Town vs. Gown = Rural vs. Urban

For those still confused or misled by partisanship polarization in Red-Blue America, this article may help. Yes. The split is between rural vs. urban lifestyles, with the suburbs caught in between. University towns are merely pockets of urbanism sprinkled across the rural landscape. But students pick up and move on.

This is from The Economist a couple of days ago. They voted. The recall “gown” crowd lost.

Polarization in the People’s Republic of Madison

WISCONSIN is voting today to decide whether Scott Walker, the Republican governor, will be recalled. Lorrie Moore, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and fiction writer of note, reports that the acrimonious recall campaign has set brother against brother from Eau Claire to Kenosha:

Despite the assertion by journalist David Brooks (and others) that Americans live in more like-minded communities than ever before and are therefore cut off from values and opinions at variance with their own, more than a year later Wisconsin’s recall of its Governor and several legislators is now said to have pitted neighbor against neighbor. It is being called “a civil war,” and as in our American Civil War some family members are not talking to other family members. Despite a history of bipartisanship, people have chosen sides (as midwesterners tend to do in divorce; not for them the pseudo-sophisticated friends-with-all approach). Tales of confrontation abound: A driver with a “Recall Walker” bumper sticker might be tailed on the highway then passed in the adjacent lane by someone holding up a “Fuck the Recall” sign.

This Iowan isn’t a bit surprised to hear that Wisconsin’s cordiality is so friable, but it’s sad all the same. Trust and a convincing imitation of geniality keep the public institutions of the upper Midwest running relatively smoothly. One hopes the discord brought upon the Badger State by moneyed outsiders bent on proving partisan points dies down after the vote is in, but I’m afraid this sort of fight will become increasingly common in so-called “swing states” as Americans continue to polarise along partisan lines.

The Pew Research Center’s “2012 American Values Survey” finds that Americans have never been more polarized, at least not since polarization has been measured. Here’s a picture of the extent of the partisan divide:

Here one can see the size of the chasm between left and right on key issues:

Actually, David Brooks (following the lead of Bill Bishop) is right that Americans are now more than ever segregated according to ideology. But Ms Moore is right that the so-called “big sort” is far from complete, and in the course of her essay, she references what may be the greatest force preventing more thorough self-segregation: the American university system. “Wisconsin has long been considered a collective of liberal college communities connected by interstates crisscrossing the farmland”, Ms Moore writes. “But especially with the rise of suburban sprawl, it has become much more unpredictable than that.”

America is dotted with hundreds of islands of concentrated liberalism, thanks to its largely publicly-funded university system. In Wisconsin, for example, it is not at all unusual to hear the state capital called “the People’s Republic of Madison”, on account of the university and its attendant politics. The role of universities in the story of American polarization seems to me under-appreciated. America’s college towns facilitate within-state sorting according to political affinity by offering temperamentally liberal Wisconsinites or Georgians or Texans attractive places to live among fellow bleeding hearts, but without having to go too far from home. Big state universities also act as magnets drawing “foreign”, out-of-state academics, artists and their wannabe students away from their natural habitats on the coasts, counteracting to some degree the polarward drift of right-leaning states. That’s why my extremely temperamentally liberal partner and I moved to Iowa City from Washington, DC. That’s why Lorrie Moore lives in Madison and not Manhattan.

Now, as partisan polarization increases nationwide, the town-gown divide inevitably grows more stark and hostile. The denizens of our nation’s inland archipelago of people’s republics grow politically further and further from the surrounding citizenry, whose taxes and tuition keep college-town bookstores in Bataille. Indeed, I would conjecture that last year’s demonstrations in support of Wisconsin’s embattled public-sector unions would have been feeble or nonexistent, and that today’s recall vote never would have come about, if not for the teeming schools of colorful liberals attracted to the local collegiate reef. That is to say, if Madison weren’t a “people’s republic”, weren’t a college town, then Ms Moore would not have experienced the bitter incivility she laments, because Ms Moore and her progressive ilk would live elsewhere, and Wisconsin’s unionized public employees wouldn’t have stood a chance.


One thought on “Town vs. Gown = Rural vs. Urban

  1. The true polarization in American party politics has been pretty much explained, though the waters are frequently muddied by a media narrative that serves these same partisan interests. Bill Bishop is ahead of the curve on this, David Brooks is behind. Population density, marriage and ideology drive the divide, not preferences over what music, hobbies, or cars we drive.

    College towns are out of step here, as liberal policies rarely serve rural and suburban interests. But the problem is not that serious as students move on. Those liberals who move to college towns to serve those students should understand that Democratic policies that cater to urban constituencies run counter to rural interests.

    That’s the way our politics cuts these days because the two parties designed their policies to capture geographic-specific voters. It won’t change until the voters eschew their identity politics and learn to compromise on their divisible material interests. But don’t expect any help from the media, the politicians, or the parties.


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