America’s states seem increasingly disunited. Divisions over controversies related to COVID— lockdowns, vaccine mandates, school closures—have accentuated existing splits among blue Democratic and red Republican states with respect to partisanship and attitudes toward crime and public policy.
Some fear that these trends foretell a new civil war. Others welcome them as evidence of the saving genius of the founding design of a republic based on federalism. But before you choose sides in a new conflict between the states, you need to know that the basic assumption is wrong: There is no actual divide by states, which are merely battlegrounds in a proxy war. The real civil war is between neighborhoods in the same metro areas, backed by asymmetrical allies.
Ignore maps that show electoral results by state and look at county maps or maps of U.S. House districts. At this level of granularity, state borders disappear. There are no red states or blue states. Instead, there are blue urban cores floating in a sea of red. Even the exurbs and rural areas in blue states like California and New York tend to be overwhelmingly red and Republican.
This is not a difference between “city” and “country.” Hardly any Americans live or work on farms or ranches anymore. The big divide is within metro areas, between the blue downtowns and their inner-ring suburbs that are home to the American oligarchy and its children and retainers, and the red exurbs; outer-ring suburbs tend to be battlegrounds between the Democratic and Republican coalitions. This geographic concentration hurts the Democrats in the Senate and the Electoral College. At the same time, Democratic blue core cities in majority red states can often circumvent state governments by appealing directly to Congress and to the enforcement layers of the federal bureaucracy and judiciary, as well as to the media and corporate elites controlled by the national party.
The Democratic coalition is an hourglass, top-heavy and bottom-heavy with a narrow middle. In addition to hoovering up the votes of college-educated Americans, the Democrats are the party of the Big Rich—tech billionaires and CEOs, investment banking houses, and the managerial class that spans large corporate enterprises and aligned prestige federal agencies like the Justice Department and the national security agencies. This mostly white and Asian American group cannot win elections without the overwhelming support of Black Americans, and smaller majorities of Hispanic and Asian American voters, clustered in the downtowns and inner suburbs. The high cost of living in Democratic hub cities forces out the multiracial middle; the exceptions tend to be civil servants like police and first responders and teachers who can (sometimes) afford to live in or near their downtown jobs.
The social base of the Democrats is neither a few liberal billionaires nor the more numerous cohorts of high-school educated minority voters; it is the disproportionately white college-educated professionals and managers. These affluent but not rich overclass households dominate the Democratic Party and largely determine its messaging, not by virtue of campaign contributions or voting numbers, but because they very nearly monopolize the staffing of the institutions that support the party—K-12 schools and universities, city and state and federal bureaucracies, public sector unions, foundations, foundation-funded nonprofit organizations, and the mass media. By osmosis, professional and managerial values and material interests and fads and fashions permeate the Democratic Party and shape its agenda.
While the liberal Big Rich cluster in silver apartments and offices in trophy skyscrapers in the inner core of blue cities, the elites of the outer suburbs and exurbs tend to be made up of the Lesser Rich—millionaire car dealership owners, real estate agents, oil and gas drilling equipment company owners, and hair salon chain owners. This group of proprietors—the petty bourgeoisie, to use Marxist terminology, compared to the Democratic haute bourgeoisie and its professional allies—forms the social base of the Republican Party, despite efforts by Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, and others to rebrand the GOP as a working-class party.
Which is not to say that the social differences between the two parties aren’t important. There are far more business owners and fewer managers of huge multinational firms or banks in red areas than there are in the class-stratified, hierarchical Democratic urban cores. There are fewer rich and fewer poor. If the social structure of Democratic cores resembles an hourglass, the shape of the Republican exurbs and rural areas looks more like a diamond.
The wealthier members of each party also have different kinds of relationships with their neighbors. The Lesser Rich of the exurbs and small towns are more likely to be natives of their areas than the nomadic careerists of New York, San Francisco, D.C., LA, Chicago, and Austin. They are less likely to be immigrants, and more likely to share a common regional culture and ethnicity and religion with the local working class. But the fact that the local business owner can discuss hunting and fishing with his employees or may attend the same church does not moderate the ferocious hostility of most of the red-county gentry to anything that would raise the cost of labor for their businesses—a higher minimum wage, unionization, paid vacations, paid parental leave.
