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.