This divide is emphatically presented to us in every election as we watch the nation’s votes being tallied on the electoral map. Within most states, we inevitably see a confluence of blue, urban and suburban, contrasting with a sea of deep red in the rural hinterlands, as people make their political preferences known. Despite the hopeful aspirations of many (mostly Democratic) politicians, this divergence is now a simple fact of American life that is unlikely to change as this nation becomes more and more polarized — at least in the near term.
Ronald Brownstein, writing for The Atlantic, believes it’s well past time for Democrats to face reality. While we may wish, in the spirit of national unity, to chip away at the Republicans’ solid white, predominantly rural and semi-rural base, the fact is that, for all his wretchedness, Donald Trump knew where his center of power resided. It wasn’t in the cities or their suburbs. From Donald Trump’s anti-urban policies, race-baiting dog whistle politics and out-and-out insults directed at the major cities in those swing states he’d lost in the 2020 election, to the racist voter suppression measures now being obsessively instituted in Republican-led statehouses throughout the country, it’s patently clear who Republicans consider as the “enemy.”
In particular, the actions displayed by “red” state governments, in comparison to the metropolitan areas within them, provides a case study in differing priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just look at the stark contrast between the response of Democratically-governed cities like Houston, Texas, or Philadelphia, and the attitudes of Republican-dominated state legislatures towards protective measures and aid. As Brownstein points out, “the states controlled by Republican governors or legislators—currently slightly more than half of all the states—are hostile to almost everything a Democratic president wants to do.”
Brownstein argues that with their new, fragile majorities in Congress, now is the time for Democrats to go beyond reimagining the political landscape, and deal with the reality of this nation as it actually is. We must furiously and relentlessly consolidate Democratic power and policies in Democratic strongholds: the cities, and even more importantly, the suburban areas immediately surrounding them. As he observes, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided President Joe Biden with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do just that.
Cities and their inner suburbs need an immediate lifeline from Washington to stabilize their finances after the devastation of the pandemic. But once those communities regain their balance, they could become crucial allies for Biden. By working with big metros, the president would be aligning federal policy with powerful economic, social, and electoral trends—and empowering local officials overwhelmingly sympathetic to his core objectives. If Biden can forge such partnerships, he could both ignite a new wave of local innovation and solidify the Democratic Party’s advantage in the fast-growing, diverse, and well-educated metro areas that have become the bedrock of its electoral coalition.
Despite the prevailing tendency of today’s Republicans to rely on lies they call “alternative facts,” some facts are unassailable. Brownstein points out that the 100 most populous counties in the U.S. now account for half the nation’s economic output. As a result, more people are gravitating towards—rather than away from—metropolitan areas, including both inner cities and their suburban surroundings, increasing their racial diversification. The suburbs, once a bastion of Republican-leaning white flight, have become paramount to Democratic electoral prospects as economic ties between the cities and their suburbs have strengthened over the past decade.
This phenomenon argues for what Brownstein calls a “regional” political approach, one which Republicans have ceded through their hostility to the urban populations they continue to demonize in order to inflame their own racist constituencies. Such an approach to federal governance, from a Democratic standpoint, can rely on a ready power base made up of elected major metropolitan and suburban-metropolitan officials whose goals and attitudes already align with the Democratic Party. Brownstein cites the cooperation of the nation’s largest urban municipal governments with the Biden administration’s goals to combat climate change as just one example of how this approach can work in practice. For instance, by initiating green-based energy innovations such as conversion to electric vehicles and energy-efficient lighting, or by matching or directly funding energy-efficient mass transit capabilities, the administration can partner directly with urban regions without resorting to the traditional allotment of federal funding directly to state governments.
Possibly the most immediate impact of a federal-local (rather than a federal-state) mechanism of cooperation could be felt in the area of healthcare, with emphasis on covering the uninsured through Medicaid expansion, a measure that would normally be resisted by red-state governors and statehouses. While Democrats hold both chambers, this is possible by simply revising language of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to allow it.
In most, if not all, red states, Republican governors would likely block such federal-local partnerships, but a Democratic-controlled Congress could change the ACA to allow local governments to bypass those governors—and even to make such partnerships more financially feasible for the locales by providing them with enhanced federal funding. Authorizing local governments to expand coverage directly would make a big dent in access to health care, since most of the uninsured in those red states live in urban areas—the five biggest Texas counties, for instance, account for nearly half of the state’s uninsured. And a law empowering local governments to expand Medicaid might be easier to pass through Congress than an alternative Biden has already floated: automatically enrolling eligible Americans in the non-expansion states into a new “public option.”
Brownstein follows with several proposals that would effectively re-orient the way federal funds are disbursed towards a more regional, metro-centric approach. While some of the measures he offers would require the elimination of the filibuster, others—such as inducements for metropolitan developmental and economic expenditures included in federal budgeting—may be possible through the reconciliation process, as long as the Democratic Party continues to retain majorities in Congress.
From a political standpoint, Brownstein points out these measures are grounded in an unfortunate reality. The needs of rural America are important and shouldn’t be discounted or disregarded, but no matter how much effort and resources the administration extends towards revitalizing these “red” areas—expanding access to broadband, improving their infrastructure and health care, encouraging rural economic development—Biden is unlikely to receive much, if any, political benefit from it. The Republican Party has a perverse, existential interest in ensuring that such efforts do not succeed, if only for the goal of maintaining their grip on power. They GOP will continue their efforts to stoke race resentment and cultural grievance, pitting the more rural citizens who comprise the vast bulk of their voting base against the larger, more economically vibrant urban and suburban areas. As Brownstein observes, “so long as the GOP continues to stoke those voters’ racial and cultural resentments—and as Democrats more unreservedly embrace racial and cultural liberalism—Biden is likely to have only limited success, at most.”
In the end, in Brownstein’s view, it comes down to the cold calculation of political expediency. While he doesn’t advocate abandoning Democratic efforts in more rural areas, his focus is grounded on the more immediate accomplishments possible in this, the Biden presidency.
That reality leaves Biden facing what, in the end, may be a straightforward equation. In an era of intense political polarization and widening social division, Biden’s best chance at enlarging his political support—and recording gains on the issues he cares most about—may come from finding new ways to work with the places that most want to work with him.
Former President Barack Obama famously declared that there should be no division between “red” or “blue” Americas—that there should be just one United States of America. But the unrelenting, racially-motivated efforts of the Republican Party have had their desired effect: they have made that worthy aspiration impossible from a practical and political standpoint. The economic, social and cultural future of this nation rests, for the foreseeable future, in its largest population centers, the major cities and their surrounding suburban areas. There is no longer any reason for Democrats to pretend that its political future should be anything otherwise.
Note: Judeling in the comments points up an excellent contra argument to Brownstein’s thesis, here.