The intensity of opposition to such measures makes it easy to dismiss the red gentry as retrograde, unfeeling, and greedy, as some are. However, some of their complaints about federal policy are legitimate. Unlike the flagship tech oligopolies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, whose executives and employees fund and sometimes staff the Democratic Party’s political operations, many small business owners struggle to keep up with the jargon and paperwork required to deal with elaborate environmental regulations or proliferating race and gender quotas in federal record-keeping and subsidies. In addition to helping their urban core constituents, Democratic policies, to the extent that they harm Republican businesses and industries, increase the Democratic share of national wealth, which can then be deployed further against the party’s Republican rivals.
If hourglass Democrats are dominated by urban managers and professionals linked to the national and global economies, and the diamond Republicans by moderately rich local business elites, then who speaks for the two-thirds of Americans who are working class, who lack college diplomas and must work for wages? The answer is: nobody. At 6% and falling, private sector trade union membership in the United States is lower than it was under Herbert Hoover.
The only time that the working-class majority had any real influence in American politics, as well as in their workplaces, was between the 1940s and the 1980s, when private sector unions were a force that both parties had to reckon with. Private sector unions have been annihilated in the last half-century in the United States because hatred of organized labor is one of only two areas of agreement between socially liberal Democratic Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, CEOs who donate millions to Black Lives Matter, and small-town Republican sweatshop owners and overseers who think Social Security and Medicare constitute “socialism.” The other thing that the Democratic Big Rich and the Republican Lesser Rich agree on is the need for more indentured servant “guest workers” from other countries who are bound to the employers that sponsor them, and who are thus more easily manipulated and intimidated than either free American citizen-workers or immigrants with green cards who can quit bad employers.
The progressive Democrats of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft lobby for more H-1B visas, which go overwhelmingly to young male foreign nationals who are often willing to work for less money in worse conditions than comparably educated American citizens and naturalized immigrants. Meanwhile, the Republican small business, franchise, farm, and ranch owners in the boondocks claim they cannot find Americans willing to work for the crappy wages they pay (which is true) and demand that Congress supply them with higher numbers of captive guest workers who can be treated like serfs. A tight labor market with low immigration of the kind that COVID-caused disruptions have produced in some sectors, in which employers must compete for scarce workers by raising wages and benefits, is the nightmare of American investors and managers, big and small, progressive and conservative alike.
But what of the states and the federal government? These two tiers of the U.S. constitutional order are merely the battlegrounds on which the intra-elite feuds of the American metro areas are fought.
In states like Texas, in which Republicans control the state government while the big cities are controlled by the Democratic hourglass coalition, there is a constant game of cat-and-mouse between progressive city councils that enact left-wing policies and right-wing legislatures passing legislation to overrule them. The Texas state legislature has used state law to annul ordinances of the far-left Austin City Council ranging from plastic bag bans, to enabling an explosion of homeless encampments in public spaces, to declaring Austin a “sanctuary city” whose police officers would be ordered to refuse to collaborate with federal immigration authorities.
The state usually wins, because under our constitutional system the policies of cities, counties, and local governments under most state constitutions can be overruled in many areas by the state government. In this way, metro area conservatives, having lost city councils to progressive Democrats, can use allies in state government to defeat their enemies downtown.
But the downtown Democratic coalition has allies of its own in the federal government. Beginning in the 1960s, Democrats—by then having become the urban party they are today—discovered that by means of federal “grants-in-aid,” they could circumvent state legislatures and go directly to Congress. According to one estimate, in 2018 federal aid to state and local governments, taking the form of grants to specific programs in areas from K-12 education to environmental policy to transportation and infrastructure, amounted to $697 billion, doled out via 1,386 separate programs that bind localities to the federal government.
As a result of all of these targeted federal spending programs, about one-third of state spending actually comes from the federal government.
This in turn means that a substantial number of state and local government employees are in effect paid by the federal government, either to administer grants or to ensure compliance with the many complicated federal regulations attached to the grants.
Many of the “culture war issues” that divide left and right are provoked by the metro area left’s attempt to use federal regulations to impose policies that could not be passed by the city council or the state government. The threat that the federal government would cut off aid to colleges and universities was used to intimidate them into compliance with controversial leftist sexual harassment policies denying due process to the accused under the Obama administration. Also in the Obama years, the federal government used the threat of cutoffs of federal aid and civil rights lawsuits to bully state governments and local school districts into letting biological boys and men compete in female sports teams and use female showers, locker rooms, and restrooms. In the case of the latter controversy, the federal government’s pressure on state legislatures and local school districts was reinforced by extortion from “woke” national and multinational corporations, which fund Democrats.
