How Democrats Solve Their Geography Problem

In a cover package in our latest issue, the Washington Monthly argues that the Democratic Party’s most profound—but fixable—problem is geography. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats rode a “blue wave” of support to their first House majority since 2011. Yet, even with a nine-point advantage in the national vote, they lost a net of two Senate seats. That’s because their voters are increasingly clustered in solid-blue states like California and New York and too thin on the ground in states like North Dakota and Ohio. If this situation continues, Democrats will have a tough time ever regaining the Senate (where sparsely and heavily populated states each get two senators) and may continue to lose the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote.

The challenge is not only that Democrats have hemorrhaged support in economically declining rural areas. It’s also that metro areas in red and purple states, which generally support Democrats, haven’t been growing enough to offset those rural losses. Instead, growth in income and opportunity has overwhelmingly flowed to a handful of large metro areas on or near the coasts—precisely the places where Democrats are wracking up millions of “wasted” votes.

Democrats can fix their geography problem, our latest issue argues, only by confronting this regional economic inequality. And the best and only way to do that is to reverse the national policies that caused the problem in the first place: the abandonment of antitrust and other measures that once ensured that every part of the country could compete economically, which has since enabled the rise of monopoly firms that cluster opportunity in a few lucky coastal megacities like San Francisco and New York.

In the short term, committing to that path could help Democrats make inroads among the rural voters they desperately need to woo back. Last fall, Iowa Democrat J. D. Scholten, running on an economic message that heavily emphasized the need to break up the dominant agricultural monopolies, came within 3.4 percentage points of beating Representative Steve King, the notorious racist, in a heavily rural Iowa district that went for Donald Trump by twenty-seven points. If that swing from 2016 could be replicated nationally, Claire Kelloway of the Open Markets Institute reports, it “would all but wipe out the current incarnation of the Republican Party.”

Over the longer haul, anti-monopoly policies could empower small and midsize cities to compete for business, economic growth, and residents—and take away the GOP’s geographic advantage for good. As Washington Monthly editor Daniel Block documents, had Greater Milwaukee grown in recent years at the same rate as Greater Minneapolis—one of the few cities in America’s interior to enjoy coastal levels of economic prosperity—”[Hillary] Clinton would have carried Wisconsin by approximately 16,000 votes instead of losing by roughly 23,000.”

But to take up this challenge, Democrats will have to overcome the resistance—and frankly the smugness—of their own voters in coastal megacities who are benefiting from the current setup. If coastal liberals want to avoid a permanent GOP dictatorship, I argue in my editor’s note, “They need to become aware of how a system they benefit from is also screwing them and everybody else. They need, in other words, to check their privilege.”

Please the find the Table of Contents for our January/February/March 2019 Issue below.

How to Close the Democrats’ Rural Gap

Forget Trump’s tariffs. Big Ag is driving a new farm crisis.

Return of the Strongmen

The rise of leaders like Rodrigo Duterte reveals that autocratic populism can thrive in a wide range of environments, posing a global threat to democratic government.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.