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It's (More Than) Iraq, Stupid

Last Week's Elections Demonstrated that the Urban Archipelago Is Not Just Growing—It's Winning Elections Now. Welcome (Back) to the Progressive Future.

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Dennis Williams

The last couple of years, urban Americans have awakened to the growing disconnect between the progressive culture in cities like Seattle and the far more traditional values embraced by rural folks living just a few miles beyond the urban perimeter.

This rift defined the 2004 campaign, when George W. Bush was reelected on the zeal of small-town voters in Florida and Ohio. Rural counties also voted overwhelmingly Republican in House and Senate races, giving the GOP solid control of Congress.

The Stranger published a controversial editorial on November 11, 2004, describing an "urban archipelago" that "rejected heartland 'values' like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country."

The argument that America's culture war hinges on this urban/rural divide—rather than red states vs. blue states—has drawn wider acceptance in the last two years. In my book, Welcome to the Homeland, I explore the simmering antipathy these two tribes feel toward one another.

A central thread of Homeland is a running conversation with my brother Allen, an evangelical Lutheran from rural Missouri, who is guided by a starkly different moral compass than my own: He is pro-life, strongly supportive of public Christianity, and dismayed by the idea of same-sex marriage.

"I'd rather live in a rural area almost anywhere than an urban area," my brother told me. "There are great people in cities, but I definitely think it slants your point of view a certain direction."

Rural "homelanders" like Allen make up only 20 percent of the American population. But because our Constitution cedes disproportionate power to low-population states—in the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate—small towns often eke out narrow victories over their "metro" neighbors.

It very nearly happened again last week. In Senate races nationwide, Democrats won 13 percent more votes than their Republican opponents—a landslide margin of roughly five million ballots. But right-leaning rural counties in Montana and Virginia still came within a few thousand votes of preserving the GOP's Senate majority.

In a typical urban/rural showdown, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill trailed Republican Senator Jim Talent late into the evening, when tallies finally began pouring in from Kansas City and St. Louis. "We had been waiting all night long for the urban areas," reported MSNBC's Kevin Tibbles. "St. Louis came in about 70 percent in favor of McCaskill. Kansas City was quiet as a dormouse, but then those numbers started coming in and put McCaskill way out in front."

"I was pretty devastated," Allen said, after his side came up short. "It was a hard day for people like me."

A broad range of pundits—on the left and the right—have described the Republican rout as a single-issue affair. It was a repudiation of the Iraq war and George Bush's leadership. And if one must complicate things, then perhaps it's fair to mention the scandals and ethics violations.

But metro America was clearly sending a much broader message. Exit polls showed that urban and inner-suburban voters no longer trust Republicans, not just on national security but also on the budget, taxes, health care, social issues, and the environment.

By narrowing their appeal to a dwindling—albeit fiercely loyal—pool of rural white conservatives and evangelicals, the Republican Party managed to alienate just about everybody else.

Inside the bubble of Karl Rove's base-oriented politics, it made sense that one comatose woman, Terri Schiavo, should warrant days of Senate-floor theatrics, while 46 million uninsured Americans trigger a collective yawn.

By the lights of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter—and, yes, they were standard-bearers of the late Republican Revolution—frozen fertility-clinic embryos merited full civil rights, while terminally ill Americans like Michael J. Fox inspired mockery.

Republicans cut taxes for the very rich, fostered the outsourcing of jobs, steadily eroded women's access to safe and legal abortions, and fussed primly about the dangers posed by gay men and lesbians.

These issues played brilliantly with homelanders like my brother, but the rest of America—including suburbanites, single women, young people, and Hispanics—felt that the GOP had run off the rails, hijacked by a gaggle of culture warriors, voodoo economists, K Street bandits, and neocons.

The Iraq war was a symbol and a catalyst for this metro rage, but voters were also dismayed by the response to Hurricane Katrina, by the declining fortunes of the middle class, spiraling health-care and education costs, and the swelling federal deficit.

