The Civil Cold War
The United States is as politically polarized as it was in 1865.
If Republicans win Arkansas in 2014 and Le Page gets knocked off in Maine, it could be the final dent in the old coalitions of a Democratic south and Republican New England. Assuming no other changes in these regions’ governor affiliations, it would be the first time no Republican governor held office in New England and no Democratic governor did so in a confederate state since the end of Reconstruction. In other words, we’re basically back to civil war-era politics.
The inability for Democrats and Republicans to get elected to state-wide office in the south and New England, respectively, could have a significant impact on how these state governments operate. As I’ve mentioned before, and as has been well encapsulated by Abby Rapoport, state government has never been so polarized. The places where polarization is lowest are in the south and New England, in states like West Virginia – quite conservative and yet Democratic on the state level - and states like Rhode Island – liberal yet still with shades of Republicanism on the state level. It’s increasingly clear that party affiliation is trumping ideology in these states, as it’s been doing on the national level.
The policy ramifications of such a switch cannot be understated. Search Google for “Mike Beebe” and “veto”, and the first links that appear are vetoes of abortion bans and voter identification laws that Republican state legislatures tried to pass. Do a search for “Paul LePage” and “veto”, and you come up with vetoes for Medicaid expansions and cigarette bans. These governors are providing a check on legislatures that have already completed a full party conversion.
Once all the governors have switched and voters finish self-sorting, we could end with states that are very conservative and states that are very liberal. There will be little need for Democrats to play to the middle in formerly conservative New England states, and the same will be true for Republicans in the formerly liberal southern states. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but it’s going to make us wonder whether we can call our states politically united anymore.
This is a culmination of a realignment that’s been underway the past four decades.
Most of the Deep South states have been more-or-less reliably Republican since 1972 but their congressional delegations, state legislatures, and governor’s mansions were either solidly Democratic or at least competitive will into the 1980s. As recently as 1992 and 1996, Democrats–granted, with two Southerners on the ticket–won several Deep South states even at the presidential level. And Republicans continued to win statewide office in New England well into the 2000s.
In recent years, however, the national parties have, as Dave Schuler has pointed out many times, moved from being catch-all parties (i.e., those whose primary purpose was winning elections by assembling a majority of voter support) to programmatic parties (i.e., those whose primary purpose is pushing an ideological or issue agenda). This, coupled with the 24/7/365 communications era (first cable news and talk radio, then blogs, and now Twitter) makes it next to impossible for conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans to survive. It’s far easier for a Lincoln Chafee or even a Charlie Christ to simply declare themselves Democrats than to find off two parties—the opposition plus their own—as Republican apostates.
The end result of this is anathema to the functioning of a large, diverse society of ours. In social science terms, we’re now a nation of reinforcing rather than cross-cutting cleavages. While I don’t think we’re liable to have another civil war, we’re in something like a civil cold war; Red America and Blue America not only don’t see themselves as having much in common but they scarcely regard each other as fellow countrymen.
Demographic changes would seem to be the main countervailing trend. Several once-solid Red States—Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia–as becoming increasingly blue through a combination of in-migration from Blue states, a rising Hispanic population, and a growing government sector. California went from being a solid Red State as recently as 1988 to being a solid Blue State since, mostly because of the Latino vote.
One interesting outlier in the trend is Chris Christie, who currently has a 30-point lead in his race for re-election in solid Blue New Jersey. It’s a Mid-Atlantic state rather than part of New England but it does give some hope that it’s still possible to transcend party labels. Then again, Christie is, to say the least, not particularly popular with the Republican base nationally and, especially, in the Deep South.