Saturday, April 6, 2013

Our Current Political Divide May Actually Be a Regional Divide

During the last seven years of my life I have lived in four different states in different parts of the country, and that experience has revealed to me the stark regional differences that exist in this country.  The conventional wisdom about important issues is wildly different here in New Jersey as compared to Texas, the state I just left.  We can see such differences in the recent pushes in states like Arkansas and North Dakota to severely restrict access to abortion when no such movement exists outside of the South or West.  A better example might be the map (displayed above) showing where people were most likely to change their Facebook profile pictures in solidarity with same sex marriage activists two weeks ago during arguments in front of the Supreme Court.  The South and Great Plains are noticeably white on this map, and out of step with the rest of the country.  If you look at the map of the 2012 election below, you will see a great deal of correlation.

Shifts in regional power can make a huge difference in national politics.  As historian Bruce Schulman has argued, the rise of conservatism in the 1970s was driven and reflected by the economic and population growth of the Sun Belt.  Unfortunately for conservatives, Sun Belt states like Colorado and California have become more liberal, and Florida has gone for Democrats in the last two presidential elections.  The South and interior West alone cannot give Republicans the votes they need to win.

The regional disparities in voting and on key issues also might help explain the virulence and polarizing nature of political debate in America. The hard-core, true believer House Republicans hail from districts where people who disagree with their ideas are few.  These same ideas are political poison in other parts of the country.   Many states in the conservative regions have taken a combative attitude towards the federal government by refusing to take part in the Affordable Care Act and passing nullification resolutions.  Because of the ideological uniformity of many of these states, politicians there are free to be as kooky and extreme as they want to be.

There is a world of difference between Connecticut, which recently passed sweeping new restrictions on gun ownership, and states like Montana, where the legislature wants to nullify any new federal gun laws.  I really don't think this divide can be breached; fanatics never compromise.  Because our system was designed to diffuse power, it makes it easy for one chunk of the country to band together and jam up the legislative gears.  Mechanisms like the filibuster, for instance, give minority factions an effective veto.

This is not the first time in our nation's history that regionalism has fed political conflict.  (There was that whole Civil War thing, you know.)  For decades the Solid South banded together in Washington to prevent any moves towards racial equality.  Supporters of segregation filibustered and nullified to their heart's content, successfully blocking progress for quite a long time.  If we are to make any progress regarding gun control, reproductive rights, marriage equality, and a whole host of other issues, this regional conflict must be resolved.  Hopefully it will be settled with less difficulty than in the 1860s.

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