America’s states seem increasingly disunited. Divisions over controversies related to COVID— lockdowns, vaccine mandates, school closures—have accentuated existing splits among blue Democratic and red Republican states with respect to partisanship and attitudes toward crime and public policy.


Some fear that these trends foretell a new civil war. Others welcome them as evidence of the saving genius of the founding design of a republic based on federalism. But before you choose sides in a new conflict between the states, you need to know that the basic assumption is wrong: There is no actual divide by states, which are merely battlegrounds in a proxy war. The real civil war is between neighborhoods in the same metro areas, backed by asymmetrical allies.


Ignore maps that show electoral results by state and look at county maps or maps of U.S. House districts. At this level of granularity, state borders disappear. There are no red states or blue states. Instead, there are blue urban cores floating in a sea of red. Even the exurbs and rural areas in blue states like California and New York tend to be overwhelmingly red and Republican.


This is not a difference between “city” and “country.” Hardly any Americans live or work on farms or ranches anymore. The big divide is within metro areas, between the blue downtowns and their inner-ring suburbs that are home to the American oligarchy and its children and retainers, and the red exurbs; outer-ring suburbs tend to be battlegrounds between the Democratic and Republican coalitions. This geographic concentration hurts the Democrats in the Senate and the Electoral College. At the same time, Democratic blue core cities in majority red states can often circumvent state governments by appealing directly to Congress and to the enforcement layers of the federal bureaucracy and judiciary, as well as to the media and corporate elites controlled by the national party.


The Democratic coalition is an hourglass, top-heavy and bottom-heavy with a narrow middle. In addition to hoovering up the votes of college-educated Americans, the Democrats are the party of the Big Rich—tech billionaires and CEOs, investment banking houses, and the managerial class that spans large corporate enterprises and aligned prestige federal agencies like the Justice Department and the national security agencies. This mostly white and Asian American group cannot win elections without the overwhelming support of Black Americans, and smaller majorities of Hispanic and Asian American voters, clustered in the downtowns and inner suburbs. The high cost of living in Democratic hub cities forces out the multiracial middle; the exceptions tend to be civil servants like police and first responders and teachers who can (sometimes) afford to live in or near their downtown jobs.


The social base of the Democrats is neither a few liberal billionaires nor the more numerous cohorts of high-school educated minority voters; it is the disproportionately white college-educated professionals and managers. These affluent but not rich overclass households dominate the Democratic Party and largely determine its messaging, not by virtue of campaign contributions or voting numbers, but because they very nearly monopolize the staffing of the institutions that support the party—K-12 schools and universities, city and state and federal bureaucracies, public sector unions, foundations, foundation-funded nonprofit organizations, and the mass media. By osmosis, professional and managerial values and material interests and fads and fashions permeate the Democratic Party and shape its agenda.


While the liberal Big Rich cluster in silver apartments and offices in trophy skyscrapers in the inner core of blue cities, the elites of the outer suburbs and exurbs tend to be made up of the Lesser Rich—millionaire car dealership owners, real estate agents, oil and gas drilling equipment company owners, and hair salon chain owners. This group of proprietors—the petty bourgeoisie, to use Marxist terminology, compared to the Democratic haute bourgeoisie and its professional allies—forms the social base of the Republican Party, despite efforts by Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, and others to rebrand the GOP as a working-class party.


Which is not to say that the social differences between the two parties aren’t important. There are far more business owners and fewer managers of huge multinational firms or banks in red areas than there are in the class-stratified, hierarchical Democratic urban cores. There are fewer rich and fewer poor. If the social structure of Democratic cores resembles an hourglass, the shape of the Republican exurbs and rural areas looks more like a diamond.


The wealthier members of each party also have different kinds of relationships with their neighbors. The Lesser Rich of the exurbs and small towns are more likely to be natives of their areas than the nomadic careerists of New York, San Francisco, D.C., LA, Chicago, and Austin. They are less likely to be immigrants, and more likely to share a common regional culture and ethnicity and religion with the local working class. But the fact that the local business owner can discuss hunting and fishing with his employees or may attend the same church does not moderate the ferocious hostility of most of the red-county gentry to anything that would raise the cost of labor for their businesses—a higher minimum wage, unionization, paid vacations, paid parental leave.


The intensity of opposition to such measures makes it easy to dismiss the red gentry as retrograde, unfeeling, and greedy, as some are. However, some of their complaints about federal policy are legitimate. Unlike the flagship tech oligopolies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, whose executives and employees fund and sometimes staff the Democratic Party’s political operations, many small business owners struggle to keep up with the jargon and paperwork required to deal with elaborate environmental regulations or proliferating race and gender quotas in federal record-keeping and subsidies. In addition to helping their urban core constituents, Democratic policies, to the extent that they harm Republican businesses and industries, increase the Democratic share of national wealth, which can then be deployed further against the party’s Republican rivals.


If hourglass Democrats are dominated by urban managers and professionals linked to the national and global economies, and the diamond Republicans by moderately rich local business elites, then who speaks for the two-thirds of Americans who are working class, who lack college diplomas and must work for wages? The answer is: nobody. At 6% and falling, private sector trade union membership in the United States is lower than it was under Herbert Hoover.


The only time that the working-class majority had any real influence in American politics, as well as in their workplaces, was between the 1940s and the 1980s, when private sector unions were a force that both parties had to reckon with. Private sector unions have been annihilated in the last half-century in the United States because hatred of organized labor is one of only two areas of agreement between socially liberal Democratic Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, CEOs who donate millions to Black Lives Matter, and small-town Republican sweatshop owners and overseers who think Social Security and Medicare constitute “socialism.” The other thing that the Democratic Big Rich and the Republican Lesser Rich agree on is the need for more indentured servant “guest workers” from other countries who are bound to the employers that sponsor them, and who are thus more easily manipulated and intimidated than either free American citizen-workers or immigrants with green cards who can quit bad employers.


The progressive Democrats of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft lobby for more H-1B visas, which go overwhelmingly to young male foreign nationals who are often willing to work for less money in worse conditions than comparably educated American citizens and naturalized immigrants. Meanwhile, the Republican small business, franchise, farm, and ranch owners in the boondocks claim they cannot find Americans willing to work for the crappy wages they pay (which is true) and demand that Congress supply them with higher numbers of captive guest workers who can be treated like serfs. A tight labor market with low immigration of the kind that COVID-caused disruptions have produced in some sectors, in which employers must compete for scarce workers by raising wages and benefits, is the nightmare of American investors and managers, big and small, progressive and conservative alike.

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