I don’t know if it’s always been true. It wasn’t what was talked about in Reagan’s Eighties, when the focus was on the West, not rural America. But, in this intensely polarized time, Trump’s supporters take comfort in those maps of counties that show broad red swaths of American, with a few blue enclaves in those most urban of counties.
Never mind that the population density of those blue counties dwarfs the population density of those rural red counties. “We’ve got all the land,” and given how the Constitution stipulates the Senate be made up, having lots of densely populated counties and states wins over having large advantages in a few densely populated counties and states.
This was on my mind on the drive back to Madison, Wisconsin, after a weekend in Chicago, ending with a breakfast at one of the restaurants in Chicago with a cult following, Lou Costello’s. Two omelette breakfasts set us back about $40; in Madison, it’d be less than $30, and there probably are lots of towns in America where if you can get the local cafe or diner to make you an omelette, it’d be $20-25.
It’s not hard to figure out why an omelette breakfast costs more at Lou Costello’s than at the Pancake Cafe. Rent (or property values) on Jackson Avenue in downtown Chicago dwarf rents or property values on Gammon Road in Madison, for starters. Your servers and bussers either need more money to pay the rent or for longer trips to Lou’s than to the Pancake Cafe, if not both. Eggs, cheese, and other ingredients may cost almost the same, but the costs associated with so much commerce wanting to be in the same five square miles and so many hundreds of th0usands of people, if not millions, wanting to be within reasonable commuting distance of those companies and shops simply drive up the cost of living in the larger urban areas. It might not be as pronounced in cities like Dallas or Kansas City, where the city and suburbs can expand in all areas, but Chicago is bounded on one side by Lake Michigan, like Boston and Los Angeles are bordered by oceans.
Some of those local effects balance out; some don’t. If a secretary in Chicago needs more income to live, her manager understands and pays that accordingly, if grudgingly, due to market forces. If a secretary in Pontiac, Illinois, makes a lot less than her cousin two miles up I-55, she also pays a lot less for her home and land, not to mention her groceries and her local fitness club membership.
On the other hand, some costs are fixed. Netflix doesn’t vary its charges by the local median cost of living; a $20 per month charge covers both Chicago and Pontiac, but it’s two hours’ wages in Pontiac and only an hour and change in Chicago.
This probably isn’t the sole reason Pontiac is deeply conservative and Chicago is deeply progressive, but it has to be part of it. There’s also a matter of scale. The annual budget for Chicago or for Cook County has to dwarf the annual budgets for Pontiac or for Livingston County. So, when the press starts talking about a $100 million dollar project, people in Chicago don’t flinch as much as people in Pontiac are likely to.
States often, perhaps even usually, have fixed income tax rates. If you’re making more in Chicago, you’re paying more in taxes, but not exponentially more. Are you getting more in return? You get Soldier Field and Grant Park, but you also have zillions of “neighbors” to share those with. You have more miles of Interstate and perhaps wider interstates, but you also have more cars to fight your way through on your commute.
I wonder if what cities have that rural areas don’t have is opportunity. If a large company leaves Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, or Miami, there are hundreds of other companies in town that need bookkeepers, factory workers, and almost any other profession. If one of the major employers in Pontiac shuts down, who picks up the slack? When the state prison there was close to shutting down, maybe the guards would be offered positions at other prisons, but none were within commuting distance. If a seed company moves away, where do its employees go? How likely is some start-up to arrive in town, giving folks a chance at joining a venture that may make them rich? Maybe a new auto factory will come to town, adding 1,000 jobs, like the Mitsubishi plant in Normal or the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana, but how often does that happen, and how often has your town tried to attract one of those plants? Your town didn’t get that Mitsubishi plan or that Subaru plant, did it? You can hope for the next one, but don’t count on it, or your hopes will be crushed.
To the extent that America truly is a Christian nation, we mostly follow the same Bible. Maybe we aren’t as religious as our grandparents were, or maybe we’ve never been as religious as we’ve been told we are. But, somehow, those lessons still get translated differently in the cities than in the villages. Bibles in both areas teach that Jesus cared for the poor. Do we take that responsibility upon ourselves, or do we share it with our government? Do we tell each other how to be kind and loving to our neighbors, and even to tell each other who our neighbors are, or do we try to use the government’s voice to remind each other that our neighbors include foreigners, people with different sexual mores, people with different religions, and even people who might not like us?
In a small town, maybe you know the town manager and the city council members. You know who parties too much on the weekend or whose marriage is in trouble. Maybe it’s easy to see government as flawed when you see how flawed the people making up the local government are.
Maybe in the cities it’s easier to see government as an arena for games of us vs. them. After the Irish climbed their way up the system, to be followed by the Italians, of course the African-Americans saw an opportunity to make government work for them. They, too, could work their way onto city council and into various government departments, such as the parks department or the fire department. You might hear the mayor and the aldermen are corrupt, but when you get your alderman and eventually your mayor, well, either the corruption stops or it benefits you!
I’m sure this is all too simplistic. I’m sure there are think tanks, both progressive and conservative, devoted to understanding these dynamics, if only to use them to their own advantages. Maybe none of this is really fueled by our local population density. Maybe this is fueled by how easily corporate forces and other shadowy forces can influence our moods. The Koch Brothers, for example, aren’t small town farmers any longer, if they ever were. Planned Parenthood doesn’t hate small towns; they just don’t have as many clinics in those areas.
But, for now, those wide swaths of red and those tiny, dense islands of blue are the state of political America. There have to be reasons for this, and we collectively need ways to blend them, not sharpen the divisions among them. There’s no way we can literally divide into two political structures, one for cities and one for rural areas. We are one country, and that won’t change.