The urban rural divide in the US and other complexities of polarisation

By Lorenzo

Former libertarian, now progressive, Will Wilkinson has a report up on the rural urban divide in US politics (pdf), connecting the concentration of economic production in a service economy in megacities, sorting by migration and internal movement, and cognitive patterns (particularly pertaining to Openness to Experience and, to a lesser degree, Conscientiousness) to the drift in the US to being a collection of one-Party jurisdictions largely sorted by population density.

Econblogger Arnold Kling raises some reasonable quibbles about Wilkinson’s analysis referring to Colin Woodard’s American Nations analysis and the divide between college-educated women and non-college educated men. Kling also makes a powerful point about cultural dynamics:

But I would point out that the government office buildings in our nation’s capital house technocrats who almost all share an urban progressive outlook. Inside those agencies, the urban majority is closer to tyranny than to impotence.

Indeed, as discussed below, Wilkinson gets a key aspect of the cultural dynamics of political polarisation in the US quite wrong.

Regarding “race”

Wilkinson examines issues of “racial” resentment and “racial” polarisation. As ever in US matters, the question of whether we are looking at “race” cues or ethnic cues is one that is mostly ignored. Yet, Woodard’s analysis in particular suggests that cultural cues and differences are central to regional political patterns in the US. Writer John Wood Jnr provides a powerful personal illustration of the importance of cultural cues.

As I have explained in a recent post and elsewhere, I am very much against using “race” as an analytical frame. It is, at best, a clumsy and inaccurate framing for cultural patterns. It is particularly misleading if we want to understand why violence (and particularly) homicide is so much higher in African-American urban (but not rural) communities than is the US norm. That disparity in rates of violence in urban communities is a factor in “racial resentment” that is, as is very common (particularly among progressives), completely ignored in Wilkinson’s analysis.

Something that is also ignored by Wilkinson in his paean to how diverse and productive the megacities are is how badly run a lot of them are, a point noted in the comments to Kling’s post. Many of them are standing examples of the problems of political monopolies, of one-Party dominance. Though, to Wilkinson’s credit, he understands the dynamic nature of an entrenched two-Party system, and how demographic change is likely to force the Republican Party to seek a broader electoral coalition.

Indeed, his report actually points to possibilities for such a broader coalition that would turn a lot of US political analysis on its head. In his report Wilkinson makes the following observations:

Rising housing costs in urban cores have shifted the black population (and other less wealthy city dwellers) away from dense city centers toward the suburbs. (p.27)

This means, for example, that black Americans are just as likely to be low in Openness, and to be temperamentally socially conservative, as white Americans. (p.38)

At this point, it won’t come as a shock to hear that ethnocentrism and racial resentment both strongly predict negative attitudes toward immigration. Kinder and Kam find that, among whites and blacks, a high level of ethnocentrism strongly predicts support for reducing the rate of immigration, and it does so more strongly than other variables, such as a high level of “moral traditionalism” or a low level of “egalitarianism.” (p.52)

If the Republicans want to explore wider coalitions, conservative African-Americans in (badly run, high crime) northern cities could be unexpectedly fertile ground. One that could turn them, if they could pull it off, into the natural majority Party in US politics.

There is already some structural basis for such an alliance–the biggest single element in the congressional gerrymandering that Democrats like to complain about is drawing boundaries so as to maximise the number of majority African-American congressional districts. And, as Wilkinson’s analysis notes at various points, African-Americans have a lot of similarities with the Republicans Euro-American rural base.

Cultural polarisation

But it is the institutional structure of the cultural dynamics of political polarisation where Wilkinson’s analysis is most lacking. He accepts as a basis for his analysis that the Republicans are more ideologically consistent and further from the centre than the Democrats. Based on the notion developed by political scientists Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins that the Republicans represent ideological politics and the Democrats interest group politics.

First, Pew Research polling data shows that the presumption of Republicans being further from the centre with greater ideological narrowness compared to the Democrats is simply no longer true. The Democrats are now the ideologically more concentrated and further from the political centre Party. Indeed, they are now more so than the Republicans ever were.  All that highly educated productive megacity ethnic diversity does not seem to be having the broadening effect that Wilkinson presumes.

