Urban Archipelago Redux

Last Sunday’s New York Times had a visual representation of the urban/rural political divide. 

The article pictured a variety of neighborhoods, and asked readers to guess how that neighborhood had voted in the 2020 Presidential election. It was stark, visual evidence of what has been called the “big sort,” in which people have essentially voted with their feet, residing in neighborhoods composed of generally like-minded Americans. The only dubious areas pictured were suburban, where residents were more evenly divided.

It was reminiscent of the Urban Archipelago described by Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger several years ago, in the wake of the 2004 election.In the years since, the divisions between blue cities and red rural areas has become even more pronounced. America these days isn’t really divided between blue and red states; it’s divisions are far more frequently between blue cities and the red states in which they are located.

That conflict was the subject of a very interesting article in The Week, titled “How Red States Silence Urban Voters.”

The article began by noting that a major storyline of the pandemic had been Donald Trump facing off against Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newson; after the election , that storyline was reframed as President Biden urging caution versus GOP governors, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, throwing their states open without masks.

But below the surface, there’s been a possibly more consequential fight over COVID that has not received nearly as much attention. It’s not between the president and the states, but between red state governors and their blue cities, which almost universally promoted mask mandates and other mitigation measures — and by all evidence were the key element staunching the spread of the virus in those states.

That red state-blue city conflict on COVID also reflects a more far-ranging battle, itself part of the ideological right turn in the Republican Party over the last decade, in which Republican-dominated states have attacked local government power, as cities even in red states become more liberal and non-white. The recent Georgia legislation giving the state the power to override local election boards is of a piece with wave after wave of state legislation that has preempted local minimum wage laws, overturned local gay rights bills, and nullified local paid sick days bills.

Virtually every large and moderate-sized city has imposed mask mandates. Several Red state Republican governors have not simply declined to impose state-wide restrictions, but have moved to overrule and invalidate mask mandates in effect in urban areas–despite the fact that all available evidence supports their effectiveness in reducing infections.

If this success on masking shows the importance of local government action, the shutdown of that local flexibility by red state governors last month reflects the broader trend of expanding state preemption of local power in large swathes of public policy.

If the conflict between cities and their red states was limited to Covid precautions, that would be worrisome enough, but the quoted paragraph is correct–increasingly, state officials and legislators responsive to rural constituents are moving to curtail the ability of city officials to respond to the needs and expressed desires of urban residents.

Republicans have blocked cities from raising the local minimum wage above the state’s rate in rural counties. The article details several instances, and reports that 25 states now prohibit local minimum wage laws.

Voting laws are moving in the same direction. Much of the political fire during the aftermath of the 2020 election came from Trump and others demanding state governments override the election counts made by local boards of elections. While state leaders and legislators in the end could not come up with plausibly legal excuses to do that, in 2021 they have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions, many of them aimed at severely limiting the power of local governments over elections.

I have previously posted about Indiana’s legislative bias against Indianapolis and the other urban areas in our very red state, but we are clearly not alone. One academic study found multiple examples: states have prohibited cities from requiring fire sprinklers in new homes; from banning fracking;  passing firearm regulations; requiring paid sick days; decriminalizing marijuana; banning plastic shopping bags; passing discrimination protections for LGBT workers; regulating e-cigarettes; imposing regulations concerning land use; passing undocumented immigrant protections; regulating factory farms; banning police drones; regulating local airports; initiating municipal broadband services; creating anti-GMO policies and more.

As the article points out, this is largely a story of Black and Latino voters gaining a governing voice in local governments, “only to have that voice made worthless as the power wielded by those local governments has been reduced or eliminated.”

I don’t know what the answer is, but this is a huge problem, and it is one of several ways in which rural Americans are punching above their weight–exercising political authority wildly disproportionate to their numbers.


  1. in NoDak, the legislature,(every two years) is voting on a bill that keeps local jurisdictions from passing mandated mask wearing..they still find recreational pot a sin,don’t go there,it isn’t what the people really want!..usual crap,from the so called moral majority..even SoDak decided in their legislature to overturn the public’s majority vote to legalize pot,and not even act on it..the gov there is a total failure,while running one of the biggest shell banks to oversee billionaires money from over seas..we have our own style of offshoring in SoDak. my Biden for pres.sticker is still in the back window of my jacked up ford 4X4 behind my head,giving the finger to the trumpers…since were talking urban/sub urban, more like subterranean in the brain power of the locals i deal with..few want to even talk about the past few months,i believe their holding their breath until our near sever drought cans their paychecks and they,have to seek a handout to survive or,loose what they think,the republicans gave them..i wonder how many will tell Biden’s admin to keep their check? though trump and his mob was nice enough to give last year,next to $100 an acre here to the farm/ranch people here in oliver co,NoDak to buy their votes. now we have a obvious issue with climate,we had next to near zero snow/cold this winter,it’s warming up,and we are,coal country and a major power hub for America. the coal creek power plant is for sale must be a 2fer, its has 2 gens. no one is seriously looking to buy it. contact north american coal if your interested..

