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Blue States Press

Geography is Destiny
The Real Divide: Waterside Voters Versus Inlanders

New York Times
Published: November 7, 2004

WASHINGTON The ancient Greeks divided the world into four elements, but American voters seem to have made this presidential election a choice between just two of them: Water versus Earth.

Look at a national map showing how each county voted, and you see a mostly red expanse except for blue Democratic clusters along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi and other rivers. Look at California and you see a mostly red state, with the Democrats concentrated along the coast while Republicans dominate the inland counties on the other side of the mountains.

So, while political analysts have been busy dividing the electorate by race and religion and age, perhaps the United States electorate is divided by something more elemental: location, between those who live on the water and those who do not.

This pattern can seem, at first glance, like the ancient distinction throughout the world between liberal cosmopolites and traditionalist farmers. The inlanders have always doubted the morals of merchants in port cities. And the urbanites have always considered the inlanders backward. One Democratic author, John Sperling, called this election a contest between Metro and Retro America. But as the election results showed, the water people are not exactly in the vanguard of history, at least not now, when you consider where people and industries are moving.

While some of the old port cities grew during the stock market boom of the 1990's, since 2000, their population has generally either been falling (as in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco) or growing relatively slowly (as in New York) in comparison with places like Fort Worth and Phoenix.

"The new frontier is inland," said Joel Kotkin, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of of the forthcoming book, "The City: A Global History." He says that port cities like Boston and San Francisco, and to some extent New York, have become what he calls "boutique cities" that appeal to the "hipocracy" - the young, the childless and the affluent in search of quaint neighborhoods and lofts with a view.

"The coastal cities," he said, "have generally been settled longer, and you see a bifurcated pattern in the real estate: rich neighborhoods with ocean views and poor neighborhoods with closed factories and service workers. The intelligentsia and the nomadic rich in these coastal cities don't mind the lack of economic growth; in fact, they often fight growth. But middle-class families are moving to cities and exurbs in the interior."

Of the major cities, the ones with the smallest ratios of children to adults are all on the water: San Francisco, Seattle, Honolulu, Boston and Portland. "Your hip, well-educated, 20- and 30-somethings come to the great cities to get their career cards punched and meet mates," said Fred Siegel, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and the author of "The Prince of the City," a forthcoming book on Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York. "But if they marry and have children, they tend to leave, unless they're what I call trustafarians - people with a lot of money that was made somewhere else."

The port cities originally became bastions of the Democratic Party by appealing to upwardly mobile families whose money came from factory jobs in the booming urban centers. But now that the factories have closed and most new jobs and homes are being created in the inland suburbs and exurbs, the Democrats living in cities often seem out of touch with middle-class values and the mainstream economy.

"It used to be that the port cities were a microcosm of America and the suburbs were different," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "Now the suburbs are a microcosm and the port cities are different. They have some minorities, young people there during their single years and the well-educated and well-off elites that can afford to live in the best cities. That's become the Democratic base."

Meanwhile, the Republicans have been courting the middle classes in the interior, a region with a very different culture because of both geography and history. Much of it was settled by clans of Scots-Irish fundamentalists whose values and traditions, like country music, spread from Appalachia throughout the heartland.

Compared with the European Catholics, Jews and WASPs living in port cities, these inlanders were much less likely to look to union leaders, party bosses or government officials to solve their problems, said James Webb, a former secretary of the Navy and author of the new book, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America."

"The Scots-Irish have historically been against centralization of power," Mr. Webb said. "Scotland was formed from the bottom up through the clan system and loyalty to local leaders. This culture has always mistrusted elites and aristocracies. They combine Calvinist religiosity with populism. They're more individualistic and less collectivist than the immigrants who settled in cities."

Senator John Kerry, the Boston Brahmin and Washington veteran, did not have much luck on Tuesday appealing to the heartland, but some Democrats say that it's not an impossible feat. After all, the inlanders are being exposed more than ever to cosmopolitan ideas from the port cities, both through the news media and through the coastal dwellers moving to the interior.

The young urbanites who move out with their families may bring their tolerance for gay rights with them; the Hispanics and other immigrants moving from the cities to the exurbs may keep their habit of voting Democratic.

But there's also the chance that these migrants will absorb the values of their new neighbors inland. Children and mortgages can promote Republican values. Latinos living in exurbs or cities like Phoenix tend to vote more Republican than Latinos in Los Angeles or New York.

"The people who are leaving Los Angeles for Nevada for economic reasons," Dr. Frey said, "will be simpatico to the conservative portion of the Republican agenda, like lower taxes and more local control. But they'll bring with them their blue-state social agenda, like support for gun control and gay marriage. That's where the Democrats can make gains."

Mr. Kotkin says there could be a blending of the two cultures in the next generation of inlanders. "They could be fiscal conservatives with strong family values, but more tolerance for other cultures," he said. "But for the coastal Democrats to make any inroads, they'll have to stop assuming that anyone in Fargo is an uncultured boob."

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