Well before the 2006 campaign, there were signs that the conservative agenda was in trouble. Democratic candidates won the popular vote in three of the last four presidential elections. In 2004, Democratic Senate candidates claimed 10 percent more votes nationwide than their Republican opponents. The victory was obscured by the Senate's rural-conservative bias, which allows California's 36 million metros to elect the same number of seats as Wyoming's 500,000 homelanders.

If anything, the Iraq war—and the post-9/11 political climate—prolonged the Bush-Rove era. Two years ago, millions of Americans were frightened and baffled enough that they were willing to swallow their dismay with Republican ideology and incompetence.

But by May 2006—after Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham, but before Mel Gibson, Mark Foley, and Ted Haggard—voters were fed up. A New York Times/CBS poll found that far more people preferred the Democrats' moral values over those espoused by Republicans, by a margin of 13 percent.

This year's campaign didn't help the GOP brand. Rather than appeal to the center, George Bush abandoned all sanity and much of his dignity. At Rove's behest, he raced around the country—the parts of the country that would still have him, that is, meaning small towns—proclaiming that Democrats were debauched peaceniks, led by a woman with what Fox News described as "San Francisco values."

Meanwhile, Katherine Harris, the heroine of Florida 2000, was staging one of the weirdest Senate campaigns in recent memory, undergoing so many religious epiphanies that it was hard to keep them straight. Upstaged by the slow-motion disintegration of George Allen (once a presidential contender), Rick Santorum (ditto), and Conrad Burns, Harris's immolation turned out to be little more than a sideshow.

Naturally, James Dobson and Bill O'Reilly will fight hard against the notion that modern conservatism has suffered a body blow. They will point to the success of same-sex marriage bans in ballot initiatives across the country and to the more conservative slate of Democrats elected on November 7.

But for Americans gathered around the nation's collective water cooler, the underlying terms of the debate have shifted. The word "neocon" sparks a sneer. The most common adjective applied to President Bush is "incompetent." Even the scandal-plagued Christian right is wounded, to the degree that 72 percent of Americans now say they are neither evangelical nor born again.

There is nervous talk within Republican circles that a growing slice of America—the most prosperous and entrepreneurial slice, at that—no longer takes their party seriously. Cities were lost a generation ago. Now in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland, the GOP has been decimated. Colorado has emerged as a largely blue state. So have New York and Ohio.

How bad is it? There were Senate races this year in 8 of the 10 most populous and dynamic states, from California in the West to Florida and New York in the East. These 10 superurbanized states make up more than half of the country's population.

Republicans managed to win just one contest, in Texas, and they were only mildly competitive in one other state, New Jersey. The other six races were blowouts, with Democrats winning by breakaway margins. This fundamentally changed political environment is best illustrated by the fate of two Republicans: Rick Santorum and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Santorum, the third most powerful Republican in the Senate, wasn't burdened by scandals or ethics violations. He is beloved by homelanders, had plenty of money and is a seasoned, reasonably charismatic campaigner. But he stuck to his social-conservative guns, writing a book that scolded Americans for acting, well, like Americans. Even in heavily Roman Catholic Pennsylvania, he lost his seat in a metro landslide.

In California, meanwhile, Schwarzenegger played at conservatism for a while, got spanked, and quickly galloped back toward the center. He hired a Democratic operative to run his staff, made nice with the unions, distanced himself from George Bush, and rolled out an aggressively liberal environmental program. Now he's all set to enjoy a second term in a blue state that is home to one in eight Americans.

Their very different fortunes point to an important new reality for the GOP: The whole stealth thing isn't working anymore. There was a time when homelander conservatives could talk moderation on Meet the Press, roll out charismatic frontmen like Schwarzenegger, and prop up a few token centrists at the Republican National Convention, while quietly plotting in the backrooms to reinvent American culture.

But the days when Ralph Reed (remember Ralph Reed?) could talk coyly about putting opponents in body bags are over. The internet, The Daily Show, films like Jesus Camp, and even poor, doddering Air America have made it impossible for ideological conservatives to so much as twitch without close scrutiny—and a fair amount of mockery.

Which means that Republicans can't fake it. If they want to recapture mainstream votes, they will have to temper their culture-war rhetoric and embrace a new set of policies and values.