  2. Patmcc:
    i have no,doubt about ALEC, seems you can’t even run as a republican under their witch watch.
    now,,since they control the installing of the zombie republiqans, its time we called them out on their plans,aka known as privatizing everything for profit,even our goverment..

  3. Republican governors and legislators scream whenever the federal government imposes restrictions or mandates on them, because, they say, that local people know best how to deal with local problems. But they turn around and impose restrictions and mandates on local governments, because they know better than local people how to handle local problems.

    I wonder why the media don’t point out that inconsistency.

  4. City dwellers already have the right to do much of what is listed as state controlled behaviors. Who says you cannot pay your employees more or give them paid sick days? Or not use plastic bags when shopping? Or have the police department not use drones? No one is stopping you from treating your fellow city dweller with respect. No one is stopping you from behaving in a respectful manner toward others and the earth. If you want to wear a mask…wear the mask. Is Holcomb going to send in the State Police to rip it off your face?

  5. While still months away from the general election in November 2020, certain political operatives in Washington, D.C. and across the country were busy working to impact voter turnout. Unfortunately, these people were not focused on increasing the number of Americans who cast their ballot; they were and are planning a systematic effort to continue to suppress the vote and their targets are those voters already at risk of being disenfranchised: people of color, low-income citizens and the disabled. Reportedly, organizations such as Common Cause Indiana and All IN for Democracy coalition were working to educate the public about the many forms of voter suppression, before they could take action to address them, they needed to identify them. The 2020 election is behind us but the 2022 mid-term election is looming before us; are those organizations still active in Indiana? We see much in the media about laws already enacted in Georgia with Alabama and Texas soon to follow; what is the situation in Indiana regarding voter suppression at this time? Are “political operatives” still working behind the scenes to enact such laws here while we are distracted elsewhere with actions by southern states and the still evolving transition of the federal government?

    We are going through the erosion of our civil rights and the enactment of new blatantly targeted voters in 47 of our 50 states and the strong probability of Jim Crow laws to take effect. They are working to enact new laws and not asking if they provide justice.

    “Republicans have blocked cities from raising the local minimum wage above the state’s rate in rural counties. The article details several instances, and reports that 25 states now prohibit local minimum wage laws.”

    How can states and cities prohibit minimum wage laws for their local businesses and expect to improve their own economy? Their only reasoning can be to increase the numbers of low-income residents to include in voter suppression laws. And we are continuing the struggle to survive the Covid-19 Pandemic with red states suppressing protective efforts and attempting to promote the anti-vaccine initiative.

  6. Why privatize government when it’s the source of funds for all our so-called free market capitalistic corporations? Without government subsidies, there would be no capitalism.

    Don’t forget; ALEC is a partnership between the government and corporations. While they claim to despise socialism, they reap the benefits of capitalism and socialism while imposing rugged free-market capitalism on the masses while the working class sit back and take it. I just wonder how long this is going to work.

    The big sort will continue as these power plays are short-sighted, just like corporations are short-sighted by looking at the next quarter’s earnings release. If people living in cities find their quality of life infringed upon by power-hungry politicians in Red states, they’ll pack up and leave to more progressive pastures. States like Florida and Texas will ultimately pay the price.

    This is a transitory phase as oligarch-centered capitalism dies out — it’s basically leading to its own demise. As many great thinkers have predicted, our failure will be due to our own decision-making versus an outside threat. There are no outside threats because nobody wants to model themselves after the USA. We can maintain our oligarch-controlled profit-driven nature by brute force — economic and military.

    Also as predicted, we are preparing for war on three fronts: Iran, China, and Russia. So much for the opposition party to mass extinction.

  7. As an outcast member of a rural ranch family, I can attest that the general attitude is one of selfish survival. “If you ain’t us, you ain’t nothin'” is the black and white stance of rural folk. In all fairness, they had to learn that in order to survive the Great Depression and all the variables that place their livelihoods at risk. Their community mindset is VERY different from the urban dweller. Add to that the rural churches that keep pounding them with fear and guilt and suspicion of “the other”, and we have what we have.

    That all said, the Democratic Party has been an utter failure at reaching out to these folk with the correct message about their best interest. The “liberal” label is manufactured by Republican messages and narrative writers. That makes liberals “the other”, irrespective of race.

    I doubt if we’ll ever bridge that gap between urban “liberalism” and rural … whatever it is. As long as the Republican party exists, they will continue, with the help of the Koch-like billionaires, to destroy democracy for the sake of kleptocracy run by the oligarchs. I may be wrong, but I think this is how ancient Egypt used to be run. How did that work out?

    Humans continue to show, around the world, how ill- fit they are to govern one another.

