Polar Politics

January 7th, 2014



All politics is national. Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim, “All politics is local,” which he said he learned from his father in 1935, no longer applies.

Political parties in every corner of the country have become nationalized. There used to be very liberal Democrats in New York and very conservative Democrats in Texas. No more. Now Democrats are the progressive party everywhere. There used to be liberal Republicans in the Northeast — Senators Jacob Javits from New York, Lowell Weicker from Connecticut. No more. Now Republicans are the conservative party everywhere.

As Dan Balz noted in Sunday’s Washington Post, more and more state governments are controlled by one party. In 37 out of 50 states, one party controls both the governor’s office and the state legislature. California, the largest state in the country, does not have a single statewide elected Republican. Texas, the second largest state, does not have a single statewide elected Democrat.

Take Virginia and West Virginia. The two states are moving in opposite directions, following national trends. Until 2000, West Virginia was a reliably Democratic state. Overwhelmingly white but also poor and heavily unionized (coal miners), West Virginia was a core state in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Democratic coalition. In 17 presidential elections from 1932 to 1996, West Virginia voted Republican only three times, all in GOP landslide years (Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984).

West Virginia even voted for Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. It is hard to imagine a candidate less suited to the Mountain State’s culturally conservative values than Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

West Virginia finally turned Republican in 2000. It has voted consistently Republican ever since, by increasing margins (62 percent Republican in 2012, when Mitt Romney carried every county in the state). West Virginia has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1956. In 2014, however, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is the frontrunner to win the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller.

West Virginia used to be defined by its economic populism. Now it’s defined by its cultural conservatism. If Obama’s Democratic Party is the New America, West Virginia is defiantly the Old America — traditional in its values, suspicious of environmentalism and pro-gun rights.

Virginia has moved in the opposite direction. Virginia used to be most Republican southern state. From 1952 to 2004, Virginia voted for the Democratic presidential ticket only once (1964). It was the only southern state that did not vote for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Now that the rest of the South has become strongly Republican, Virginia is turning Democratic. It voted for Obama twice and in November, elected a solid Democratic slate of statewide officeholders. Virginia used to be defined by its economic conservatism. Now it’s defined by its cultural progressivism. That’s because the fast-growing and culturally diverse Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., now cast nearly one third of the statewide vote. In the November governor’s race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried Virginia by 2.6 points. He carried the Northern Virginia suburbs by 16 points.

Virginia and West Virginia used to be separated by their economic values: conservative Virginia, populist West Virginia. Now they’re separated by their cultural values; progressive Virginia, conservative West Virginia. That works to the Democrats’ advantage. Virginia has more than four times as many people as West Virginia. Virginia has 13 electoral votes, West Virginia 5.

In the 21st century, cultural issues have displaced economic issues as the principal alignment in American politics. Economic issues matter, of course, but they no longer define partisanship the way they did in the 20th century: rich Republicans, poor Democrats. Both parties now cross class lines. The GOP includes country club Republicans like Mitt Romney and “values voters” like Sarah Palin. Democrats include upscale “NPR voters” as well as economic populists and minorities.

In the long run, demographic changes favor the Democrats. The groups that make up Obama’s New America — Latinos, Asian-Americans, working women, single mothers, gays, young voters, educated professionals and the unchurched, i.e., the kinds of people who live in Northern Virginia — are growing in size and influence. The Old America — the kinds of people who live in West Virginia — are not.

This article was originally published via The Huffington Post.