The Good Side of Political Polarization

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, January 2, 2014 12:21 EDT
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Paul Waldman at the American Prospect is projecting what he thinks the big trend in American politics is going to be, and he predicts more polarization:

One trend I do think will shape people’s lives this year and in years to come is the increasing divergence between the places where lots of Democrats live and the places where lots of Republicans live. Yes, it sounds trite and overdone to talk about Two Americas, but it is true, and it’s becoming more true all the time. And one question I’m curious about is whether we’ll see an increase in people picking up and moving to places where public policy either accords better with their values or offers them important benefits they need to live their lives (or both).

The new year always sees a whole raft of state laws taking effect, but the ideological implications of some of them this year are particularly stark. And liberal states are showing some of the aggressiveness we’ve come to associate with conservative states. The minimum wage is going up in places like Connecticut and California. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 18 states plus D.C. In Colorado you can walk down to a store on the corner and buy cannabis, and you’ll be able to do the same in Washington in a few months. There are new restrictions on guns in blue states, and new laws making guns more ubiquitous in red states. There are also new laws in conservative states aimed at making abortions all but impossible for women to get, and making it as hard as possible for certain kinds of people to vote. And in one of the most critical changes, as of yesterday millions of Americans are getting health coverage through Medicaid—if they live in the right place. Approximately 5 million Americans are missing out because of the refusal of Republican states to allow the Medicaid expansion, in what Ed Kilgore has evocatively termed the “wingnut hole.”

He wonders if more and more people will just move to states that are more to their liking, making these already stark trends worse. He notes there’s a top limit on that, as many people just don’t have the wherewithal to move, but it has been happening already and will likely continue to happen.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t really just a state-by-state trend. This trend is also happening internally in states. The real trend is that more and more people are moving to cities. Cities are largely, almost exclusively liberal, even in red states. Even in the hyper-red state of Texas, most of the big cities broke for Obama in 2012. The evidence also suggests not just that liberals are more drawn to urban life, but that people who live in cities become more liberal. In some “blue” states, the only really blue parts are the cities. They’re just big enough to tip the balance in the favor of the Democrats.

That’s why hurting the people in your own state, which used to be politically iffy, has become a popular strategy for Republican politicians. It’s not just the massive number of state restrictions of abortion, which are a giant fuck-you from Republican legislators to the women in their state, either. Most Republican-led states have rejected the Medicaid expansion, even though it costs them almost nothing to enact and lowers health care costs for their residents. Reactionary voters are just as interested, maybe more interested, in hurting and punishing the liberal constituents of their own state as they are constituents many states over. The idea of a resident of Houston losing a chance to get health insurance delights them just as much, if not more, than if they could deprive a resident of New York City that opportunity. Voter ID laws a pure expression this: An overt attempt to deprive your fellow state residents of their constitutional rights because you harbor so much fear and hatred of the more racially diverse, more liberal urban areas of your state.

Which is why, even though polarization is a real problem, it may not be as bad as it seems. Some states may end up, as is true with Illinois and Washington, growing their cities so big that it tips the state over into the blue without the rural areas changing much at all. Indeed, the fear of that is why so many states are passing strict voter ID laws. Let’s hope it just starts happening sooner rather than later.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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