One nation, indivisible

Image Source: The Economist

Conventional wisdom is that Americans are flocking to the South and West, fleeing failed Democratic policies in New York, California, New England, and elsewhere leading to higher costs, higher crime, and slower growth. The obvious conclusion is that Americans favor policies of smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes. The reality, however, is more complicated.

For most of my childhood, my family moved every two years, living in suburban communities covering much of the East Coast. I was born in Chicago but my family soon moved to Laurel, Maryland; York, Pennsylvania; and then Newark, Delaware; eventually, working our way south to Richmond, Virginia, and finally, Stone Mountain, Georgia.

As much as all of this moving cost me, I took a certain pride in my first-hand experience of living in so many different places, among such diverse religious and cultural attitudes. College presented my first opportunity to decide for myself about where I wanted to live, and I chose Massachusetts. I’d never been to Massachusetts but historic, bucolic New England was appealing. After graduation, I stayed in the region and accepted my first job in New Haven, Connecticut. I was there for seven years, long enough to meet my wife and get a master’s degree, before moving to New York City, where I have now been for 28 years.

My family, meanwhile, has been migrating in the other direction. Following my parents’ move to Orlando after high school, they ultimately divorced; my father settled in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, while my mother returned to Atlanta. And while my brother is still outside of Atlanta with his family, he has purchased a home and intends to retire to Palm Coast, Florida before long. My mother will likely follow them there. One of my step-sisters has decamped from Baltimore, Maryland, to Bridgeport, West Virginia; the other to Staunton, Virginia.

We are emblematic of the self-sorting of America. Americans with the means to do so have been migrating to areas that align with their own personal beliefs on politics, religion, and culture. Even when they are ostensibly moving for, say, a lower cost of living, because of the strong correlation among geography, local tax policy, and macro politics, they are also likely moving to an area populated with like-minded (conservative) voters. From what I can tell, virtually every member of my family resides where they broadly vote with the majority party; even if our party doesn’t always win the statewide races, we’re almost certainly voting with the majority in our local districts. But again, it’s not so simple.

Texas, the nation’s third fastest growing state behind Utah and Idaho, is booming. The state experienced 15.9% population growth between the 2010 and 2020 census, 87% of which occurred in its largest metropolitan areas of Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. Austin’s metro area alone grew by 570,000 people from 1.7M to 2.3M over that period. These areas now account for 68% of the state’s population, up from 64% in 2010. In Arizona and South Carolina, the ninth and tenth fastest growing states, fully 100% of their growth occurred in their major metropolitan areas.

That all of this growth is concentrated in urban areas is where things get complicated. Looking at this data, we see the growth of Blue cities in deeply Red states. Biden, in fact, carried all of the largest Sun Belt metropolitan areas — from Charlotte and Raleigh to Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas — except for three in Florida (Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami), where White retirees and more conservative immigrants dominate among newcomers to the area.

These trends are positive for Democrats but neither uniform nor assured. Despite significant wins in Arizona and Georgia, Democrats continue to struggle for footing in Texas and Florida. Even these metropolitan areas are not monolithic.

Some of this self-sorting is to blame for the increasing polarization among the states, but electoral trends within these states suggest something more complex, if not sinister. Despite the diversity suggested by the growth of these Red State-Blue Cities, 37 states are governed under one-party rule, meaning the same party controls the executive branch and both legislative chambers. Of these, 23 are controlled by Republicans and 14 by Democrats. Interestingly, 30 years ago, only 19 states were governed under one-party rule; but 70 years ago, in 1952, the situation was the same as today, with 37 states under one-party rule. (If Trump were ever to actually indicate a year he might be referring to when America was Great, this might be it, peak post-war Eisenhower comity, before the tumultuous years to come.)

The struggle of Blue Cities in Red States is likely to be a dominant electoral story in the coming cycles. On issues of policing, labor rights, education, and environmental protection, Red states, particularly those with one-party control, are consistently overriding the political will of their Blue Cities. In Texas, Florida, and Arizona, state legislatures overrode local bans on single-use plastic bags. The North Carolina legislature famously overrode local transgender bathroom bills. In Florida, the state lifted local “impact fees” on developers, and in Texas, the state capped local property taxes to starve local governments of necessary resources. Lina Hidalgo, the Democratic county judge (in effect county executive) in Harris County, Texas (aka Houston) expressed the frustration of many location elected officials when she suggested that it felt as if GOP state legislators “keep a to-do list of what counties and cities are doing so they can cancel it out at the next session.”

Red states are benefiting from recent migration trends, to be sure, but it’s abundantly clear to Republicans that their policies and the base of their power no longer hold the key to the future as the dominance of agriculture, manufacturing, and fossil fuels decline and the demographics move against them as well.

According to Michael Podhorzer, a progressive political strategist and chair of the Analyst Institute, which studies elections, the growing divisions between Red and Blue states represent a reversion to the lines of separation that have existed through much of the nation’s history. The period of convergence we’ve enjoyed over the past 50 years is coming to an end.

The differences among the states we see today, he writes, are “very similar, both geographically and culturally, to the divides between the Union and the Confederacy. And those dividing lines were largely set at the nation’s founding, when slave states and free states forged an uneasy alliance to become ‘one nation.’” And the current anger is, in part, the result of Red states falling behind Blue states on a broad range of economic and social outcomes — including economic productivity, family income, life expectancy, as well as “deaths of despair” from the opioid crisis and alcoholism.

