Navigate to News section

The ZIP Codes That Rule America

The real divide isn’t between red states and blue states or cities and rural areas. It’s between mega-rich political donors and everyone else.

Michael Lind
December 17, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Before the recent election gave President-elect Joe Biden a solid majority of the Electoral College, some fretful Democrats worried that it would forever prevent Democratic victories. They called for the admission of new states, which could be expected to be reliably Democratic, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Later, after the Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit by Trump’s lawyers that contested the election results, Allen West, the former tea party member of Congress from Florida who is now the chair of the Texas Republican Party, on Dec. 11 speculated: “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.”

Would any of these changes make much difference in American politics, all other things remaining equal? Probably not. If you look at a county map of national election results, it is clear that for the most part there are only blue big cities and college towns in a sea of red that includes working-class outer suburbs and many small towns. This is not a “rural-urban” divide, since the red-blue Republican-Democrat divide increasingly occurs within metropolitan areas, with the Democrats getting the well-to-do neighborhoods and the Republicans the less affluent ones.

Also, contrary to public perception, “urban” and “minority” are not synonyms. Most Black and Hispanic Americans are not poor and do not live in inner cities. Most are working class and live in the suburbs and exurbs where most white working-class Americans live. While majorities of Blacks and Latinos vote for Democrats, in this and previous elections we have seen a growing percentage vote like most working-class whites for the Republicans. Immigrants clustered in big cities can be expected to follow a similar trend, as they or their descendants move to the suburbs and assimilate. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is gentrifying and getting whiter and more upscale.

The most important reason that changing the roster of states would probably not affect politics that much is that our states and congressional districts are mostly “rotten boroughs,” to use the old British parliamentary phrase. In theory senators represent the citizens of their states and members of the House represent the people of their congressional districts. In practice they represent individual and corporate donors and political allies and future employers, who may live anywhere in the United States—or in some cases abroad. Joe Biden was the senator from the credit card industry, based in Delaware.

The donors to American politicians in all 50 states are concentrated in a few ZIP codes. According to Open Secrets, of the ZIP codes that delivered the most campaign funding for the Democrats in 2020, not counting dark money or soft money for liberal groups, four of the top five were in New York City (10024, 10023, 10022, 10011), followed by Chevy Chase, Maryland (20815), a suburb of Washington, D.C. Other top Democratic ZIPs this year were Silicon Valley (94301 and 94022) and Cambridge, Massachusetts (02138). New York City was also overrepresented among donors to the Republican Party, whose donor base is more geographically diverse, with a lot of money coming from Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Palm Beach, Florida.

A former Democratic senator from the Midwest told me a few years back why he got out of politics: “I got tired of the fundraising. They [the Democratic National Committee] give you a list of these rich people in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. No matter what state you’re from, you have to fly out there and grovel before them. They don’t know anything about your state or its people. All they care about is their pet issues.”

And the donors have far more influence on public policy in America than the voters do. In a famous article in Perspectives on Politics in 2014 titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern tested four theories of how democracy works in America: majoritarian electoral democracy, economic-elite domination, majoritarian pluralism, and biased pluralism. They concluded that the data on whose preferences shape policy support the economic-elite domination theory: “When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

The progressives who think that only the Electoral College and the malapportioned Senate are preventing the United States from adopting Swedish-style social democracy are living in a fool’s paradise. So are Republicans who think that the GOP answers to its voters, rather than its donors. Most big Democratic donors are neoliberals who do not want Medicare for All or strong labor unions and most big Republican donors are libertarians who do not want low-wage immigration or access by multinational corporations to cheap labor in China and elsewhere to be restricted. Most politicians follow the preferences of their donors, not their voters, when there is a conflict. “Who buys my bread, his song I sing,” as the old saying goes. Or, if you prefer another proverb: “The Golden Rule is whoever has the gold rules.”

ZIP codes, then, matter more in national politics than states. For the sake of argument, though, let’s consider the methods that might be used to change the map of the United States: subdivision, subtraction, and addition.

In the 1990s, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York was in the habit of summoning me now and then for drinks or dinner and conversation. At one happy-hour symposium in 1997, he told me: “I have been talking trash all day.” Senators from low-population states in the West had frustrated a plan, pushed by Moynihan and his fellow New York Sen. Alfonse d’Amato, to export New York’s garbage to Rocky Mountain and Plains states. “Lind,” he said—he always called me by my last name, British schoolboy fashion—“you should write an essay saying we should consolidate all of those Western states into one state with only two senators.”

I mentioned my commission from Moynihan to my friend Walter Russell Mead, who pointed out that the Constitution bans the consolidation of states but permits their subdivision, with the approval of the state legislature and Congress. Here is Article IV, Section 3:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

Only two states have been created in this manner, Maine and West Virginia. In 1819 the creation of Maine from part of Massachusetts was approved both by the Massachusetts legislature and the U.S. Congress.

The process that led to the division of Virginia was a bit sketchier. During the Civil War, the federal government recognized a minority government based in pro-Union counties in western Virginia as the legitimate state government, rather than the Confederate state government in Richmond. This notional state government of Virginia authorized the creation of a new state of Kanawha, which became the present state of West Virginia. On July 14, 1862, Congress recognized West Virginia’s statehood, and provided for gradual emancipation of slaves in the new state.

In the January/February 1998 issue of Mother Jones, in my essay “75 Stars: How to restore democracy in the U.S. Senate (and end the tyranny of Wyoming),” I fulfilled Sen. Moynihan’s commission while acknowledging Walter Russell Mead’s suggestion that no state should have more than 4 or 5 million inhabitants. “If the four-million-population rule were applied to the large states,” I noted, “California might be subdivided into eight new states; Texas, five; New York and Florida, four; Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio, three; and Michigan and New Jersey, two.”

