Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Ideopolis--Why All Politics Are Local

Slate’s Timothy Noah examines what John Judis and Ruy Teixeira refer to as the "ideopolis," and tries to explain why they vote Democratic. It is worth a read, but deserves some scrutiny as well.

Noah describes an "ideopolis" as a "metropolitan region with a nerdy postindustrial economy." In other words, these are the tech centers that have grown up in Silicon Valley, Massachusetts I-128 corridor, and North Carolina’s research triangle. In addition to these classic tech areas, Judis and co. include Madison, WI, Nashville, TN, & Portland, OR. For Judis & Teixeira (J & T), the surprise is that working class whites tend to vote Democratic in these areas, joining the otherwise solid latte drinking computer executives and ethnic minorities. Their explanation is that these areas are not as class driven, and thus according to Noah’s recapitulation of J & T, "Republican appeals based on bigotry, resentment, love of guns, and hatred of abortion ’have largely fallen on deaf ears.’" Very mature. I suppose I could with equal fairness say that Democratic anti-semitism (Cynthia McKinney, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan) also does not seem to sway these voters.

Noah to his credit does not think that the class argument is sufficient. He suggests that the presence of universities is behind the voting patterns. He argues that because universities, and therefore surrounding communities, are heavily dependent on government funds, they both have an economic incentive and can see the wonders that government spending can actually do.

This is true to a point. Yes, people do tend to vote with the pocketbooks (remember "it’s the economy, stupid?"), and in communities that are dependent on large research universities, this means that many people vote based on who is promising more government funding. After all, trickle-down tax theory has always been tough to explain--naked subsidies aren’t. But this neglects the other impact of college towns. Generally speaking, university students tend to be more liberal. Whether you subscribe to
the rebellion theory or to the "you’re more socially conscious when you are
young" theory, or the "minds shaped by 60s liberals who overtook the academy theory," the average college student was more likely to vote for Nader or Gore than for Bush--if they bothered to vote. They don’t tend to vote heavily in their
college towns, but they do tend toward activism, including get-out-the-vote
activity which impacts the surrounding communities.

But the college explanation only works so far. Yes, Madison is very much a college town, and that tends to help explain the situation there. Nashville likewise has a strong college presence, but it is not as pervasive in the local conscience. But it is difficult to say that Stanford and Berkeley is really behind the voting patterns in Silicon Valley. And blaming Harvard for the I-128 corridor would seem to underestimate that this is Massachusetts. What then is the explanation?

First, you need to look at voting patterns before the new economy. Interestingly enough, only North Carolina, best as I can tell without actually looking at specific voting districts, was solidly Republican prior to the influx of new economy jobs.

Not to dash the hopes of those who would create broad new theories, but the answers seem more location specific. Thus, Madison has always been liberal--best as I can tell the biggest concern is the legalization of marijuana for non-medical purposes. Silicon Valley is heavily motivated by San Francisco politics. The new economy types tend to be socially liberal, both in terms of abortion policy and social planning. It is this rebellion against social conservative policies that probably explains Silicon Valley’s connection to the D party more than their desire to be taxed at a higher marginal rate. Portland, Oregon views itself as more a frontier city to this day. They pride themselves on being independent. While heavily dependent on the
timber industry, the city dwellers are probably among the most environmentally sensitive voters, spending oodles of money for social planning to avoid sprawl. They are socially liberal--consistent with
the frontier mentality. For Portlanders, Government shouldn’t touch their bodies--whether it is in prohibiting drugs, or abortion, or assisted suicide. Nashville, Tennessee is an area where Southern Democrats and unions converge. You
have a lot of old economy workers. You have a lot of folks who were
lifelong Ds, who are middle class white, who for associational reasons
don’t change their party affiliation, even if they are swing voters or closet Republicans. You still have some fairly strong union influence
in the state, which is still among the strongest of the D supporters. That
said, many register D but crossover and vote R (look at the 2000 election).

J & T’s "class" model fails to take into account that class is still a major issue in many of these areas. In Tennessee, the clash is between old and new money, as well as between the rich and poor. In Silicon Valley, there were class differences during the boom among the worker drones and the executives. While these differences may not fit quite as neatly into the rich/poor dichotomy because both would be considered rich by J & T, the differences nonetheless are there.

Noah’s model therefore is more accurate, but it, like J & T’s theory, fails to take into account the historical and local issues that shape voting behavior. It seems that all politics is local, and that is why Michael Barone’s detailed analysis of local constituencies is still a better guide to voting trends than a theory which appears to be contrived to support the theory of a "Coming Democratic Majority" which has yet to and may not arrive.

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