There has been a lot talk about the urban/rural split in American politics, as well as growing political polarization. All true. But there’s a deeper point to be made. Our democracy is undermined when people are segregated into different camps with only limited opportunities for political competition and collaboration. We need to make a change. Fortunately, we have choices. There are viable options – if we are willing to put the work in.
Loyal party leaders and followers are becoming increasingly segregated by identity and geography. Political scientists and pundits usually talk about how polarized voters and politicians have become. It is hard to disagree. Yet, the fact that this polarization has a geographic aspect – most loyal Republican voters live in rural counties and most loyal Democrat voters live in urban areas – means there is an actual physical segregation to be discussed. The alignment of Republicans with rural counties, and the opposite alignment of Democrats with urban areas, began as early as 1952. Almost three generations of Americans have grown up taking that split for granted. Over time, loyal party voters have become more divided along several additional dimensions. Committed Republican voters are becoming older, whiter, more conservative, male, and religious than the committed Democrat voters who are moving in the opposite direction. Rural populations are also becoming relatively less educated and suffer more health problems than urban populations because the costs per-student and per-medical patient are higher in dispersed populations.
Other folks are choosing to drop out. People who don’t fit the particular combinations described above fall out of the two mainstream parties into an ever-increasing pool of unrepresented, independent citizens. People describing themselves as politically independent were 36 percent of those asked in 2016, up 7 percentage points from the 1990 share. Many of these people do not vote, thus reducing the legitimacy of our democracy. Or, if they do vote, it is only when they find an attractive 3rd party or independent candidate.
Segregation by identity or geography is dangerous to democracy. Fundamentally, democracy ought to be a beneficial competition of solutions to problems, not a zero-sum competition between peoples. Segregation directly harms our two ideals: free and fair political competition, and accountable competition. It weakens the legitimacy of election outcomes and subsequent policy changes. Segregation also undermines the behavioral norms and attitudes required for constructive political competition. I’ll explain.
- Segregation reduces competition between candidates and between voters. When most people within a voting district support candidates from just one party, then the opposition will be tempted to save its resources and will not try to compete there, knowing they are guaranteed to lose. It’s a big problem: in 2016, 41 percent of state senate races and 42 percent state house races had only one candidate! That’s a shocking absence of democracy where it ought to be thriving – most public services are provided at the state and local levels. Similarly, many eligible voters in such districts will not bother voting, knowing those who do will vote in their interest anyway. Turnout falls. Politicians choosing their voters through gerrymandering only adds to the problem, further increasing the number of uncompetitive districts. In 2016, more than half of all US house districts were gerrymandered (250 out of 435)!
The two mainline parties battle in just a few competitive districts or states. With most districts and sometimes entire states being safe for one party, party candidates must aim for the few that remain competitive, the so-called swing states or swing districts. Tremendous political effort is directed to those few districts. Yet, at the same time, the needs of most voters elsewhere are largely ignored. You can imagine the situation might breed more than a little cynicism.
- Segregation by identity or geography increases the costs of losing and motivates extreme measures. Losing an election in segregated circumstances can affect entire regions and ethnicities. Each major party therefore feels compelled to win as decisively as possible, securing as many branches of government as possible, and gerrymandering wherever possible. In this context, it is noteworthy that the number of states governed by trifectas (where one party controls the governor’s office, the senate and the house) is growing – see Figure 1. This strategy, of course, further reduces the possibility of any healthy competition of policy options. And, of course, if a trifecta isn’t possible, congressional grid-lock is always an option.
Figure 1: Growing Number of States Governed by Trifectas
- Rural-urban segregation in the US context puts limits on options for strategy. Rural-urban segregation makes Republican party increasingly reliant upon the Electoral College for winning presidential elections and, conversely, puts popular vote victories increasingly out of reach. It also motivates Democrats to do whatever they can to increase their voter turnout in swing districts. Naturally, each party will also actively resist the strategy of the other.
- Segregation reduces accountability to voters. Federal and state legislators representing safe districts have no incentive to care about the problems we face or our preferences in solving them. Why should they? Most know they will be elected again, regardless – unless there are term limits (15 states at present). The problem is reflected by the news media too. The media have no incentive to invest in uncompetitive districts. This makes it harder for voters to know what their elected officials are doing and if they are getting good results. (And it makes it easier for crooked officials to act with impunity.)
- Segregation weakens the legitimacy of election outcomes and subsequent policy changes. This weakening occurs at multiple levels. It’s emotional: People segregated by geography or identity believe they are in a zero-sum game: one side will always lose when the other wins. It’s political: large and growing numbers of moderates feel unrepresented by either major party. It’s mathematical: The low voter turnouts, the many times a winning candidate does not have a majority due to 3rd party candidates, and the absence of competition in many districts lead the opposition to conclude there cannot be a true mandate for the winning party to lead.
- Segregation by identity and geography undermines democratic norms and values. At its best, as stated earlier, democracy is a political competition of solutions to problems. Part of what makes that competition possible, beyond our constitutional rights to assembly and free speech, are our behavioral norms. Ideally, we are willing to discuss and debate with one another over the merits of various proposals. Instead, what we have now is mostly political theater, with both sides choosing policies to inflame their opposition, rally their base, demonize the other, and inspire fear.
