Maps

The Real Reason Cities Lean Democratic

How politics are inseparable from density, and what this means for Republicans.

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Chris Howard

Colleague Sommer Mathis put up a couple of telling maps last week after the election illustrating the Republican Party’s urban problem. Invariably, America’s metropolitan counties are the blue ones. The whole rest of the country, more or less, leans red. If you’re a liberal, these maps spatially look a bit terrifying, even if their underlying lesson bodes poorly for the GOP.

Such maps, after all, portray space, not people. But in modern America, the men with the most land no longer wield the most power. In fact, this election appears to have been decided by those of us who live the most tightly packed together. To appreciate that reality – and what it means for Republicans going forward – it’s helpful to look at our classic red-and-blue landscape through the lens of density.

University of Michigan professor Mark Newman produced this blended map of last week’s election results, showing that most counties are neither red nor blue but something in between:

Here he’s taken that same map and turned it into a cartogram that distorts the shape of the country (state by state) according to population:

Cartograms have their limitations, though (the first of which may be that you have no idea what you’re looking at there). Chris Howard, an author and illustrator living in New Hampshire, took Newman’s first map and instead layered directly on top of it census population data for every county in the continental U.S. (this is a measure of total population, not just voters). And this is what he came up with:

“I was looking for a map like this,” says Howard, who created the tool for his own education (and what has surprisingly turned out to be the education of the whole Internet). “What I wanted was a blended map, but I wanted it by population. Montana’s beautiful, but relatively speaking, no one lives there.”

Howard’s map underscores that the massive red block of the Great Plains actually has little political weight at all (curiously, electoral influence appears to dry up along with the rainfall abruptly west of the 98th meridian that commonly defines the Great Plains). Electoral power instead is concentrated in those blue-black patches, one of which strings all the way from southern Connecticut to Washington, D.C.

These are the places where people live densely together, where they require policies and an ideology that Republicans lately have not offered.

Some of the anger from cities this election season rightly pointed out that Republican Party leaders go out of their way to mock them. They denigrate urban ideas and populations because this has repeatedly proven an effective way to gin up enthusiasm among their base (case in point: watch this great Jon Stewart takedown of Fox News on Election Day, when the network breathlessly reported the same story 21 times of a lone black man patrolling a polling place in Philadelphia!). Republicans famously went so far as to come out against cities in their party platform. And they conveniently abandoned their sacred values of personal freedom and local rule when patronizing the people of the District of Columbia (who went on, not surprisingly, to give 91 percent of their vote to the president).

If Republicans are ever going to earn real votes in cities in the future, though, they'll have to do more than just talk about them differently. The real problem seeps much deeper. As the Republican Party has moved further to the right, it has increasingly become the party of fierce individualism, of "I built that" and you take care of yourself. Cities, on the other hand, are fundamentally about the shared commons. If you live in a city and you think government – and other people – should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighborhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no back yard?

In a good piece on the GOP’s problem with geography earlier this week, The New Republic’s Lydia DePillis interviewed Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, who made this point succinctly: "There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good," he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially."

The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of "public good," and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher (in jobs created through transportation spending, in the number of citizens touched by public expenditures, in patents per capita, in the sheer share of economic growth driven by our metropolises).

Density makes all of these things possible, and it requires its own kind of politics. There’s no reason why the Democratic Party should have an exclusive lock on this idea. Investing government money efficiently – as Republicans want to do – is also about focusing on how it’s spent in cities. While Republicans are mulling this over in the next four years, it may help to look at Howard’s map. What is going on in those dark blue dots? What does it mean to live in those places – and to live there and hear from politicians that “government should get out of the way?”

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.