Weekend reading: Dense Democrats, supercharged cities, and rural reaction then and now

5 minute read

This week my theme is the urban-rural divide in U.S. politics, both present and past:

  • The Real Republican Adversary? Population Density” (Dave Troy). A Baltimore entrepreneur looks at how population density is associated with (and influences?) Americans’ political choices and beliefs: “98% of the 50 most dense counties voted Obama. 98% of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney. … At about 800 people per square mile, people switch from voting primarily Republican to voting primarily Democratic.” His conclusion: “Density is efficient. Density produces maximum economic output. An America that is not built fundamentally on density and efficiency is not competitive or sustainable. And a Republican party that requires America to grow inefficiently will become extinct.” See also Tim de Chant’s “How population density affected the 2012 presidential election” for (somewhat confusing) paired maps showing population density vs. Obama’s and Romney’s vote totals.1

  • Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities” (Luís M. A. Bettencourt, José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West).  Providing some scientific underpinnings to Dave Troy’s arguments for cities and higher-density living, Geoffrey West and his colleagues claim that the growth of cities exhibits mathematical regularities and in particular that cities foster increases in innovation at a rate greater than would be expected by looking at their rate of population growth: “Many diverse properties of cities from patent production and personal income to electrical cable length are shown to be power law functions of population size with scaling exponents, β, that fall into distinct universality classes. Quantities reflecting wealth creation and innovation have β ≈1.2 >1 (increasing returns), whereas those accounting for infrastructure display β ≈0.8 <1 (economies of scale).” For a less math-heavy discussion of these ideas see the Edge interview with West.

  • Agenda 21 and You” [PDF] (John Birch Society). One present-day conservative response to calls for higher-density living and “sustainable development”: “The American dream of the beautiful house, big front and back yard, white picket fence, and one to two cars, is to be replaced with the United Nations’ Agenda 21 vision of living in small urban dwelling[s], …. As rural areas become less populated, they will become off-limits for people, but not animals and plants, such as weeds. Over time, plants and animals will move in and take over. Grass will grow uncut and grow creeping into sidewalks. … These once lively and prosperous communities will become ‘open space.’”

  • Cross of Gold” (William Jennings Bryan). In 1896 the soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee advocates on behalf of rural America: “[We] say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—the pioneers away out there [pointing to the west], who rear their children near to Nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead—these people, as we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak. … I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”2

  • United States presidential election, 1896” (Wikipedia). “The 1896 campaign is often considered to be a realigning election that ended the old Third Party System and began the Fourth Party System. [Republican candidate William] McKinley forged a coalition in which businessmen, professionals, skilled factory workers, and prosperous farmers were heavily represented. He was strongest in cities and in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast. Bryan was … strongest in the South, rural Midwest, and Rocky Mountain states.” Compare the map of electoral results to the Tim de Chant map linked to above.3

  1. If and when I have time I’d like to do a version of Dave Troy’s analysis for Howard County, relating Democratic and Republican vote totals in each of the county’s 110 precincts to the population density for that precinct. Clearly there’s the well-known tendency for less-populated rural western Howard to vote GOP, but it would be interesting to see how closely the relationship between density and voters’ choices holds up elsewhere in the county.

  2. Note that what rural Americans wanted in 1896 was an alternative to the gold standard and an accompanying bit of inflation to help reduce their burden of debt, and that’s what Bryan promised them in the famous conclusion of his speech: “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” (Here Bryan stretched his arms out wide, and after a moment of stunned silence the crowd went wild.)

  3. For an interesting contrast to Bryan’s speech see the acceptance speech of William McKinley that same year: “Great are the issues involved in the coming election, and eager and earnest are the people for their right determination. Our domestic trade must be won back and our idle workingmen employed in gainful occupations at American wages. … The government of the United States must raise enough money to meet both its current expenses and increasing needs. … It must be apparent to all, regardless of past party ties or affiliations, that it is our paramount duty to provide adequate revenue for the expenditures economically and prudently administered. The Republican party has heretofore done this, and this I confidently believe it will do in the future, when the party is again entrusted with power … The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag, and can be relied upon to guard it with the same sleepless vigilance. They hold its preservation above party loyalty and have often demonstrated that party ties avail nothing when the spotless credit of our country is threatened.”