Thursday, December 29, 2016

States of delusion: The Rightwing’s latest nutty obsession

There’s a notion popular among the USA’s rightwing at the moment that’s both wrong and dangerous. Nothing new in that, of course, but the danger is to democracy itself because they want minority rule, all based on an utterly delusional view of the United States’ population.

What currently has the USA’s rightwing in a frenzy is the map above: It represents which candidate carried which counties—Blue for Hillary Clinton and Red for Donald Trump. It’s totally misleading and even deceptive, but to the rightwing, the map looks like “proof” that states with large cities—New York and California in particular—would, all by themselves, determine who the US president was if it wasn’t for the Electoral College. That’s absolute nonsense, of course, but to understand why, and why it’s a dangerous belief, we first need to look at some more maps, starting with this one:

This map also shows the results by county, but shades them by percentage: The darker the colour, the higher the percentage for the winning candidate (and, of course, the lighter the colour, the lower the percentage). What this map shows us is that very few counties were solidly Republican or Democratic, and most were shades and tints.

This is shown even more starkly in this map:

This map shows the counties as Red, Blue, or Purple, the latter representing counties where the winning margin for the candidate who won the county—whether Hillary or Don—was 10% or less. As before, the more Blue a colour is, the more heavily it went for Hillary and the more Red it is, the more it went for Don.

Putting all this together, the map at the top of this post is misleading: The USA is NOT a giant swathe of Red, but more Purple than either Red OR Blue. This is born out by election data that shows that Independents—those who are neither Republican nor Democratic—determine most elections because there are somewhat more of them than either Democrats (usually in second place) or Republicans (in third place). It’s important to note that the exact percentages fluctuate constantly, but the Republican Party is always the smallest of the three divisions, and the Democratic Party is always in second place or roughly equal with independents; it’s been this way for many, many years. [Update: Gallup reported in early January that "Independent Political ID in US Lowest in Six Years" as more Americans chose to identify as either Republican or Democratic, but they still outnumber Democrats, in second place, and Republicans, in third place.]

What we can also see from the second and third map is that there are votes for both parties in every state—every, single, state. Even in populous states like California and New York, campaigning there has value, especially if it’s covered by the regional newsmedia. This is because without the Electoral College, every vote matters, whereas with the EC, Republican presidential votes don’t matter much in New York or California, nor do Democratic votes matter in Texas. We cannot possibly know how many people don’t vote in such states because their vote doesn’t matter, but it’s nonsensical to assume it doesn't or wouldn’t matter for such “irrelevant” voters.

Moreover, the rightwing belief conveniently ignores the fact that Texas and Florida both have large cities—Miami is the USA’s fourth largest city and Houston is the sixth—yet Texas is strongly Republican (for now), and Florida is more Purple than anything.

The danger in the rightwing’s delusion is that it creates two Americas: The first is the “real” America, located in the Red counties in the map up top, and “other” Americans in the Blue counties in the same map. The “other” Americans are suspect to rightwingers, in part merely for being Liberal (or, at least, not Conservative), but also for their higher concentration of brown and black people. Rightwing rhetoric constantly talks of Latinx people as being “illegal” and of black people wanting “handouts”. This language both shapes and describes the attitudes that the Rightwing has toward black and brown people, and also toward the cities in which they live.

I’ve seen and read many people—pundits and ordinary people alike—singing the praises of the “real” Americans, and either explicitly or implicitly saying that urban residents are the exact opposite of the supposedly wonderful, kind, thoughtful, and friendly people of the “real” America. Rationally, the view that all rural people are “good” and all urban people are “bad” is no more true than the reverse would be: People are complex and diverse, and it’s bigoted to imply that one set of people is “better” merely because of where they live.

This attitude is also anti-democracy: Elections are waged on the premise that the majority rules, that whoever has the most votes wins the election. There are problems with the way elections are done in the USA, and there are many needed reforms, but it’s nevertheless the foundation on which democracy is built. The obsession with viewing the USA as being divided into “real” Americans and everybody else undermines that precisely because it supposes that the minority should be able to dictate election results.

The biggest problem with the rightwing obsession is that people living in rural areas are a small minority of the USA. According to the US Department of Agriculture (or download the PDF with the data), rural counties account for 72% of the USA’s counties, but only about 15% of the USA’s population in 2014. Put the other way round, 85% of the US population—the overwhelming majority—live in 28% of counties. We see that most dramatically in the map up top, where the large swathes of the USA in red, most of them sparsely populated.

The rural population of the USA declined by 30,000 people per year 2010-2014, and the only rural counties to experience an increase were in scenic areas or counties involved in energy booms. Urban areas, meanwhile, have grown by more than 2 million a year. The rural poverty rate in 2014 was 18.1%, compared to an urban poverty rate to 15.1%.

So, the rightwing obsession is wrong for several reasons, beginning with the fact that the USA is a mostly urban nation, and it’s unthinkable that a mere 15% of the population should be allowed to dictate to the other 85% who the president should be. Also, every state has supporters of both parties, but under the current system using the Electoral College, some voters don’t matter because there are far more supporters of the other party. And, finally, people who live in urban areas are people who live in urban areas, and people who live in rural areas are people who live in rural areas, but they are ALL American. The rightwing needs to learn all these things, the last one in particular.

Democracy matters, and is based on the principle that the majority rules. That didn’t happen in 2016, the second time this century. Making bizarre and bigoted excuses for why that should always be the case is an insult to democracy and liberty, and downright un-American.

The USA deserves more democracy, not less. Conservatives ought to be ashamed of themselves for arguing the opposite.

The important points
  • The USA is a mostly urban nation, and is becoming more urban all the time (which is common in many countries).
  • Every US state has voters who support both parties – the USA is mostly “purple”, that is, split between the two parties.
  • Abolishing the Electoral College would give everyone an equal vote, regardless of where they live, and will make voters of both parties matter in states in which they currently don’t.
  • People who live in cities are people who live in cities, and people who live in rural areas are people who live in rural areas; they are ALL American.

No comments: