We are now two countries, and we might as well admit it.

October 23rd, 2023 by Tom Lynch

Friday, in the U.S. House of Representatives, chaos continued unabated.

The good news was Republicans did not elevate pugnacious Ohio Representative and alleged sexual-abuse-enabler Jim Jordan to the Speakership. The bad news is they didn’t elevate anyone else, either. After a five-hour, no-holds-barred meeting of their conference, Jordan was sent to the sidelines. His vote total dropped in each of the three rounds of voting. You’d think that would tell him something.

It is clear Republicans had absolutely no plan for moving forward after Florida’s Matt Gaetz engineered the ouster of Kevin McCarthy two weeks ago, because McCarthy committed the unpardonable sin of working with both Republicans and Democrats to keep the government open for 45 days in order to (perhaps) pass the 12 Appropriation Bills required to fund the 2024 fiscal year. This has led to the current globally embarrassing situation in which Republicans now look like flies circling a lampshade, bumping into each other in their frenzied panic.

And McCarthy’s allies insist on blaming the Democrats for their ex-leader’s dismissal. If the congressional dems had just played ball with Republicans and voted to keep McCarthy Speaker, everything would be pleasantly hunky-dory now.

People, how on God’s green earth did we ever get into this mess? Better question: How did a group of Donald Trump sycophants on the ideological far-edge fringe of society ever worm their way into the U.S. House of Representatives in the first place?

I suggest we have reached this sorry point, because America has now become two countries in all but name only. There is a Red Country and a Blue Country, and they continue to diverge from each other more every day. One of the countries, the Blue, is growing more prosperous, the other, the Red, more poor, falling farther behind.

So, let’s unpack the diverging countries.

There are more than 3,000 counties in America. If we look at how those counties, the blues and the reds, voted in the most recent two presidential elections, something becomes immediately apparent. Blue counties, although far fewer, are growing, red counties are not.

The following chart from the Brookings Institute and the New York Times paints a stark picture of the difference in the size of the counties voting for Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Note the largest county in the country voting for Trump was Suffolk County, New York, which is located in the easternmost part of Long Island. After Suffolk, counties voting for Trump diminish in size almost to the point of invisibility and irrelevance, but there are more than 2,000 of them.

The nation’s economic geography remains rigidly divided. Biden captured virtually all of the counties with the biggest economies in the country (depicted by the largest blue tiles in the graphic above).

By contrast, Trump won thousands of counties in small-towns and rural communities with correspondingly tiny economies (depicted by the red tiles). Biden’s counties tended to be far more diverse, educated, and white-collar professional, with their aggregate nonwhite and college-educated shares of the economy running to 35% and 36%, respectively, compared to 16% and 25% in counties that voted for Trump.

The Blue counties, despite recognized problems Republicans highlight every chance they get, are highly diverse and comprise America’s 2023 economic engine, excelling in technology, medicine, banking and biotech industries, to name just a few. Red America has historically relied on Agriculture, Mining and basic manufacturing, which has been disappearing over the last two decades. In 1998, 18.1 million Americans were employed in the manufacturing industry, representing 11% of the total workforce. By comparison, in 2018, 13.5 million Americans were employed in the manufacturing sector, representing only 6.7% of all jobs. However, passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (which not a single Republican Representative or Senator voted for) is reviving manufacturing in both Blue and Red America. The law has already unleashed a manufacturing renaissance by nearly doubling the amount of manufacturing construction in just one year, with forecasts of even higher growth in years to come. Blue America made this happen, not Red, even though both prosper from it.

Manufacturing aside, Blue and Red America reflect two very different economies: one oriented to diverse, often college-educated workers in professional and digital services occupations, and the other whiter, less-educated, and more dependent on “traditional” industries.

The economic positions are eye-popping when viewed through the lens of congressional districts.

In the 2010s, median household income began a steady separation, which shows no signs of slacking. But we can go even more granular to show the divergence.

Republicans in Red America represent an economic base situated in the nation’s struggling small towns and rural areas where the population yearns for the safety and security of the 1950s. Prosperity there now seems out of reach for many, and the leaders of the Republican Party, for some unknowable reason, have no desire to consider the policies of the nation’s thriving metropolitan centers. That is not a scenario for economic consensus or achievement.

Jake Grumbach, a University of Washington political scientist who studies the differences among states, has written that red states, as a group, are falling behind blue states on a broad range of economic and social outcomes—including economic productivity, family income, life expectancy, and “deaths of despair” from the opioid crisis and alcoholism.

Consider the following:

  • The gross domestic product per person and the median household income are now both more than 25 percent greater in Blue America than in Red America;
  • The share of children in poverty is more than 20 percent lower in Blue America than Red, and the share of working households with incomes below the poverty line is nearly 40 percent lower;
  • Health outcomes are diverging too. Gun deaths are almost twice as high per capita in Red America as in Blue, and the maternal mortality rate in Red American states with abortion restrictions is three times higher than Blue America;
  • The COVID vaccination rate is about 12 percent higher in Blue America, and the per capita COVID death rate is about 30 percent higher in Red; and,
  • Life expectancy is nearly three years greater in Blue America (80.1 years) than Red (77.4), and in the poorer states of Red America, like Mississippi and Louisiana, the divergence is much greater.

But the cost of living is higher in Blue America, and people, especially older Americans, are leaving for the lower taxes and costs of Red America, but lower life expectancy can make the move a bad decision for many. Young professionals with children are staying, though, for the better educational opportunities.

Why have the citizens of Red America put up with second place in so many critical areas?

Since early in the 19th century, people of the southern states have marched to their own drummer. Their addiction to the agricultural allure of cotton and the slavery that economically supported it set the south on a track of agricultural dependence that carries through to this day. For example, during the Civil War, 84 percent of the South’s population was engaged in agriculture, compared to only about 40 percent of the Northern population. Today, the South, with 47% of all of the nation’s farms, is still home to more farms than anywhere else. The South also has the largest percentage of small beginning farms. In fact, most of the farms in the south are small. Agricultural reliance has contributed to Red America being slower to embrace the policies that have led to Blue America’s economic dominance.

Obviously, the nation needs a strong farming industry, but the South’s attachment to small farms, rather than the larger variety with greater scale and profitability as the Midwest has demonstrated, condemns it to a somewhat stifled farming economy.

For what other reasons would the people of Red America, who are just as smart and talented and ambitious as their peers in Blue America, be content with putting up with the inertia of the status quo? I think they have slowly fallen for the tripe dished out to them by politicians who stoke their emotions. Since humanity began walking upright it has been ridiculously easy to persuade people into believing something they wanted to believe in the first place — even if it ran counter to their self interest — and this is happening every day in rural Red America where a large swath of the population desperately wants to go back to the good old days of Leave It To Beaver. It’s almost as if political leaders in Red America have somehow convinced their rural constituents that Salvatore Dali’s melting clocks are actually reliable timepieces.

The problem we all face now is that, given the differing and deeply held beliefs of Blue and Red Americans, there doesn’t seem any way forward out of this impossible situation. In this forest of chaos there must be a road to sanity somewhere, but the leaders we’ve sent to Congress couldn’t find it if you gave them a highlighted map and Sacajawea to lead them.

Meanwhile, today, the House of Representatives will once again convene for another demonstration from the Republican Field Manual, Chapter Seven: Instructions for assembling a political circular firing squad.