Red States Are Generally Poorer…But Not Because of Conservative Governance

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About ten years ago I had an online debate (posting as Glenn Contrarian) with the then-president of the Republican Liberty Caucus, Dave Nalle and his fellow libertarian Nils Florman about how statistics prove that red-state conservative governance is inferior to blue-state liberal governance. Looking at the list of statistical evidence, it would seem that I had a solid case since - generally speaking - red states are generally (though not always) significantly worse off than blue states in all the following categories: poverty rate, violent crime rate, homicide rate, educational attainment rate, divorce rate, teenage pregnancy rate, life expectancy rate, percentage of population on food stamps, and bankruptcy rate. Yes, some blue states didn’t look good, but generally speaking, it was obvious that red states were worse off in all the above categories. The only category I could find where blue states were worse off was in drug use…and that category isn’t as meaningful as it was before states started legalizing marijuana.

Given the wealth of statistics supporting my view, I thought I had the debate won, and I was so satisfied with myself that I’d finally proven the two strongest conservatives on wrong. But then they both proceeded to metaphorically take me behind the woodshed as they introduced me to the correlation/causation logical fallacy. I beat my head repeatedly against their brick wall of logic, and all I got for my trouble was an equally-metaphorical bloody scalp.

So I began to do the Blue’s Clues thing and think, and think, and think…and I came to realize that they were right and I was wrong, and admitted my error to both of them. After eating the requisite serving of crow (it’s better with a LOT of Tabasco), I knew I couldn’t let the issue go, for the statistical divide was too wide to be mere happenstance. and after a couple of weeks, I think I figured it out. Conservative governance doesn’t cause red states’ worse standards of living, but almost exactly the reverse: worse standards of living in rural areas do generally result in the election of conservative political candidates.

What’s the proof? Well, it’s not so much proof as it is the difference between the general mindsets of urban and rural residents. Those who live in rural areas and in smaller communities are generally less exposed to different ideas, concepts, and cultures as are those in urban communities…and the less prosperous the rural community, the less exposure they have of those factors. This produces fertile soil indeed for cultivating a conservative mindset. I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, and all we knew of the outside world was what we saw on television on the weeks that the Billy Graham Crusade didn’t dominate prime-time television on the only channel we had, WABG-TV (but now those who live there can get not one, but *two* television channels…but no cable, and even now where I lived only has access to dial-up internet). At the time, there were no Mexican restaurants and only one Chinese restaurant within about forty miles in any direction.

In other words, when one has little exposure to the different and the new, one tends to have a conservative mindset, taking comfort in the lack of change, the lack of disruption to one’s own world.

Conversely, those who live in urban areas are exposed to the different and the new almost every day. One can’t walk down the street in Seattle or New York City without hearing multiple different languages. Even in Manila, Philippines, a city of 12M+ people, and which is much more racially homogeneous than any major American city, one sees so many influences from other countries, mainly thanks to the OFW’s (Overseas Filipino Workers) who bring back ideas and concepts from their work overseas. There’s restaurants of almost any ethnicity one cares to name; there’s even two Creole restaurants I’ve been to in Manila! Imagine this Delta boy’s surprise to find that I can have mustard greens-and-onions, catfish, boiled peanuts, and chitlins(!) half a world away from the Mississippi Delta!

Manila itself is more conservative than any region in America…but the key is that compared to rural Philippines, Manila is fairly liberal. One can see the same dynamic in any other nation on the planet: urban areas are almost always more liberal than rural areas. Even in deep-red states like Texas, the major cities tend to be quite liberal indeed e.g. when Houston elected an openly-lesbian mayor.

While that’s most of the reason why rural areas generally vote for conservative candidates, there’s one more significant factor: the prosperity of the local population. Think back to when Iowa voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Iowa is quite rural…but thanks to the rise of ethanol and other factors over the years, Iowa is also fairly prosperous, and so the people are able to travel more, see more, have access to more information about the different and the new.

Those, then, are the two major factors in why red states tend to have a significantly lower standard of living: rural populations and endemic poverty. And those who live in such areas, who generally have much less access to information about (much less exposure to) ideas and cultures very different from their own, tend to be more conservative, and so tend to elect conservative candidates. It’s not the conservative politicians who cause the problems we see in red states, but it’s the problems we see in red states that cause their people to elect conservative politicians.

So what’s the takeaway? If we liberals can somehow bring real economic growth and greatly increase the standards of living of those in red states, the residents, who would now have more opportunity for exposure to many other cultures, to the different and the new, would be more open to liberal ideals. This will take decades to happen, but it can certainly work, as we can all see by the long-term success of liberalism in western Europe (though they are now struggling with their current experiment with economic austerity).

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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