  8. Our real problem is that we haven’t learned to frame the message. The recent news from the Koch convention for billionaires tells us that even the dreaded HR1, the For the People Act, was causing them problems because, even voters who identified as “conservative” liked what the bill seeks to accomplish. There’s not a gap in what we want. There is a big gap in how we market it.

  9. Pascal – so right on! Let’s not also forget what Florida did to ALL VOTERS who passed a state-wide referendum to empower folks who had served prison sentences to be able to vote…forgot rural/urban; this was pols count more than voters…

  10. Sheila reminds me of another point here: the cry of the far right that governmental control should be as local as possible (state’s rights, anyone?) is really disingenuous. It is used to thwart control from the feds when the red states don’t want it and ignored by those same red state governors who veto local control when they don’t like that. The real issue is, and has always been, control itself. The rest is baloney masquerading as principle.

  11. I don’t know the answer to this question. When cases come before the Supreme court, an argument is often made for States’ rights. Can the same argument be used by local governments? That the state does not have the right to override the laws and regulations of a local government?(unless it violates the state’s constitution?) Have there been any cases brought before the Indiana Supreme Court in which a local government won a case against the state government?

    Can you comment on this Shiela and my fellow citizens?

  12. Richard Thomas @ 9:57 am is correct. The GOP has no political philosophy as such. The only feature the GOP has is to grab power where ever and how ever they can. If they do not have power as such, they engage in sabotage, like trying to over turn the 2020 Presidential Election results or filibuster in the Senate.

  13. Robin @ 10:13 Indiana does not have actual home rule. In some states, cities have charters which the state is obliged to respect; in Indiana, cities are creations of and subsidiary to the state. They thus have no “cities rights” arguments to raise in court.

  14. It seems at least partially true that Republicans more than Democrats have evolved into a more corporate/military organization based on specialization. Normally as institutions grow larger that’s the natural thing to do. However, it might not work so well in a democratic government.

    Perhaps the GOP model is celebrities as candidates back by ALEC to craft policy.

    The way that democracy is designed to work is that a majority of voters elect those who govern based on their message of how they would do that. The party benefit of specializing marketing vs policymaking is that voters used to entertainment media are swayed more by personality than the message. A potential problem though is that those elected based on personality might like to continue to perform rather than even playing the frontman for legislating. (BTW this is a problem for corporations as well. Salespeople might love to protect the customer from product design and delivery and make hard to deliver on promises).

    That certainly would explain Trump/Pence. Trump the marketing department and Pence as the ALEC interface (at least until Trump decided to lead Pence around like his pet). Does it also explain Bush/Cheney? Reagan/Bush Sr?

    Problems are almost always more complex than simple causes so understanding all of the potential contribution causes is essential.

  15. And how do we explain that the Chamber of Commerce, an arm of the Republican Party in recent years, opposes H.R.1, Congressional Democrats’ effort to stop the anti-voting forces currently conducting fever-pitch initiatives to secure minority rule in many states? Supposedly pro business, the CoC has yet to figure out that democracy is far more supportive of business and capitalism than authoritarianism, the governing system Republicans currently seem to favor. Why this is a crisis is not hard to understand: Rural culture places less emphasis on education, has far less confidence in government’s ability to help them, is frequently parochial, leans heavily on church doctrines, has little or no interest in prosperous urban areas, believes in the Second Amendment more than the first, is isolated or indifferent in terms of national and international issues, is generally not innovative, sees little value in diversity, and shares deep concerns about the long-term sustainability of their lifestyle.

    Urban strengths and weaknesses are too well known to bother citing.

    Rather than recognizing their mutual dependency and playing off each other’s strengths, rural and urban communities often see the other as an opponent looking to suck dry their states’ resources for their own benefit. Each is mildly horrified at the culture of the other. Their bifurcation since WWII makes both easy prey to politicians who pursue their own interests by emphasizing the differences between the two communities. Like many of America’s most pressing problems, the solution lies in bringing together people with different interests, but that is not the choice we have made.

  16. I’ve just been reading an article in The Atlantic that deals with a related topic. Not THAT Republican aka “conservative” minorities are overrulling the majority on any number of measures, but HOW they’re entrenching power. None of it should be surprising to anyone here, but my pessimistic nature looks at these tea leaves and says that the “American experiment” is doomed. If Joe Manchin (and Kristin Synema) decide that preserving the forms of comity represented by the filibuster is more important than actually getting things done, the window of democracy will close permanently in November 2022.

    The article I’m referring to is https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/how-stop-minority-rule-doom-loop/618536/

  17. It is worse than rural legislators removing cities’ local control. In our own legislature, Marion County Republicans have been elected to national ALEC leadership and have authored legislation here to transfer control of the Indianapolis police department, local bus service decisions, and local schools to state government and/or to privatized control out of public view, transparency, and accountability.

    The Republican Party no longer believes that the government closest to the people is the best.

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