Second, by only looking at Party polarisation, Wilkinson misses a much more important underlying dynamic, one that Kling alluded to in his comment about the internal views of the administrative state.

If one looks an industry and occupational political patterns, as revealed by political donations, then it is clear that four key industries are much more intensely and narrowly progressive than any such group is conservative. The four key “cultural production” industries (media, entertainment, IT, academe) form a highly ideologically conformist grouping.

Source: Crowdpac analysis, 2014.

A rather more nuanced way of looking at the dynamics of polarisation in the US, is that these industries became thoroughly progressive-dominated. This had an alienating effect on conservative Americans, particularly in the rural “heartland” and gave an “in” to Fox News to cater to what had become a large, neglected, sector of the media market and then, as access capacities expanded, to Breibart and other operations.

The shift in concerns among their voter base, along with the sorting effects Wilkinson identifies, helped push the Republicans in a more consistently conservative direction. The perspectives of these culturally-central progressive-dominated industries then came to increasingly dominate the Democrats, a shift that the Pew reports show was underway well before the election of The Donald in November 2016, though that result does seem to have had an intensifying effect (pdf).

This is part of the wider pattern, identified by French political economist Thomas Piketty, of the profound change in democratic politics in the US, UK and France whereby centre-left politics has become increasingly dominated by a new form of elite politics (pdf), the politics of the highly educated (what Piketty calls the Brahmin Left). A centre-left Parties effectively abandon working class voters (and particularly regional working class voters) they either increasingly don’t vote (pdf) or become “up for grabs” by a Trump, a Brexit, a Le Pen or whatever.

So, progressive elites take over key “cultural” industries, this causes a reaction among more conservative Americans, affecting the Republicans. Partly as a result of that shift, but more because of the spreading domination of the progressive-educated elite, the Democrat Party has now shifted considerably more to the left than the Republicans did to the right. As the late Andrew Breibart used to say, politics is downstream from culture.

This pattern, of conservatives being more diverse in outlook than progressives, even shows up in the US Supreme Court, as in this mapping of the judicial ideology of the current Justices. The recent Hidden Tribes report found that those it identified as the Progressive Activists were the highest income, most educated and most opinion-conformist group among the identified US political groupings.

So left-of-centre politics has not only become elite-dominated, but dominated by a high income, high conformity elite whose most direct path to social power, given their dominance of education, academe, most of the media and IT, is the anathematisation of alternative opinion. Hence “political correctness” getting ever more draconian in its restrictiveness and its public mobbing of dissent.

It is also true that the two Parties have become more coherent and “national”, so more distinct. A process largely kicked off by Newt Gingrich and his successful in 1994 insurgency against Democrat dominance of Congressional politics. While that has affected political polarisation, it is at best a minor factor in the wider socio-political polarisation. It made US party politics more “normal democratic”. It is cultural politics which has driven the wider and more intense political polarisation.

Not that one can leave Republican Party politicians completely off the hook. Having a voter base that was increasingly culturally uncomfortable, even feeling somewhat beleaguered, but still supporting key aspects of the welfare state, was somewhat awkward place to be for an allegedly small-government Party, most of whose key figures had significant congruences in views on migration and similar matters with the Democrat elite. It was particularly awkward if one was prone to small government rhetoric that one did not actually mean and fighting cultural politics that one does not entirely share. The common response was to ramp up the rhetoric to cover the lack of effective action or a functionally coherent political direction. Certainly nothing that was likely to be useful in addressing the economic stagnation and cultural despair within the Heartland that voted for them.

Migration and leaving the provinces to rot

Not that they are alone in this. Wilkinson is so busy characterising low population density Heartland US as economically stagnant and politically retrograde that it is easy to not notice that he has no solutions to the problems of the Heartland except to make sure political structures do not give them “too much” of a say. In other words: they are demographically declining, culturally reactionary and economically stagnant, so the really important thing is to make sure the other bits of the US get to have the dominant say.

Which is the flip side of the concentration of population and economic production in urban megacities. The combination of mass migration, regional sorting and voluntary voting means that the commercial, bureaucratic and cultural elites can leave the provinces to rot. And they do. (And then get very angry when the provinces push back.)

