November 17, 2004

Rural Constructions

Mr. van Veen passes along this spirited postelection urbanist rant from the (Seattle)Stranger with a well merited request for comment. So here we go.

One part of me really wanted to hear what the Stranger had to say. Compared to 2000's red state vs. blue state, coast vs. center conceptions, the urban vs. rural rings far truer. A step or two towards accuracy. And as a lifelong urbanite, it makes for an easy fuck you explanation. But hating the rural America I all too rarely visit isn't going to win any elections, nor will it really help understand what's going on in national politics.

Fact is while the Stranger is essentially correct that cities voted for Kerry and rural areas for Bush, the line just isn't nearly as sharp as they slice it. Even in the "bluest" cities Bush still got 20% percent of the vote, and often he got more like 40-49% of it. And Kerry actually won a small but not insignificant amount of rural counties, especially in the Appalachias and Southwest. The urban/rural interaction is one of gradated tendency not sharp divide.

The same county by county map the Stranger writers use to craft their urban argument (a slightly better version is here), also shows large regions that just don't map to their ultra urbanist agenda. Most intriguing to me is what could be called the hidden coast, up and down the Mississippi River. A thin stretch as blue as either the Atlantic or Pacific coast. Then there's an echo of blue hitting the ports of the Great Lakes, and the hefty areas of Texas and the Southwest along the Mexico border. What about Columbus Ohio, Lawrence Kansas or that blue chunk of Idaho?

What's at work here is not as much a function of urbanism, but of a related but not attached concept of cultural flow. What ideas flow through a space? What sort of diversity is there? Does the world end on the horizon line outside of which are barbarians or does its spread out in a gorgeous meshwork? These are not thoughts bounded by geographies, rather they ideas that are attracted unevenly to geographies. Oceans, massive rivers like the Mississippi and populated national borders generate a natural flow of people that pushes the population towards diversity. But the same forces generate reactions and contractions, people who hide from or hate that cultural diversity.

Humans themselves can also generate these forces of flow. Universities circulate a world of people through them on a year by year, semester by semester. They become their own strange attractor independent of geography. Rural areas themselves have this capability, the ski resorts and idealized landscapes of Vermont and Sun Valley Idaho circulate people in a similar manner. And then again, one solo human can generate there own flow. A library, the internet, a DVD, or just a imagination can enough to enter a person into the space of cultural flow.

Now its essential to point out that I am NOT crafting an argument that maps the left to those open to cultural flow and the right to those outside or against it. Political leaders and funders on either side are almost by definition fully emerged in the flow of the world, tapped deep into the charges of capital, politics and resources. There are plenty of "conservatives" sitting deeply entrenched in the flows of culture. And plenty of "liberals" isolated from these flows (see again the Appalachias and Southwest). Rather what has happened over the past 30 years or so is that the right has realized that its far easier to construct new realities in the areas of low cultural flow. And all the meanwhile the left has forgotten these areas even exist.

This brings us to the infamous reality based community. The right wing has claimed large swathes of rural America as spaces that it can construct its own reality unimpeded. Spaces that once where constructed in deeply progressive manners. One space on the map that keeps calling my attention is the Appalachias an area I don't know enough about, but paints itself strongly blue. I suspect this is a remnants of a different reality, one constructed by the left. A reality born of hand me down marxism and populism in the hands of labor union organizers working the coal mines. A hidden reminder that the left once too played the reality construction game.

Posted by Abe at November 17, 2004 06:05 PM


Here's my recent post on AmSam about recent Democratic victories in the Rockies:

These states went to Bush, but overall are "bluer" than ever.

Even in the "bluest" cities Bush still got 20% percent of the vote. Nope. Try DC. Try San Francisco. (Or Manhattan, for that matter.)

(There should have been Italics on your line I quoted.)

Bush got 16% of the vote in San Franciso, and 17% in Manhatten (and with the exception of Queens, got even more in the rest of NYC).

A few others: 34% in King County (Seattle), Multnomah County (Portland): 27%, Essex County (Boston): 37%

In those last three, I suburban votes could have boosted the # of votes for Bush.

For a comparison: my county in Wyoming, Sheridan County, went 29% to Kerry.

San Francisco is a small town in my book..

And in New York City proper Bush got a lot more then 20%. Closer to 40% I believe. Not nearly the divide that's being painted.

Far more importantly though in a tactical sense is something I saw very clearly in Ohio on the ground. While there is a degree of polarization of the extremists in either party (no surprise there) in the middle there is a huge melded ground. I met a ton of Bush voters who could easily go for a Democratic candidate in the right circumstances. Clinton (Bill) running against Bush would have been a landslide for the Dems, and any number of minor shifts in events might have tipped Ohio to Kerry.

Bush might be a polarizing force, but that doesn't mean we are anything close to permanently polarized between city and country..

(There's also Washinton, DC where Bush commanded a whopping 9%.)

One serious disadvantage for the democratic party going into the presidential election is that a year or a year and a half prior to the election, the party line was to mostly go with the flow of the Bush agenda and keep heads down on polarizing issues.

It was going to be really hard for any candidate for president to chart a different course and claim strong leadership so soon after that. In effect, Dean was used as the lead goose in this one.

Kathryn, DC seems more like the exception than the rule.

Abe, you said "blue cities" not "big cities." And you're right: LA: 36%, Cook County (Chicago): 29%, Harris County (Houston): 55%, Philidelphia (19%), Wayne County (Detroit): 30%

Abe - very nice. Very well put. So how does cultural flow relate to economic flow? (This requires neverending thought - major question here - I'd only consider the outlines one must take in demarcating these terms today so we can even begin to understand this relation .. : temporal media pockets, urban/rural geographies contrasting w/ time spenders + savers -- transportation public and private -- geneaologies, family trees, implication of power structuers -- familial, societal, institutional -- relation of family to business, capital to investment, home, house, family, social relations, etc.).

The idea of time pockets rings true with the thesis research I am engaged in that reconsiders space/time relations via globalization.

I'll post my critique / response to the Stranger article shortly.

cheers, tobias

The urban vs. rural analysis misses the fact that Bush's "secret weapon" was legions of exurban voters. These folks are not properly described as living in small towns -- they are in the unanchored suburban-style developments sprouting up well outside major metro areas. They were a group almost totally overlooked by Democratic and leftist organizers. And they voted overwhelmingly for Bush.