The numbers tell the story. GDP per person and median household income are now both more than 25 percent greater in Blue states than Red. Similarly, the share of kids in poverty is more than 20 percent lower in Blue states, and the share of working households below the poverty line is nearly 40 percent lower. Gun deaths are almost twice as high per capita in Red states, as is the maternal mortality rate. The COVID vaccination rate is about 20 percent higher in Blue states, and the COVID death rate is about 20 percent higher in Red states. And life expectancy is nearly three years greater in Blue states. (On most of these measures, the Purple states fall somewhere in between.)

Conversely, where we see Blue states lagging in areas like affordability, homelessness, and congestion, for instance, they are victims of their own success, so to speak. Historic growth and desirability created these problems. Republicans don’t have answers to these issues because they haven’t confronted them.

At least part of the argument in favor of our federalist structure is that each state serves as a laboratory, testing new ideas for efficacy and impact, adapting policies and adopting solutions that suit local needs, tastes, and priorities. Localities can find their own balance between higher taxes and more services. Any state might learn how its neighboring state successfully addressed a pressing issue.

Unfortunately, this isn’t what’s happening in practice. Legislatures are taking advantage of recent Supreme Court decisions favorable to states’ rights to ignite culture wars around abortion, education, healthcare, and guns. An editorial in The Economist recently described the political situation in America as having created “petri dishes of polarisation.” They noted that on August 25th, the same day that California banned the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles from 2035, a Texas “trigger” law banned abortion from the moment of conception, without exceptions, punishing abortion providers with up to 99 years in prison. Meanwhile, six in 10 Texas voters recently said they support abortion being “available in all or most cases;” 11% say they favor a total ban on abortion.

Jacob Grumbach, author of “Laboratories against Democracy,” has studied policy-sharing among states and found that states emulate policies almost exclusively from other states controlled by the same party, competing only to be more thoroughly blue or red. In one troubling example, after Texas passed SB 8 allowing private citizens to file civil lawsuits against anyone suspected of performing or inducing or aiding an abortion, similar “bounty-hunter” laws were introduced in other conservative states. Oklahoma passed its own anti-abortion law relying solely on civilian enforcement in May.

To cite an even more disturbing trend, if that’s possible, GOP lawmakers specifically have been reducing the “democratic performance” of states they control for at least 20 years, long before the rise of Trump. Using a statistical model that assesses shifts in democracy from 2000 to 2018, Grumbach found that when Republicans have gained control of state legislatures, those states have moved steadily away from democracy.

To put it bluntly, our democracy is at risk. Biden thinks so, and many Americans agree with him. In a new Quinnipiac University poll, 67 percent of American adults, to be exact, said they thought the country’s democracy was “in danger of collapse.” Of course, Americans won’t agree on the causes, but that a significant majority has such concerns is itself concerning.

The most undemocratic of the GOP’s attempts to undermine democracy are their restrictions on voting rights. In states like Florida, Georgia, and Arizona, among others, where Trump challenged the election results in 2020, voting rights are under assault. Again, these efforts are designed primarily to counter the growth of their Blue metropolitan areas.

The question is whether and how long states can sustain this tug-of-war against the growing power of their metropolitan areas. But it’s certainly clear to Republicans that they must persist with these anti-democratic and authoritarian maneuvers if they intend to retain power. Lindsey Graham acknowledged as much in 2020 when, urging Trump not to concede, he issued the following warning on Fox News: “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”

Over time, Republicans understand that they simply can’t win elections and maintain control on the basis of one-person one-vote democracies. From New York, these battles in Texas, Georgia, and Arizona can seem distant, but it seems unlikely that the MAGA-controlled Republican party will be satisfied propagating its brand of extremism and authoritarianism in Red states now under its control.

Taking advantage of the small-state bias in the Electoral College and the Senate as well as the GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court, Podhorzer and Grumbach believe that Republicans could impose Red-state values nationwide, even if most Americans oppose them. The “MAGA movement is not stopping at the borders of the states it already controls,” Podhorzer writes. “It seeks to conquer as much territory as possible by any means possible.”

Trump’s Big Lie and the assault on the Capitol may feel like the most aggressive efforts to subvert our democracy, but they are really just the culmination of trends that have been building for decades. Some version of Viktor Orbán’s model of illiberal democracy in Hungary — or more accurately, electoral authoritarianism — which ignores constitutional limits on executive power and erodes civil liberties, isn’t impossible to envision here if we aren’t prepared to fight for our democracy.

Some amount of self-sorting is natural in a free society. We should be able to move freely based on employment opportunities, family needs, and personal preference without our voting rights being diluted. Texas and Florida can’t recruit Northerners to feed their growth agendas and then marginalize their voting strength through gerrymandering, malapportionment, and voter suppression.

To counter these anti-democratic tactics, which ultimately contribute to voter apathy and mistrust, we need to fight for electoral reforms that are free of political manipulation and true to our democratic principles. We need to increase engagement, transparency, and trust and ultimately reduce unnecessary partisanship and divisions among us. We need nonpartisan redistricting. We need automatic voter registration. We need ranked-choice voting. And we need to pass the imperfect but necessary Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Act.

Despite our differences, which may be rooted very deeply in our history, if we want to continue as “one nation, indivisible,” protecting our democracy is an absolute imperative that I hope and trust the vast majority of Americans support.

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Beau Everett

Imagining a better world, while trying to make sense of the one we’ve got.