These patterns are very much alive and well in Britain and the Brexit vote and in France and the “yellow vest” protests. Indeed, the most extreme manifestation of leaving the provinces to rot was the grotesque and systematic failure of British elites to do anything about, or even notice, years of predatory rape and enforced prostitution gangs preying on thousands of underage girls. Though the rise of man made “deaths of despair” (pdf) in the US Heartland is an even larger scale problem. In all three countries, their actual migration policies tend to increase the scarcity premium for capital and reduce it for labour.

As for hostile neglect, it is, for example, now pretty standard urban-coastal politics in the US to attempt to block major infrastructure investment in the Heartland. Such as pushing back against fracking and seeking to block pipelines.

It is also pretty standard urban-coastal politics to weaken marriage and undermine fatherhood, further weakening social capital among vulnerable groups (notably African-Americans and now Heartland US). As unmarried and divorced women (pdf) are very solid Democrat voters, less marriage and pathologising fatherhood electorally works for them. (Divorced women have been a key element in the voting gender gap in the UK [pdf] as well.) In some cases it is done quite intentionally. The more powerful factor is that is the direction the electoral mathematics selects for and so pushes them in. The creation of state bureaucracies with incentives to pathologise fatherhood is part of this. (“Deadbeat Dads” are mostly a myth, but provide an excellent stick for middle class bureaucracies to make a living imposing utterly unreasonable levels of child support payments on lower class males.) Conversely, Euro-American women who have kids and stay married have a strong tendency to vote Republican/conservative.

If commercial elites were forced to rely much more on Heartland labour, rather than just importing labour from elsewhere, one suspects that there might be rather more attention being paid to their skills and prospects and social stagnation. As it is, the urban-coastal push is to deny the Heartland any say in migration at all, thus speeding along their marginalisation.

The decline in geographical mobility within the US is surely partly driven by the rising shelter costs in the migrant-receiving megacities. Since the benefits of migration overwhelming got to holders of (various forms) of capital plus the migrants themselves, the migrants are typically willing to put up with less living space in said cities than many the bulk of the citizenry are, because they are still much better off. Conversely, having to pay much more for much less shelter is a major deterrent to movement from regional centres to the megacities. In a real sense, geographical mobility within the US is falling precisely because global mobility to the US has been as high as it is.

The economic literature generally indicates a net positive effect to resident workers from migration, but not a very high net positive effect. Add in rising shelter costs and it likely a different story. (And not examining the effect of migration on shelter is a serious analytical failure, given that there is, as Lyman Stone points out here, a considerable economic literature of restricting the supply of land for housing imposing major economic costs and having lots of housing market entrants being non-citizens makes it much easier to restrictively regulate land use.) Add in the regional distribution of benefits, and it is almost certainly a different story. As it is, the economic literature on the (highly uneven) benefits to migration becomes yet another grounds to justify marginalising the provinces, and particularly regional workers.

As an aside, these patterns apply far less in Australia, because Australia was already highly urbanised when postwar mass migration began and has compulsory preferential voting. Compulsory voting means there is no gain in driving people away from the polls and preferential voting means Parties of government have to aim for 50% +1 of each electorate they need to win. So policies have to broader in their appeal and you cannot import solid-vote-for-you groups to compensate for alienating voters who simply disengage from voting.

Not us guv’

One of the key patterns of the institutionally culturally-dominant progressive elite is that nothing is ever their fault; they are never in the wrong, they are purely morally motivated and so problems and difficulties are always someone else’s fault and would go away if everyone just agreed with them. (Even though what constitutes agreeing with them continually shifts precisely so they can “ahead” of the moral curve.) Of course, every system of moral bullying and dominance in human history has claimed to be defending moral decency. But if one takes a step back, the cultural and social dynamics become rather clearer.

The progressive elite regard migration as their great success issue, the firm demonstration of their moral and intellectual superiority. But it is also a weapon for cultural and political dominance that makes it so much easier to leave the provinces to rot and then get self-righteously superior when the provinces bite back.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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