Put bluntly, GOP leaders will need to adapt their agenda to the nation as it exists today, not the country that it used to be, or the small-town society that conservatives would prefer. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, and the first George Bush all understood this instinctively.

America has evolved into an essentially urban and suburban society, comfortable with the broad parameters of government established by Franklin Roosevelt. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm government programs," Eisenhower wrote, after his election in 1952, "you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

It was Eisenhower who created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He firmly rejected plans to cut federal school aid: "Every liberal—including me—will disapprove," he said.

Americans have embraced the idea that fiscal discipline and balanced budgets are good things. Conservatives will claim this as a victory for their side. Fair enough. But it turns out that we still want Social Security when we retire. We still demand a robust response when hurricanes hit our shores, or when the economy sags. And yes, we want our government to temper the excesses of free-market capitalism.

Republicans will also have to get comfortable with racial diversity and immigration. A big fence along the U.S.-Mexico border might thrill rural whites, but no sensible person thinks it will work. Race-baiting ads might help the GOP scratch out a win in Tennessee, but in the rest of the country Americans recoil. Tolerance has emerged as one of our fundamental moral values.

The GOP should also consider tempering its jingoism. Americans expect robust national security, but we also want leaders wise enough to safeguard our civil liberties. We instinctively distrust politicians who portray the loyal opposition as traitors or cowards. And we want a reality-based foreign policy, one that leaves us well out of crusades and clashes of civilizations.

For Republicans, this kind of wholesale realignment won't come easy. For one thing, the GOP is joined at the hip with about 60 million hardcore conservatives, many of them living in small towns, who very much do want to rewire our national morality. Those folks still elect a disproportionate number of senators and congressmen.

Indeed, the November 7 election may have actually eroded the power of the Republican moderate wing. Rick Santorum is gone, but so too are Mike DeWine, Sherwood Boehlert, and Lincoln Chafee. In many states, homelanders strengthened their hold over the GOP's internal machinery. Metro-friendly Republicans, like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, have a serious fight ahead if they hope to convince their rural base to move in a new direction.

The alternatives are pretty painful. Two years ago, Republicans were portraying the Democratic Party as a moribund political movement, isolated in a few blue states or holed up in the biggest cities. But last week, even some conservatives were wringing their hands over the GOP's growing insularity.

"The lesson of 2006," wrote Matthew Continetti, associate editor of the Weekly Standard, "is that the South is not enough space to build a national governing majority. You have to branch out to other parts of the country, such as the Interior West, Pacific Coast, Northeast Corridor, Midwest, and elsewhere. Instead Democrats are surging in those places, and Republicans are increasingly confined to (high-growth) areas in the Sun Belt."

Unfortunately, many conservative pundits seem to think the way out of this mess is to reembrace some form of undiluted conservatism. Small government. The culture of life. Traditional morality. Heartland values. The tired catch phrases sound suddenly quaint and even absurd, sort of like "stay the course."

To capitalize on the GOP's disarray, Democrats will have to keep their heads on straight. They won in large measure by reaching out to moderates—including some in rural America—capturing at least 17 House seats in districts where small towns make up a significant voting bloc. Yet within days of the vote, New York congressman Charlie Rangel was tossing around the sort of rhetoric that infuriates homelanders.

"Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money," Rangel blustered, "but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?"

The rural tilt in our system—and persistent Republican gerrymandering that hands homelanders ever more power—makes this kind of trash-talking dangerous.

But for the present, Republicans face the biggest challenge. Unless they can broaden their appeal, even the Sun Belt will fall. In the 2004 presidential race, John Kerry—an urban liberal from the East Coast—came within 30,000 votes of winning Nevada and New Mexico. Blue cities in those states, from Las Vegas to Taos and Flagstaff, are growing rapidly.

Was the Iraq war a big factor this year? Sure. Huge. No question. But to win in 2008, Republicans will have to do more than bring the troops home. They also have to bring home millions of metro voters who see the GOP as increasingly flaky, intolerant, and out of touch with their moral values.

Brian Mann is a reporter for North Country Public Radio in upstate New York and author of Welcome to the Homeland, published by Steerforth Press.

 

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