Tuesday, August 24, 2021

It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw

 by Michael C. Dorf

James Carville famously described the politics of Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. This trope fairly describes much of the United States. Wisconsin is Milwaukee and Madison, with Alabama in between. Ohio is Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo with Alabama in between. New York is New York City (minus Staten Island) and the upstate small cities of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, with Alabama in between. One might also add college towns to round out the description—as I can attest from personal experience: whenever I venture more than five miles outside Ithaca, I see multiple Trump yard signs—some left from 2020, others looking to 2024. Indeed, as Professor Buchanan observed when I made the point to him in an email last week, Carville's aphorism even describes Alabama itself, which is Montgomery and Birmingham, with Alabama in between.

Carville's observation can also be seen in those maps that Donald Trump liked to show to visitors, with counties colored red or blue based on how they voted in the 2016 Presidential election. The map was overwhelmingly red, even though Trump lost the popular vote, because the population density of the Rebublican-majority mostly rural counties is so much smaller than the population density of the Democratic-majority mostly urban and suburban counties.

The geographic distribution of voters and their political preferences shapes our politics. A combination of voluntary sorting, district-based representation in state legislatures and the House of Representatives, much more aggressive partisan gerrymandering by Republicans than by Democrats, and the Supreme Court’s acquiescence in (indeed, enthusiastic support for) the measures by state-level Republicans to combat small-d democracy bode ill for the American experiment.

The foregoing factors account for much of the pessimism expressed over the last several years by both Professor Buchanan and me, at least in the short to medium term. Longer-term predictions are much more difficult to make. The U.S. didn’t have anything approaching genuine democracy until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The fact that we got some version of democracy, at least for a few decades, and that democracy has periodically emerged in other formerly non-democratic countries at various points in the last century, show that it is possible for democracy to emerge or re-emerge out of undemocratic regimes. That’s in the long run, however, and, well, I’m a Keynesian.

In any event, my main point for today is not simply more political doom and gloom. Mostly I want to register an observation about the psychological impact of the contemporary geographic distribution of American partisanship, in the hope of providing a partial explanation for the acceptance of the Big Lie by so many Republicans. I'll meander my way to the point.

Last week I took three days to drive from Ithaca to Boulder, Colorado, stopping for meals or overnight in Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. My traveling companion (my 19-year-old daughter) and I are both vegan. Thus, we stopped for our meals in vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants. Such venues tend to be concentrated in Bohemian/alternative/college neighborhoods. Thus, while you might not think of St. Louis as especially liberal, the neighborhood near Wash U where we stopped for lunch was. In Kansas City, we enjoyed a meal at an (excellent) Ethiopian restaurant with a prominent “Black-owned business” sign in the window across from a Black Lives Matter billboard. The experience of encountering progressive communities made the whiplash all the greater when we hit the road again. Less than an hour west of Kansas City and for the rest of the next day until we got to Denver, we saw Trump signs and billboards promoting Jesus and Biblical literalism, including a billboard (just like this one) with a line crossing out the iconic image of human beings evolving from other animals.

Some of the signage was surprising or amusing. For many miles along Interstate 70 we saw billboards advertising the "Lion's Den Adult Superstore." I would have thought that video killed the in-person pornography business long ago, but apparently not yet. Based on the appearance of the store, however, perhaps the end is indeed nigh. Seen from the highway as we sped by, the lion was at best the young Simba—his "Superstore" was a relatively small nondescript building with a couple of cars in the parking lot. Just past what must have been the property line of the lot on which sat the Den, someone had erected a billboard with a quotation from Proverbs: "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good." A clueless motorist might have thought wait, so God is a creeper like Chauncy Gardner ("I like to watch"). To avoid that potential misunderstanding, the billboard's proprietors helpfully added their own moral to the Proverbial wisdom: "Pornography destroys families."

Whatever one thinks about whether and which pornography constitutes free speech, I had to admire the Christian conservatives who placed the billboard for their application of the three rules of real estate: location, location, location.

Speaking of Christian conservatives, I was initially horrified to see a billboard promoting Kris Kobach for U.S. Senate. He was running as the "THE CONSISTENT CONSERVATIVE." But seeing only one such sign and given that it's 2021, I was confused. I eventually realized that this sign was a holdover from Kobach's losing 2020 primary campaign for the Senate. I considered sending Kris a suggestion that perhaps he should change his motto to "consistently too conservative even for Kanas Republican primary voters." After all, Kris and I used to be kinda friends. I thought better of the idea. I realized that Kobach would be no worse than this guy, who defeated him in that 2020 primary and is now the junior Senator from Kansas. Indeed, as Professor Buchanan noted to me in another email (yes, I sent a lot of emails while on the road, but don't worry, only when my daughter was driving), even if Susan Collins or Mitt Romney represented Kansas in the US Senate, we'd be no closer to overcoming a Republican filibuster on everything the GOP currently wants to filibuster. So my horror-turned-schadenfreude turned back to pessimism.

So much for the travelogue. Now to my observation (which really doesn't warrant this long buildup but it's my damn blog and no one forced you to read it). Okay here it is: All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much, much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end. Sorry, just kidding. My actual observation is in the next paragraph. 

If you live in what I'll call Trumpistan, the vast majority of people around you share your outlook, lifestyle, values, and opinions. The relatively small number who do not are likely to be reticent about their contrary views, so it seems like nearly everyone is of one mind. Moreover, the uniformity of political opinion extends as far as the eye can see--and beyond. You can drive for hours and hours without leaving Trumpistan. You know that far off in the cities there are liberals/Democrats/socialists, many of them non-white and/or practicing what you believe to be immoral lifestyles, but you don't regard them as authentically American and, more to the present point, it's easy to think there aren't that many of them. After all, the sea of red on that map Trump so loves reflects a geographical fact. You really are surrounded by like-minded folk. It is thus unfathomable to you that Trump could have lost the popular vote in two consecutive Presidential elections, the second time by a considerably wider margin. It's even less fathomable that he could have lost the vote in your own state (if you live in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, or Wisconsin, say), because while you can imagine a majority of Democrats in a place like California, you have a much harder time imagining that your own state went that way--except through massive fraud.

Now, in a sense what I'm observing is the mirror image of what New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael supposedly said after Nixon's landslide 1972 re-election: How could Nixon have won when Kael didn't know anyone who voted for him? Kael never said that; more like the opposite. But never mind. The point is that someone could think that way. If you live in a deep-blue city or enclave like the ones in which I've lived for nearly my entire adult life, you encounter mostly like-minded people, in just the same way that the people living in Trumpistan do.

The geographical asymmetry makes a difference, however. "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the Court in the 1964 one-person-one-vote case. He was right, or at least he would be right were it not for partisan gerrymandering. Yet even in a world without partisan gerrymandering, the sheer size of the territory colored red on the political map would have a psychological impact beyond any appropriate force it ought to have in apportionment.

To be clear, in attributing belief in the Big Lie in part to the geographical distribution of political views, I do not in any way mean to justify or validate the belief or the sentiment. Historically, the sense of an ethnically defined people's ties to its land has been a source of conflict and considerable evil. Accordingly, I offer my observation simply so as to provide a fuller picture of the threat to democracy.