- The news media do not always play a positive role. Ideally, they should feel some obligation to report on the problems facing us, report on the various proposals to fix those problems, and report on how well our politicians deliver on their promises. In reality, too many are tempted by the exciting and entertaining mud-slinging by party partisans. The resulting media feeding frenzy, traditional and social, that only adds fuel to the fire.
The US has been slowly losing ground relative to other strong democracies around the world. The problems described above have contributed to a downgrade in our international status. According to the Economist Magazine’s democracy index, maintained by their Economic Intelligence Unit, our rank out of 167 countries fell from 17th in 2006 to 21st in 2016.
The situation will get worse without some kind of reform. The share of the rural white population will continue to fall as young people continue moving to the cities, as white mortality rates rise, and as birth rates of Hispanic people in the South-West outpace other groups. Taken together, our rural/urban and ethnic cleavages will only deepen if ongoing demographic trends continue. Yet, future Americans will also have the option to see each other as Americans all of whom share the desire for better lives. Is it possible to conceive of political contests that do not prey on our identities, and are relevant across urban and rural populations and different ethnicities?
We do have some positive options. Each requires hard work and sustained effort.
- We could change ourselves by directly addressing the social, demographic, and economic forces driving the political segregation discussed above. It’s not pie in the sky: there is room for progress. Our nation has embarked on ambitious projects of this magnitude before. Examples include welfare reform, reductions in workplace discrimination, building the national highway system, eliminating polio, the creation of social security, sharply reducing government patronage jobs, and universal education through high school. None were easy: almost all were achieved through bipartisan collaboration sustained over several years – but people thought the effort was worthwhile.
- We could change our politics. The high share of independent voters and the periodic popularity of alternative parties are evidence of the public’s hunger for more and better than what has been coming from the two traditional parties. In response, party leaders could consciously adopt big-tent politics, deliberately trying to earn votes from the large pool of independent voters and from some on the other side. Again, this is not an impossible dream. There are actually many issues that a majority of Americans, even partisan Democrat and Republic voters, tend to prioritize to the same degree. This is illustrated well by a Esquire-NBC News survey carried out in 2013 that was designed by a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters. In some cases, the majority in 2013 leaned right (for example 81% supported offshore drilling) while in other cases it leaned left (for example 70% support paid maternity leave). Partisan voters aside, we aren’t so divided as pundits would have us believe. Goals held in common include national security, more and better jobs, a desire for financially sustainable social security, and affordable health care.
- We could also change our system. Right now, safe districts and gerrymandering create legislatures where one party will control far more seats than what the popular vote would require. The problem is worse when you count the number of people who did not vote because they didn’t like any of the candidates or parties. One alternative – for each state – is to trade our numerous districts, each with one winner-takes-all candidate, for just a few districts where we elect 5 candidates. The large districts also make gerrymandering harder and potentially useless. In any given district, people could elect all sorts of candidates in addition to, or beyond, the traditional Republican and Democrat options. Independent minded citizens would have a reason to vote again, and voter turnout would rise. FairVote.org is doing a lot of work on this option, essentially a form of proportional representation. We also have a system where governors and the president can win by a plurality of voters rather than a true majority of citizens. It might make sense to require run-off elections until the required majority is achieved. This would motivate parties to select candidates and political platforms that appeal to a much broader pool of voters beyond today’s’ loyal partisans. FairVote is here too: see their proposal for instant run-off elections.
Let us pray that our leaders go for at least one of these options, if not more. As-is, the leaderships of the Democrat and Republican parties appear to be intellectually lazy, relying on their ever-narrowing bases at the expense of the rest of us. It’s more than lazy. It’s dangerous. Democracy dies without free and fair political competition and without accountability of leaders to voters. If democracy dies, what is the alternative? Chaos whenever a major policy issue comes up? Consider the scenes from Berkeley, California (March and April, 2017) or Charlottesville, Virginia (August 11-12, 2017) – or Venezuela (2016-17), on its way to dictatorship.
Want to Know More?
ACE Electoral Knowledge Network. Electoral Systems.
Fair Vote. 2017. The Fair Representation Act.
Gentzkow, M., 2016. Polarization in 2016. Toulouse Network of Information Technology White Paper.
International Crisis Group. 2010. Federation of Bosnia And Herzegovina–a Parallel Crisis.
International Crisis Group. 2017. Venezuela’s Last Flickers of Democracy.
Light, P. 2000. Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century. Reform Watch, Brookings Institution.
NBC News, 2013. The New American Center: Why Our Nation isn’t as Divided as We Think.
Pew Research Center. 2016. The Parties on the Eve of the 2016 Election: Two Coalitions, Moving Further Apart.
 See, for example, Pew Research Center, September, 2016, “The Parties on the Eve of the 2016 Election: Two Coalitions, Moving Further Apart.”
 Pew Political Survey, October 2016.
 One factor that motivated the violent break-up of Yugoslavia (1991-2001) was the dominant Serbs’ rejection of consensus and preference for direct majority rule. This created fears among non-Serbs of being outvoted and dominated. Continued ethnic segregation and politics after the break-up keeps this fear alive. People in Bosnia and Herzegovina are very reluctant to vote because it means that at least one ethnicity will be outvoted and therefore suffer at the hands of the other(s). International Crisis Group, 2010. Federation of Bosnia And Herzegovina–a Parallel Crisis.
 Case and Deaton, 2015. Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(49), pp.15078-15083.
 Paul Light, 2000. Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century. Reform Watch, Brookings Institution.