The editors of Mother Jones came up with a map of the new United States, providing silly names to the new states. From north to south, the baby Californias were Vineland, Siliconia, Marin, Reagan, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego. The Lone Star state was upgraded to five stars: Tejas (West Texas) Texahoma (North Texas), Petroland (East Texas), North Mexico (South Texas), and Alamo (central Texas). Like the major California cities, New York City became independent, along with three other new states formed from the former state of New York: East Ontario, Hudson, and Long Island. Moynihan was pleased and included my essay and the map of the 75 states of America in the next issue of The Fisc—the report he sent regularly to his New York constituents.

The treaty of annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845 approved by joint resolution of the House and Senate provided: “New states, of convenient size, not exceeding four in number, in addition to said state of Texas, and having sufficient population, may hereafter, by consent of said state, be formed out of the territory thereof, which shall be entitled to admission under the provisions of the federal constitution.”

By adding D.C. and the five territories as states, the Democrats would make a mockery of their complaints about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and the Senate.

Five years later in 1850, when Congress by law gave Texas its present-day boundaries, the “four new states guaranty” was repeated: “That nothing herein contained shall be construed to impair or qualify any thing contained in the third article of the second section of the ‘joint resolution for annexing Texas to the United States,’ approved March first, eighteen hundred and forty-five, either as regards the number of States that may hereafter be formed out of the State of Texas, or otherwise.”

Some have argued that the silence about congressional consent in the treaty, which refers only to “consent of said state,” gave Texas the power to unilaterally divide. But the same sentence states that any new states carved out of Texas “shall be entitled to admission under the provisions of the federal constitution.” This implies that any baby Texas, like every other state, must be admitted to the United States by a separate act of Congress.

In any event, the issue was made moot by the Civil War and Reconstruction, as a Texan lawyer, Ralph H. Brock, argued in the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal in 2008. Following the Civil War, Texas was restored as a state with a right to representation in Congress by the Texas Reconstruction Act of 1870. The original House version of this act included the clause: “That this act shall not affect in any manner the conditions and guarantees upon which the State of Texas was annexed and admitted as a state.” Fearing that Texas might seek to subdivide itself into one or more new slave states, the Senate struck that clause from the legislation and the House then did so as well. The right of Texas to split in five was eliminated by Congress in 1870.

In theory, the Constitution itself could be amended to partition the country by means of a constitutional amendment that does so by one or another procedure. What might the successor states be? One might be Cascadia, the name of the country formed by the fusion of breakaway portions of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 countercultural utopian novel, Ecotopia.

At the other extreme, the neo-Confederate League of the South insists that white Southerners are a captive nation in the United States. When the Obama White House launched its “We the People” petitioning system in 2011, which allowed citizens to petition the White House directly, it received numerous petitions from residents of the former Confederacy demanding the secession of their states. After neo-Confederates in Texas sent such a petition to the White House, residents of my home town of Austin sent their own petition, requesting that the federal government allow Austin to remain in the Union if the rest of Texas seceded. As an enclave in a post-American Texas, Austin might be connected to the Rump USA by a version of the Berlin Airlift, or it might convert Interstate Highway 35 into a version of the Danzig Corridor.

Addition of states is easier than subdivision or subtraction. With the exception of Texas, a former independent republic, and two states carved out of others, Maine and West Virginia, all of the states that have been admitted to the United States since its founding have been formed from U.S. territories. The most recent territories to be admitted as states were Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Southern segregationist Democrats opposed the admission of multiracial Hawaii, and it was only the midterm elections of 1958—which reduced Southern Democrats to a minority in the Democratic Party in Congress—that permitted the admission of Hawaii along with Alaska.

Today the United States has five inhabited territories that in theory might become states: Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. Given the fact that majorities of all nonwhite groups prefer Democrats at the moment, one or more of these territories, if converted into a state, might strengthen the Democratic bloc in the Senate. So might statehood for the District of Columbia. The approximate populations of these new states would be 2.8 million (Puerto Rico), 720,000 (D.C.), 168,000 (Guam), 104,000 (U.S. Virgin Islands), 57,000 (Northern Mariana Islands) and around 55,000 (American Samoa).

Admitting new low-population states on the basis of purely partisan motives to shift the balance between the parties in the Senate is nothing new. In 1888, Democratic President Grover Cleveland favored admission of the four territories of Montana, New Mexico, Dakota, and Washington, on the assumption that Montana and New Mexico would vote for Democrats and the new states of Dakota and Washington would be Republican. However, Cleveland’s successor, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican and the Republican Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since the 43rd Congress of 1873-75. As a result, Congress let Democratic-leaning New Mexico remain a territory and admitted three new Republican-leaning states—Washington and two Dakotas (formed from the single Dakota territory)—along with Montana, expected to be a Democratic state.

If the Democrats win both Senate runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5, 2021, then a united Democratic Congress with a Democrat in the White House in theory could admit one or more new states—but only after abolishing the filibuster and probably only with a party-line vote. By adding D.C. and the five territories as states, the Democrats would make a mockery of their complaints about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and the Senate, which grossly magnify the power of low-population states like Wyoming (with a population of a little more than 500,000) at the expense of populous states like California (nearly 40 million).

Are we stuck with only 50 stars on Old Glory from now on? Except at the margins, it doesn’t matter whether there are eight Californias or just one. Nor would it make much of a difference if D.C. or Puerto Rico became the 51st state. We can draw state borders however we like and add or subdivide states if we choose. But to the extent our influence is limited to voting, most of us are just renters in American politics. The donors, wherever they happen to live, own it.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.