Sunday, October 24, 2010

Defining "rural states" in the context of political polarization

In his op-ed piece in today's New York Times Ari Berman refers to "small rural states" in relation to so-called Blue Dog Democrats. In "Boot the Blue Dogs," Berman writes of the early promise of the Obama administration, paired with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Berman then asks what went wrong and proceeds to answer that question:
One important explanation is that divisions inside the Democratic coalition, which held together during the 2008 campaign, have come spilling out into the open. Conservative Democrats have opposed key elements of the president’s agenda, while liberal Democrats have howled that their majority is being hijacked by a rogue group of predominantly white men from small rural states. President Obama himself appears caught in the middle, unable to satisfy the many factions inside his party’s big tent.
I suppose the reference to "small rural states" is a reference to states with relatively small populations because the states that Berman presumably has in mind are rarely small in terms of territory. These states probably include Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee, for example, none of which is particularly diminutive population-wise. This is especially true when the Southern states from which the Blue Dogs tend to hail are compared to states in the West and the Great Plains that are popularly thought of as rural, e.g., Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, but whose Democratic members of Congress are less likely to be labeled "Blue Dog."

I regret Berman's alignment of the Blue Dog Democrats with "rural states," in part because there are very, very few rural states in this country--at least as measured by population and the U.S. government's definition of "rural" (those living in a population cluster of less than 2,500 or in open territory). Among the states in which rural populations exceed urban populations are Montana (50.2% rural) and North Carolina (50.8%). Only 26.1% of Alaska's population is rural; for Wyoming, the figure is just 37.8%. In Utah, only 12.1% of residents live in rural places. As for the Southern states to which Berman appears to refer, only 43% of Alabamans live in rural places, and only 43.6% of Tennessee residents do. The figure for Arkansas is 46.1%.

Indeed, the most rural states--those with the largest percentage of their populations living in rural places--are in New England, not in the South. In Vermont, a whopping 72.3% of the population live in rural places, while the figure for Maine is 59.6% and the figure for New Hampshire is 55.4%. But not all New England states are so rural, of course. In Massachusetts, only 30.6% of the populace live in rural places. Furthermore, while some New England states are rural by this U.S. Census Bureau measure, their populations are not challenged by remoteness and spatial isolation in the way rural residents of the West and, to a lesser extent, the South, are. Rather, in New England, these rural villages butt up against one another, and I suspect relatively few people live in open territory. In any event, somewhat ironically, these New England states that are most rural by some measures are not the problem states with which Berman is concerned. Indeed, New England is known for its more progressive politics.

(California, by the way, is a tiny 9% rural, while New York is just 22.3% rural. Texas is 24.4% rural.)

In any event, what Berman seems to be getting at is the fact that many Blue Dog Democrats represent districts with significant rural populations. Furthermore, these Blue Dogs tend to espouse values that are typically associated with rural populations: tradition, stasis, conservatism. The Blue Dogs as a political phenomenon are yet another way in which the culture wars are increasingly aligned with the rural-urban axis. That is unfortunate, and a topic I've written about elsewhere.

Still, Berman makes a good point re: the need for greater ideological unity among Democrats. I tend to agree with that point and agree that it could benefits the Democrats--especially in the short term. I regret, however, some of the political consequences that would flow from pushing the Blue Dogs out from under the Democratic Party tent. Specifically, I worry about further ostracizing a constituency that the Democrats should be courting--socioeconomically disadvantaged people who would benefit from the Democrats' fiscal agenda.

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