When federal grants-in-aid and corporate blackmail are understood as weapons of the downtown Democrats, the power of Republican red state legislatures to override blue city ordinances looks less impressive. While targeted grants-in-aid may benefit only a few state citizens, it is the noisy few who will fill up the phone lines to state legislators if the federal government threatens to cut them off as part of a progressive blackmail campaign. Democratic legislators have also found ways of tying more popular forms of federal aid—for transportation, housing, and schools—to more arcane priorities in cultural areas, forcing localities to choose between embracing Democratic ideas of race, gender, and sexual orientation or risk losing federal funding for schools and highways.
Even more intimidating is extortion by left-leaning corporations. Particularly in poorer, more working-class Republican states, the state economic development strategy often involves luring major national or multinational corporate investment. The socially (though not economically) progressive Democrats and liberal Republicans who run corporate America can insist that the states competing for their money not only shower them with tax breaks but also write New York and Bay Area social values into state law, or suffer an investment boycott.
A “Republican workers party” would answer: “Go ahead. Make my day.” Like the quite different Progressive and New Deal Democrats in the South and Midwest in the 1930s, who were led by peripheral elites who sought to industrialize their regions while minimizing the influence of Northeastern capitalists and corporations, a populist Republican Party would promote state and local economic development by methods that do not involve kowtowing to liberal CEOs in San Francisco or New York—methods like “sewer socialism” (city or county ownership of utilities), cooperatives (the Tennessee Valley Authority), or state-owned enterprises, like the Bank of North Dakota, established in 1991.
But such a strategy of using state and local government for economic self-defense against cultural as well as economic colonization by national and multinational corporations based in coastal cities is unthinkable for the Lesser Rich who control the Republican Party in red states. The GOP is a majority working-class party whose agenda is set by a minority of moderately rich, small-to-medium business owners and investors who think that working-class Republican voters are paid too much and have benefits that need to be slashed. Nearly a century after the New Deal, these Republican reactionaries have still not reconciled themselves to the minimum wage or Social Security. Their sole argument against Democrats on these issues is invocation of the threadbare scare-crow of “socialism.”
In the war between the metro area neighborhoods, then, fought out at the state and federal levels, the downtown Democratic coalition has the upper hand. At most, Republican state officials can strike down the occasional city council ban on plastic straws or sanctuary city ordinances, or compel state K-12 schools and state universities to tone down critical race theory and DEI indoctrination (though the laws once passed will be subverted by overwhelmingly left-liberal Democratic teachers and university faculties and staff).
The downtown Democrats have more formidable weapons at their disposal. If they control the White House, they can use the Justice Department or federal agencies or both to threaten the cutoff of grant-in-aid funding to state and local governments and nonprofit and business groups, mobilizing the beneficiaries of federal grants in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors alike to demand that the state government surrender to the national left.
And if direct blackmail by the federal government fails, the upscale local metro area Democrats who fail to pass their favored policies at the state level can bring in their friends in Silicon Valley and Wall Street like mafia goons to make elected state officials an offer they can’t refuse. Corporations can threaten to locate new plants or headquarters in another state or city. Twitter can censor Republican politicians and activists. Banks can threaten to demonetize businesses associated with conservatives and Republicans. The titans of corporate America, now firmly allied with the Democratic Party, have shown that they are willing to do everything short of putting severed horse’s heads in the beds of Republican policymakers in order to bully state and local governments into obeying the Democratic left on social and cultural (but not economic) issues.
So is resistance to the controversial diktats of the blue urban oligarchy a doomed cause? Maybe. But this is a snapshot of the present, not the whole movie reel. It is anybody’s guess what the partisan geographic patterns and alignments will be in a decade or a generation.
What we can see from here is that educational and class polarization within and between the parties has been increasing with each election. Within the Democratic coalition, there is a growing split between the upscale, college-educated white left and Black and Hispanic Democrats, who reject elite progressive dogmas like police and prison abolition, open borders, and avant-garde gender ideology. Ethnic groups like Hispanics and Asians tend to fissure along educational and class lines, with upwardly mobile college-educated members joining the ever-more-upscale Democrats, and working-class members gravitating toward the increasingly downscale GOP.
Because voters who do not complete college outnumber those with college diplomas in every racial and ethnic group, the trade favors the Republicans in the long term. As long as the provincial Lesser Rich control the Republican Party, however, the Republicans may win a lot of elections while losing the American civil war.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.