Conventional wisdom has it that Election 2000 boiled down to urban for Al Gore vs. rural for George W. Bush. A glance at the Electoral College map gives credence to that analysis, but I am left thinking that there is more to this great divide than geography.
Election 2000 produced less a call to centrist government than a result -- one produced accidentally by the numerical split that formed on both sides of a rather deep political divide. I'm not the first to suggest that the urban-rural dichotomy may have run out of analytical steam. Samuel Lubell, years ago, dissected the so-called "rural vote" following the 1948 presidential election and showed that the serious Republican strength in the Midwest came not from farmers, but from burghers in small towns who made their living off farmers.
Today, given what's happened to our political economy over the past half-century, the urban-rural distinction explains even less. The family farm is largely a relic. Agriculture employs an ever-decreasing percentage of workers. And even in farm states such as Iowa (that voted for Gore) and Nebraska (that voted for Bush), agriculture produces less than 10 percent of the respective gross state products.
"Rural," as a political economic reality, no longer exists as a force in America. It is a concept that today refers more to state of mind than to a condition. Even in "rural" states such as Iowa and Nebraska, most people live in urban areas. The largely vacant West, as Stegner and others have pointed out, is predominantly an urban place, defined statistically, but not, apparently, psychologically.
Consider Montana. It is called the Big Sky State, yet most Montanans live in urban areas. But what of their mindset? Nothing conventionally "urban," for sure. They, by and large, don't like cities. Small towns are okay, but not cities. They voted for Bush not Gore, and they did so because they think of themselves as rural folk. Individualism reigns supreme, and by extension they distrust government, especially the federal government. And they believe they represent the best of America.
But here is the mythological rub. They also are on the dole -- and I don't mean Bob.
Year in and year out, Bushlanders across the country, those voters of the rural mindset, pay much less in federal taxes and accept much more back than do Goreland states. Keep the handouts coming, but leave us alone, seems to be the oxymoronic refrain of much of the West.
Put another way, Goreland taxpayers subsidize Bushland. On average, Bushland voters receive from the federal government 13 & cent; more on the dollar than they pay. Goreland states get back less than what they pay in. Bushland states voting most strongly for Bush get the very best deal, almost 25 & cent; more back than taxes paid. Goreland states that most strongly supported the vice president, by contrast, pay significantly more in federal taxes than they receive. Indeed, of the 27 states that receive more federal money than they pay, 21 are Bushland states.
Political science teaches us that attitudes almost always overwhelm actual circumstance. Election 2000 offers no exception to this theory. Mild disagreements between Bush and Gore over competing "plans" masked deep division of beliefs, symbols, myths, predilections, prejudices, conventions and fears.
Some issues offer dramatic examples. Consider, for example, the death penalty. Here is an issue that evokes all our attitudinal baggage, and it continues to emotionally divide Bushland from Goreland. Of the 11 states that have outlawed the death penalty, only three show up in Bushland.
The other eight states where the death penalty has been dropped as being cruel and unusual, ineffective or even immoral? Goreland states, every one.
Since 1977, of the 400-plus people executed in the US of A, upward of 95 percent were done in by Bushland states (to be fair, it should be noted, that a third of these executions were carried out in -- you guessed it -- Texas).
But even if we go back to 1930, when every state in the country authorized the death penalty, we find that the Bushland states, over all these years, have exercised that power to the tune of 85 percent or more of those executions.
We know that Bushlanders claim that the death penalty deters, but crime statistics actually tell us something else. We find that the crime rates are typically higher in states that most often resort to the death penalty. Sometimes the differences are dramatic. For example, consider Georgia. Since 1930, Georgia has pulled the switch more often than any other state besides Texas, yet, today, Atlanta is the scariest city in America. When it comes to serious crime, compared to Atlanta, Detroit looks like someplace in Iowa.
We have here what the statisticians would term a very positive correlation. But it seems not to matter at all to Bushlanders that their mythology about crime and punishment doesn't square with reality. Mythology is in the saddle and riding, if not mankind as Emerson put it, at the very least a very sizable chunk of the electorate.
To illustrate the point further, consider also the cluster of salient political attitudes that sits at the other end of the human stage: children and how we treat them. Here again, as with attitudes toward "big government," it would seem that Bushlanders, more so than Gorelanders, resort to deeply held mythology by way of avoiding unpleasant reality. Bushlanders express the strongest attitudes about family, and we know also that many consider Goreland to be America's version of a modern Sodom and Gomorrah. Piety is the Bushlander's stock in trade.
As it turns out, by any measurement, Sodom does a whole lot better on the kid-raising front than does pious Bushland.
The Children's Rights Council ranks states by taking into consideration such factors as child abuse rates, immunization, school dropout rates, infant mortality rates, juvenile delinquency rates and divorce rates. Of the 15 highest rated states, 11 come from Goreland. And the top four good-for-children states? Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont -- the epicenter of Goreland.
If our conventional wisdom regarding urban-rural divisions has been overtaken by political and economic reality, and if reality is held hostage to mythology, are we left to sort through our attitudinal storerooms, issue by issue, in search of explanation and understanding?
At one time we used the terms "liberal" and "conservative" as a short cut through these storerooms, but today our political fault lines criss-cross throughout these two analytic categories. FDR and Ronald Reagan shared in common an understanding of this phenomenon, and both exploited their understanding of it to do what so many seem to be hoping will be the real result of Election 2000: "bringing people together."
But for now, it seems that we are left only with our storerooms. Why the mythology about big government? The death penalty? Child rearing? Why the diffidence, even hostility that some have toward cities, spaces that truly are our ultimate urban experience in a country made of urban spaces? The longer we deny that the things that separate us are largely illusory, the harder it will be for Bush to ascend to that hoped-for place among the likes of Reagan and FDR -- that place where people can be brought together.