What the Shutdown Revealed About the Economic Divides in U.S. Politics
Last night, after weeks of the most literal government inaction, the Senate stepped in and brokered a deal to reopen the U.S. government and raise the debt ceiling. But despite the last-minute deal, the deeper fissures that produced the Republican standoff and the government shutdown are not going away any time soon. They reflect fundamental divides in America’s economic and political landscape that have only deepened over time.
Over the past few weeks, politicians and commentators – from President Obama to a whole host of news outlets – have referred to the shutdown as the work of a few Republicans holding Congress and the economy "hostage." One particularly striking map (immediately below) by Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has circulated around the internet for the last few weeks. It charts the districts of the 79 members of Congress credited as the instigators of the shutdown crisis, after they signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner this summer demanding action on "de-funding" the Affordable Care Act.
The geography of Tea Party conservatives is largely what you’d expect. Half are in the South, and a quarter are in the Midwest. Not a single one is in the Northeast or the along the Pacific coast. All voted for Romney over Obama. As Lizza points out, using data from Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, the average district in this "suicide caucus" was three-quarters white, compared to 63 percent white in the average House district.
To underscore how different the Tea Party base is, my colleague Charlotta Mellander at the Martin Prosperity Institute ran a simple correlation analysis looking at the share of a state’s congressional delegation that had signed the August letter to Boehner (and thereby made it into Lizza’s "suicide caucus") and key economic and demographic characteristics of the state. As usual, we point out that this is only a preliminary analysis, and that correlation does not equal causation. But a number of interesting patterns appear, in light of both the maps in this post and what others have written about these diehard anti-Obamacare Republicans in the past few weeks.
First off, Mellander found states with higher shares of suicide caucus districts to be less advantaged, less affluent, and less educated. The percentage of suicide caucus districts was negatively correlated with wages (-.30), incomes (-.33) and college graduates (-.36). States with higher shares of suicide-caucus districts were also less diverse – both in terms of immigrant and gay and lesbian shares of the populations (with correlations of -.33 and -.32 respectively). States with more suicide caucus district are also markedly less urban. The correlation between the share of members in the suicide caucus and levels of urbanization was significantly negative (-.5). Mellander also found a positive correlation between the share of uninsured residents and proportion of suicide cause districts, a fact that National Journal’s Ron Brownstein has noted.
Next, compare Lizza’s map to the ones that Brownstein put together before last fall’s election. These maps (below) chart the creative class vote (including scientists and technologists, business and management professionals, and arts, design, entertainment and media workers) by county in the 2008 Obama-McCain contest. (Keep in mind these maps use older data, gathered before the Tea Party even became a major force in American politics and they chart counties, not congressional districts).
Still, the basic pattern is clear. Notice how much of eastern Tennessee – a block of Tea Party dark red on Lizza’s map – shows up in the bottom third of counties for creative class membership. Tea Party areas like those in southern Missouri and northern Indiana also show up in pockets of red on the bottom map of low creative-class density. And some of the darker red regions that appear on the first map below, representing the nearly 43 percent of high creative-class counties that went for McCain, tend not to overlap with the 79 members of Lizza’s "suicide caucus" – through Nebraska and the Dakotas especially.
Maps courtesy of National Journal
Now compare Lizza’s map to the next map (below), which shows the share of Obama and Romney votes by metro area. The deep red metros are largely in oil and gas-dependent metros of Texas, though places like Salt Lake City unsurprisingly make the list as well. Apart from these larger Energy Belt metros, comparing this map to Lizza’s shows how the Tea Party caucus represents the less urban, less dense places – the metros (and in general places that don’t even meet the definition of a metro) that are well below the densities required for innovation and real economic growth.
Map by MPI's Zara Matheson
The last map gets at the deep economic fissures underlying Tea Party politics. It’s a map of America’s centers of innovation, which I wrote about on Cities last week (and which my Atlantic colleague James Fallows used to make a similar point earlier this week).
Map by MPI's Zara Matheson
Comparing this map to Lizza’s shows that the Tea Party gets it stronghold in places that have been left behind by the knowledge economy. As a reader wrote to Fallows, the lack of overlap in this map of patents and map of Tea Party strongholds is revealing: "A minority of Americans seems committed to a past that never quite existed and hopes for a future that seems rather unlikely."
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Taken together, these maps illustrate the deep economic fault lines underlying America’s dysfunctional politics. The Tea Party represents the lagging sectors of the economy, and, increasingly, the politics of those left behind by America’s transition to a new, knowledge-oriented economic future. As Colin Woodard writes over at Washington Monthly, the Tea Party’s strength is concentrated in the Deep South, Appalachia (stretching to West Texas), and a region he calls the Far West. He explains:
There are tea party supporters everywhere, but only in these three cultural regions have they managed to achieve real and lasting political success. This is because their platform — to slash taxes, labor protections, environmental regulations, social programs, and the reach and authority of the federal government — is in accord with the centuries-old cultural ethos of each of these regions, and anathema to those elsewhere.
Writing in Salon, New America Foundation’s Michael Lind notes that the Tea Party is a new version of old southern elite, no longer content with their place in an increasingly fractured Republican coalition. The Tea Party, he writes, reflects "a coherent and rational strategy for maximizing the relative power of provincial white elites at a time when their numbers are in decline and history has turned against them."
The Tea Party’s tirade is not some passing fad, but a political outgrowth of the winners and losers of America’s new economic landscape.
Top Image: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) depart the Senate floor after their speeches before the night-time budget vote at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst