After the 2000 election, Gary Gregg set out to comfort conservatives that while “on the surface it would seem that Gore was able to appeal to a broader band of the American electorate … Gore’s votes came overwhelmingly from densely populated urban areas.” A county-by-county map, he wrote, shows “only small islands (mostly on the coasts) of Gore Blue amidst a wide sea of Bush Red … Bush won majorities in areas representing more than 2.4 million square miles while Gore was able to garner winning margins in only 580,000.” At best, his argument represents a specious sleight of hand. At worst, it’s a racially coded insinuation of who votes Democratic — those people packed together in those cities.
Unfortunately, that same “One square mile, one vote” mindset was paraded across the media with even greater enthusiasm in November 2004. The same blue-state-headquartered pundits who make a living castigating blue staters for their arrogant self-righteousness or apologizing to red staters for being less righteous than the heartland had a field day with the map. They willfully overlooked what we all know is true: Whatever the state, a blue county is likely home to a lot more people than a red one.
Progressives can and should be winning more votes in those red counties than they did on Nov. 2, 2004. Headlines this past weekend made clear that the Republican playbook for the next six months is to energize cultural conservatives with congressional moves to ban abortion, same-sex marriage and flag-burning. Democrats need to counteract the aesthetic class politics which underlie such a push by mounting a robust and unapologetic critique of the real class divisions in this country. And they need to confront these so-called social issues head on by rebutting the right-wing push to narrow our freedoms rather than simply deriding it as a distraction.
Winning won’t come from abandoning progressive values — it will be a consequence of better and more boldly articulating and organizing around them. It won’t come from running away from those urban voters either.
It’s funny that in all the media postmortems about how liberals lost touch with red state values, few asked whether conservatives have fallen out of touch with blue state values. It’s sad that the person you’re most likely to hear use an expression like “urban values” is Charles Murray, or perhaps some other think tank character better able to hide his racial contempt while warning that “urban values” are spreading virus-like into the bloodstream of mainstream America. Something in the American popular consciousness, and particularly in the mindset of our supposedly liberal media — maybe racial demons, maybe suspicion of crowds, maybe those much-touted “millennial anxieties” over technological and social upheaval — still holds forth America’s rural parts as more authentically American than its cities. Otherwise, someone might have criticized the itinerary of Bush’s “Heart and Soul of America” tour. And the county-by-county map might not raise its ugly head.
Progressives considering how to bring more Americans around, and how to bring more of those who would support them to the polls, should look to rural America — but they should look as well to urban America, where voters consistently turn out to support even those left-of-center candidates who too often campaign by denigrating their values. A child brought up in a city today in America is more likely to come into contact early in life with children who don’t look like she does or speak the same language. She is more likely to interact with members of labor unions, tenant associations and community coalitions for collective change. She is more likely to meet avant-garde artists or lesbian parents. She is likely to have personal experience that much earlier of those American values of vibrant coexistence and mutual responsibility growing up in one of this country’s cities, where larger, more diverse, more densely packed groups of people are forced to find ways to work together. Few of these places vote for conservatives. The two struck on Sept. 11 are no exception.
Of course, these urban values are rural values too. And the rural values we hear so much about from pundits and politicians are urban values as well. Playing up regional differences in this country — whether by declaring the South a lost cause or by campaigning against the state of Massachusetts — serves to obscure the real and staggering inequalities in this country. Battling intolerance and inequality became all the more difficult and all the more urgent on Nov. 2, 2004. It will take hard work long after Nov. 7, 2006. The task demands finding common cause in common challenges faced by families in every corner of this country, blue, red and everywhere in between.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column has appeared on alternate Tuesdays.