The thing party vs. the idea party
By Scott Sumner
In 1960, San Mateo County voted for Nixon over Kennedy. On Tuesday, this highly affluent suburban county near Silicon Valley voted 4 to 1 for Biden.
In 1960, West Virginia voted for Kennedy. This time around it went 68% to 30% for Trump.
These two areas were “canaries in the coal mine” that is, early indicators of broader national trends. The affluent, highly educated and socially liberal people of Silicon Valley moved sharply to the Democrats in the 1980s, while West Virginia moved sharply to the GOP in the early 2000s. Other similar areas have been following along more recently.
If you try to analyze America politics with 20th century conceptual frameworks you’ll be hopelessly confused. Why do blue collar areas vote for an anti-union party, while affluent areas vote for a party promising to raise taxes on the rich?
Some people argue that the GOP now appeals to uneducated voters, but that’s way too simple. People who run 2000-acre farms producing corn and soybeans are highly skilled. So are petroleum engineers. You need to be highly skilled to run a large Ford dealership. I wouldn’t be very good at any of those jobs. And all three job categories are very likely to vote Republican. Industries where people work with “things” are much more Republican than industries where people work with ideas.
We’ve seen politics change dramatically over my lifetime, with the South going from Democrat to Republican and places like California and New Jersey moving in the opposite direction. Expect further such changes in the future. Southern states with big “post-industrial” cities like Atlanta, Austin and Charlotte will gradually become more blue, while declining Midwestern Rust Belt states will continue to trend red. As recently as 1988, Iowa was one of the two or three bluest states in the country—that’s how fast things can change.
Illinois and Ohio used to be similar Midwestern “swing states.” Now Illinois is very blue because Chicago has become a post-industrial city, an “idea city”, not the old “city of broad shoulders” that Carl Sandberg wrote about. In contrast, most Ohio cities (except Columbus) have not been able to successfully re-invent themselves, and thus Ohio has become quite red.
In the recent election, we’ve also seen Hispanics shift somewhat toward the Republicans, and even black voters have moved modestly in that direction (albeit still overwhelming Democratic.) This Hispanic shift may be important for the future, given America’s large and growing Hispanic population, the high rate of intermarriage with other groups, and the tendency of many Hispanics to work in the same sort of industries as non-college white voters. A situation where low-skilled whites vote Republican and low-skilled Hispanics vote Democratic is not stable in the long run. Think of the earlier migration of working class Catholics from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
The only constant in American politics is continual change.