A Second Civil War? N.J's (and America's) voting fault lines are based on geography

 

By Tom Deignan

 

What if the main source of our division -- the new Mason-Dixon line -- is something more bland and profound? Geography.

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Late last month, National Review magazine declared: "America is currently fighting its Second Civil War. ... Americans are more divided morally, ideologically, and politically today than they were during the Civil War."

The first weeks of the Trump presidency -- protests, immigration bans, "alternative facts" -- have only exacerbated these divisions.

What actually divides us? There are the usual suspects: race, ethnicity, economic class, education levels.

But what if the main source of our division -- the new Mason-Dixon line -- is something more bland and profound?

Geography.

Consider this: In New Jersey's own Essex County, nearly 80 percent of voters went for Hillary Clinton, while Ocean County -- a mere 40 miles south of Newark Liberty Airport -- went overwhelmingly for Trump.

Despite their proximity, these are two very different places. Essex is a compact, densely populated urban county, while Ocean is sprawling and more spacious, with famous beach towns.

You tend to see this trend all across the country: dense, blue Democratic cities surrounded by spacious swaths of Republican red.

Americans have actually exhibited this geopolitical gap for over a century. In 1920, for the first time ever, the U.S. Census found that a majority of Americans lived in urban rather than rural areas. This created great anxiety in rural areas, mainly because many believed this signaled an inevitable shift towards urban domination of national politics.

And yet, in 2017, Republicans -- who have largely conceded the urban vote for decades -- control all three branches of the federal government. And at a time when it is said America will soon be a "minority-majority" nation, Republicans -- whose base is rural and suburban white voters -- dominate governor's mansions and state legislatures.

What's going on here?

To begin with, there is a bias against large cities built in to America's fabric. The founders were generally men of agrarian values. The byzantine Electoral College system was devised to protect less-populated states from what James Madison called the "tyranny of the majority."

There's an irony in all of this: Today's Republican voters -- who often decry granting "special rights" to "minorities" -- are themselves protected by a preferential voting system

This anti-urban sentiment was reflected in a recent Wall Street Journal column by historian John Steele Gordon. Seeking to dismiss Hillary Clinton's popular-vote win, Gordon noted that if someone were to "subtract her (vote) margins in a mere five counties" -- Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and Los Angeles County -- "she lost the popular vote in the remainder of the nation by more than 500,000."

The point being ... what exactly? That these big-city votes simply don't count as much as authentic, middle-American votes?

Should we scratch the Electoral College? Of course. But in two of their past three presidential victories (2000 and 2016), Republicans won the Electoral College but not the popular vote. There is no way they are going to approve scrapping it.

And the Electoral College cannot explain away Republican dominance of governorships and state legislatures.

Just a few years back, it was vogue to believe an increasingly urbanized and diverse America threatened Republicans with extinction. But, again, geography reveals what other factors conceal. Even heavily Democratic states such as New Jersey and New York have vast swaths of culturally conservative, Republican red the further you get away from their cities. Leave the coasts and you know what happens? The cities get smaller, the landscape more spacious, and the voters more conservative.

In short, America remains a heavily suburban and rural place.

And over the past decade, sustained population growth has occurred mainly in the GOP-friendly South and West. Smaller counties in Texas, Colorado and North Dakota are consistently adding thousands of residents each year. And Republicans -- assisted, it must be added, by some very creative gerrymandering of local voting districts -- have dominated fast-growing counties in the 21st century.

Even the looming "minority-majority" factor is misleading, in part because there is an unexamined assumption that most of these voters -- and their more-assimilated children and grandchildren -- will lean Democratic. The same was assumed about previous immigrants -- the Irish, Italian and Jewish voters who for decades made up the solidly Democratic New Deal coalition.

By the 1980s, though, that had all changed.

Mind you, the voters themselves had not changed. They had merely crossed the new American Mason-Dixon line, moving from a place that looks like Essex County to a place that looks more like Ocean County.

In other words, the three cardinal rules of real estate may well be true for politics: location, location, location.

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