Mark G writes: "It's all about self-reliance. At the extremes, country folk take care of their own plumbing, landscaping, auto care, etc., while at the other extreme, city folk rely completely on others for everything. Attitudes toward self-reliance is the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives in the U.S."

Or this, from Idris: "Accountability. It's easier to shoot your mouth off in the city and melt away into the crowd. That in turn gives the sense of freedom of expression, hence 'modern' liberalism. In small town America, if you shoot your mouth off people remember it for generations, even if you move to the other side of town. One tends toward a more reserved form of expression as potential risk is greater, hence conservatism."

As another reader, Catastrophile summed it up: "People who live in wide-open spaces and can choose to live and let live will respond better to conservative rhetoric, i.e. 'we'll leave you alone.' People who live in close proximity to lots of other people, have no choice but to interact on a regular basis, and are constantly confronted by the problems of others, will respond better to the progressive rhetoric, i.e. 'we'll make things better'."


Tom Heard had a simple explanation: "More oxygen. People in the cities tend to suffer anoxia and it affects the brain and thinking processes."

Lots of interesting ideas here for everyone to ponder on.

Before I leave, one more reflection: the red people seem to be a lot more aware of the blue world than vice-versa. Firstly, it has to do with the all-pervasiveness of blue culture. Frank Rich seems to think that far from the country swinging to the right culturally, the left has won the war because everyone, including the red states, is watching porn and trash TV. That might be a combination of wishful thinking and ignorance of culture on part of Rich, but there is no denying that thanks to the coasts-generated popular culture the rest of the country knows a lot more about what's happening in the cities than cities know about what's happening in the country.

Secondly, a lot more of red people go to the cities - whether its just for a visit of short business, or to live and work for more extended periods of time. There is very little traffic the other way.

We send our children through Peace Corp into the developing world to expose them to other cultures and societies - why not simply send them out of the cities instead?

Update: Reader Ron couldn't resist: "Sorry, I had to ask. By 'population density', do you mean a) density as it relates to mental capacity or b) how many people live/square mile?"

Update II: Another good point from a reader Bud via email: regardless of whether there are more welfare recipients in the cities or outside, the whole machinery and bureaucracy of government and welfare is concentrated in the cities:

"The government employee unions that are concentrated in urban areas and vote at least 60% Democrat. These are local employees such as teachers who naturally cluster in the population centers, state employees at capitols and major cities and federal employees in major cities. In New York State, I estimate that they account for at least 15% of the total state-wide vote and gave Sen. Kerry about a 360,000 vote advantage."


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