Urban vs. rural divides weren't always the way

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You've seen the election maps. President Barack Obama won the popular vote, but Mitt Romney beat him badly on acreage.

America's urban/rural political divide has been stark in recent presidential elections, but if it still seems new, that's because it is. America always had regional divides, but there was a time when cities' voting patterns might blend seamlessly with the countryside. That's a fading memory.

To take the example closest to home, Mr. Romney won 55 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties -- and got crushed. Philadelphia alone -- where the president took 85 percent of the vote and ran up a 466,000-vote margin -- trumped Mr. Romney's edge in the rest of the state.

The maps look much the same in battleground states such as Ohio and Virginia. As in so many blue Democratic states, the rural counties remain deep red Republican. Similarly, in red states such as Texas and Tennessee, the big cities come out blue.

Mind you, America always has had some city-county divergence. We need only remember the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, when Western Pennsylvania farmers took violent dislike to the tax that the New York Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, slapped on their tasty liquid method of shipping corn across mountains.

In times gone by, though, rural folks were often the lefties.

"In the 1880s and 1890s, American farmers launched a political party -- the People's or Populists Party -- that backed reforms that many today would label socialist," said Todd DePastino, a history teacher at Waynesburg University and founder of the Veterans Breakfast Club.

"Nationalization of railroads, abolition of banks, higher taxes on the rich, an eight-hour day and inflationary monetary policies" were all part of the rural agenda then, Mr. DePastino said. "Democrats through Harry Truman won the farm vote."

That's ancient history. Rural and suburban populists, inspired by Ronald Reagan and the Christian right, have been conservative bedrock since the 1980s, noted Marcus Rediker. He grew up in the South and is now the Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh.

"A lot of American politics is fought out within the idiom of populism," Mr. Rediker said.

Yes, and now that mantle has been claimed by both the Tea Party movement on the right and the Occupy protesters on the left. That's largely a countryside/city split, too, but maybe we should forget all the scholarship and cut to the simplest explanation.

Whites voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Romney, and the American countryside remains overwhelmingly white, pointed out Kristin Kanthak, associate professor of political science at Pitt. Latino, Asian and black voters went big for Mr. Obama, and they're largely in the cities. Urban whites are more likely to vote Democratic, too.

Much of today's Democratic base was either denied the vote or not here in days gone by. Now they're a big and growing part of the electorate and Republicans have been unable to attract them in large numbers. Carmen DiCiccio, a history instructor at Pitt, thinks the GOP is in danger of going the way of the Federalist Party if it doesn't shift gears.

The party of Hamilton, John Adams and James O'Hara of Pittsburgh, Federalists were prosperous strivers who liked a national bank and tariffs. They were strong in the cities and in New England, but in a very short time there just weren't enough of them.

"The Federalist Party became defunct because it couldn't win national elections," Mr. DiCiccio said.

Their conservative successors figured a way over that hump. Pittsburgh was run by a Republican machine from the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 through 1934, Mr. DiCiccio said, and in that time the city's voting patterns meshed with the state's. There were intra-party squabbles with good-government types taking on the machine, but apart from Irish Democratic enclaves in a handful of wards, Pittsburgh's immigrants generally stuck with Republicans.

That's because the party bosses, William Flinn and Christopher Magee, weren't hostile to foreigners streaming into Pittsburgh. (About a quarter of the city's residents were foreign-born by 1910.) Nor did party leaders ally themselves with the Prohibitionists and East End reformers who were often anti-immigrant, Mr. DiCiccio said. Republican strategists generally had no issue with this new wave, though they lost these voters to the New Deal Democrats in the 1930s.

Parties evolve or die. That's the American way. The GOP's "Green Acres" strategy is past due for a tune-up.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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