Monday, October 07, 2019

Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide

In Why Cities Lose, Jonathan Rodden takes a very academic look at the urban/rural political divide across English speaking countries. While most European countries have proportional representation, Canada, the US, the UK and Australia have winner-take-all district elections. The winner-take-all system encourages a few parties to assemble a basket of policies to appeal to sufficient voters. The arrangement today is typically that one party represents the rural and exurban areas, while another represents the urban areas. The book is full of charts and graphs showing how far one must go from the central city to flip from the "urban" to "rural" party. With traditional industrial cities, it happens not too far out. With "knowledge economy" cities like San Francisco or Seattle, one has to travel much further out. The "left" party is typically strongest in the dense urban manufacturing core. This often rose out of the socialist parties uniting labor unions. The democratic party was able to co-opt the socialists and become the urban party in the US. Today, however, most manufacturing is done in sprawling exurban plants, with most of the workers voting Republican. (Though in the past the parties did not have the strong rural/urban association.)
Democrats tend to have a concentration disadvantage. Pennsylvania is presented as a case study. Despite Democrats often taking statewide offices, Republicans have dominated the legislature. This is due to the concentration of democratic voters in cities. In the suburban and rural areas, the Republicans have an advantage, but not so pronounced. The constitution requires districts to follow communities as much as possible. This results in some urban districts that are overwhelmingly democratic, while rural districts have a smaller Republican advantage. The result is that a large number of democratic votes are "thrown away". Even with unbiased computer-generated maps, Republicans still get an advantage. (However, the Republican legislature has taken it a step further and added gerrymandering to the picture.) In the south, the Republicans have used voting-rights legislation as justification for creating black "super-majority" districts in rural areas. This has allowed Republicans to dominate in a more balanced state.
The Democratic party also struggles on one side to appeal to urban progressives that want to push the party to the left, and more pragmatic centrists who want to win. When the party is doing well, the left-flank tends to push the party to the left, alienating the centrists, and causing the party to lose. Then the party must become more disciplined and move to the center to gain greater wide-spread acceptance.
There is a great deal more data in book. It does start to get overwhelming. The thesis is simple. Parties of cities are disadvantaged by their concentration in winner-take-all districts. The existing parties are served well by the current system and have little incentive for change that would allow upstarts.

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