Political Polarization as Massive Resistance
"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," said the skinny guy from Chicago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
So, to borrow an ignominious phrase, how's that hopey-changey thing working out? On gay rights, abortion, voting rights, health care, guns, race, taxes and more there is very much a liberal America and a conservative America, and the two, under President Barack Obama as under President George W. Bush before him, are increasingly regionalized, polarized and diverging.
This isn't the American Civil War redux. But it bears more than a passing resemblance to the era of "massive resistance" -- a phrase of such recent vintage that one of its minters, former Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, died only last week.
Massive resistance, as the name implies, is a defensive crouch adopted against a more powerful opponent. Southern states and their cultural emulators are not fully competing in national politics anymore. Instead, they are a retreating army, leaving behind Washington where their representatives work not to pass legislation and shape the national destiny but to sabotage the oppressor, throwing wrenches in the Obamacare works and otherwise trying to hobble the federal leviathan. Meanwhile, back home, the resisters are pulling away from national political culture and hunkering down against the winds of demographic change.
Under the headline "Widening Regional Divide Over Abortion Laws," a new Pew Research Center poll cites a growing gulf on abortion. While three-quarters of New Englanders and two-thirds of Pacific Coast residents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a 52 percent majority in what Pew calls "South Central states" -- a swath from Texas and Oklahoma to Alabama and Kentucky -- says abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Nationally, views on abortion rights have been largely static for years; in the anti-abortion belt, however, opposition has been intensifying. State laws in those states reflect the heightened resistance, with Texas, the South and Plains states imposing extensive new restrictions on abortion clinics and women's access while blue state politicians bemoan the back-door dismantling of Roe v. Wade.
On gay marriage, it's the blue states that are pulling away. Pew found that New Englanders now support gay marriage by a 2-to-1 margin while in the "South Central" region, views on gay marriage are far more stuck -- almost the inverse of the Northeast.
Guns also reveal a growing split. The number of households owning guns has been in decline for decades, but most of that is due to a decline of almost half among Democrats. During the "Obama bubble," in fact, gun ownership among Republicans may actually have increased.
On racial politics, things are arguably more stark. Opposition to immigration reform has a strong regional character, with southerners providing hardy resistance. Meanwhile, Obama received 10 percent of the Alabama white vote in 2008 compared with 68 percent of the white vote in Vermont. Increasingly, the two parties are Mars and Venus (provided Mars is populated by only one race).
"Of the 234 Republican members of the House, 97 -- two-fifths -- come from the 11 Confederate states, and these 97 are almost uniformly opposed to negotiation of any kind with Democrats," Tom Edsall wrote in the New York Times. "In private discussions, Republicans in the South talk explicitly about their goal of turning the Democratic Party into a black party, and in many Southern states they have succeeded. African-American legislators make up the majority of state House and Senate Democratic caucuses in most of the Southern states."
In a similar vein, Republican legislatures, aided by a sharply divided Supreme Court, have launched an aggressive assault on voting rights, seeking a bulwark against the non-white demographic tide and its accompanying rise in Democratic power. (Minorities and liberals have taken note of the metaphorical two-by-four applied to their head.) The resulting battle for political power doesn't feature police dogs or fire hoses, but it's resistance nonetheless, and in North Carolina and elsewhere, it's getting pretty massive.
Many differences are long-standing. The location of the nation's elite colleges -- blue states predominate -- is the same as ever. But this lopsided geography acquires added import in an information economy. And as Obamacare rolls out across the country, already significant regional differences in health and well-being will likely grow. (The American Human Development Index ranks states by the overall well-being of residents, using life expectancy, educational attainment and income as key determinants. Of the top 20 states, 19 voted for Obama.)
With conservative Republicans pursuing a pre-New Deal vision of the good life in red states, and Democrats proceeding with national health care in blue states, the gulf grows. Perhaps 2013 represents peak polarization. Then again, maybe we still have a way to go.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)