The Partisan Divide in rural America; Lawrence County Tennessee

Recently I began to consider how my own political opinions have shifted over the course of the last decade or so, and it caused me to wonder how my native county (Lawrence County Tennessee) has trended as well. When I first looked up the information (which one can find easily on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_County,_Tennessee), I was honestly a bit surprised by how close the 2 parties have been in sharing the vote totals in rural Tennessee. When I started looking a little closer, some interesting things began to stand out. While this is only information for 1 rural county in the Southern US, I suspect one could find very similar trends in a lot of rural America over the same timeframe. In fact, I hope this encourages people to start looking to see how their native towns and counties have trended.

 

First, I’ll start with what data I pulled and the basic statistics for Lawrence County. I only considered presidential election years, and only pulled data relevant to how people voted for president from the Wikipedia page listed previously. This will skew the data a bit because people don’t tend to vote for president in the same way they vote down ballot. In fact, even the placement of the candidates on the ballot can have an appreciable effect on how people vote (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/04/opinion/04krosnick.html). The reasoning here is that people are (hopefully) more informed about who they vote for when it comes to president than they are when voting for other positions (and also because these other candidates may run unopposed, but this isn’t an issue for the presidency). Or to put it another way, people tend to pay attention to the presidential candidates and the issues being debated but they may have little or no idea what separates candidates for other positions (how many would know the policy differences between candidates vying for City Planner for example, or some other such local position?).  

 

I only used data that extended back to 1968; this choice was based primarily on how political leanings began to shift post-Nixon (Nixon’s Southern Strategy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy; A story in the Atlantic on how the shift was felt by the Democrats: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/10/how-democrats-killed-their-populist-soul/504710/). I also picked this because of the current political climate around Trump and the fact that he may end up being one of only a few presidents to face potential impeachment.

 

The basic stats first. In general, the total number of people voting each year in Lawrence County has increased since 1968, a reflection of the growing population. In the 1968 election, there were 10,527 votes total and in 2016 there were 15,666. The population of Lawrence County in 1970 was ~29,000 and was ~42,000 in 2010 (also from the Wikipedia article). In addition to this, I made the basic assumption of a roughly linear increase in population since 1960. The reason for this was to allow for me to calculate estimates for the approximate population for each election year to use in my statistics to look at changes from election to election. The maximum of votes as a percentage of total population was in 2004 when George W. Bush (R) defeated John Kerry (D) for re-election (~41% of Lawrence County residents voted), and the minimum was ~30.5% in the in the 1972 election where Richard Nixon (R) won re-election over George McGovern (D). The average proportion of the population voting in presidential elections for Lawrence County residents is ~36% (median is ~36% as well). I also wanted to know what the change in votes (as a proportion of total population) was from election to election (how many more or how many fewer voted from one election to the next). The maximum increase was in the 1976 election where Jimmy Carter (D) defeated Gerald Ford (R); there was approximately a 7% increase in the number of people voting in that election year compared to the previous. The biggest drop in voter turnout was in 1984 as there was approximately a 7% drop in the number of people voting from the previous election; this was the year Ronald Reagan (R) won re-election over Walter Mondale (D).

 

The basic stats are pretty interesting in their own right. They tell a story of how voter enthusiasm (or lack thereof) is fairly consistent in Lawrence County as ~36% of the population turns out regularly to vote (this isn’t based on eligible voters only, this is out of the total population). What struck me as odd when I first looked at the data (prior to calculating any of these statistics), was how much of a shift there has been in the partisan divide since the 2000 election. This partisan divide reached its maximum in the 2016 election where 79.3% of the vote went to Donald Trump (R), with rival Hilary Clinton (D) garnering only 18% of the vote.

 

The reason I was interested by this initially, was because if one looks at the partisanship of Lawrence County voters prior to the 2004 election, it’s roughly evenly split with a slight bias in favor of the GOP. The GOP garners an average of ~50% of the vote from 1968 to 2000, while Democrats averaged ~43%. Compare the stats from the 2016 election again to these pre-2004 averages (calculated from the 1968 election up to and including the 2000 election). The 2016 election saw a nearly 30 percentage point increase in votes for the GOP, while the Democrats dropped ~25 percentage points. This was staggering to me. Why was the change so significant, and why did the trend seem to start post-2000? This is where I want to get into some of the more interesting trends and add in my speculation and observations about what has happened to drive this partisan wedge between rural voters.

 

Of the 9 presidential contests from 1968 to 2000, Democrats won 3 times in Lawrence County and the GOP 6 times. While that is still weighted towards the GOP, the largest gap between the 2 major parties prior to the 2004 election was 38.1% in the 1972 election. The gap in 2016, was 61.3% in favor of the GOP! Of the 3 contests the Democrats won in my dataset (the Democrats have not won in Lawrence County since the 1996 election), the biggest gap was 17.8% in the 1972 election (in favor of the Democrats), and the smallest margin of victory for the Democrats was 0.5% in the 1996 election; for the GOP the smallest margin of victory relative to the Democrats came in 1980 at 3.4%.

 

You can see a good visual representation of this in the graphs included in this blog post. The primary point is that while Lawrence County has tended to trend towards the GOP since 1968, the partisan divide was pretty even for most of that timeframe (the graph in the lower left corner shows that from 1980 to 2000, there was very little difference between the vote totals of the GOP and Democrats (0 on that graph would mean an even distribution between GOP and Dem votes). So, what happened post-2000 that started to drive this wedge? I think I have an answer, and it is probably not one a lot of people will want to hear, so bear with me.

 

On the one hand, it is tempting to point towards the sexual scandals of the Bill Clinton administration as part of the reason for this trend. Perhaps voters started to trend away from the Democrats because of it? That doesn’t really explain why the 2000 election was so close in Lawrence County (the GOP only garnered 6.7% more votes than the Democrats), and across the country in general (George W. Bush would ultimately lose the popular vote in 2000 by ~500,000 votes).

 

To me, this suggests that whatever initiated the partisan divide post-2000, was something else. One can’t blame the Clintons in other words, nor could one blame Al Gore as the shift in politics happens afterwards.

 

Before I continue, I want to note why I found the vote distribution in Lawrence County so fascinating when I first started looking at the numbers. Prior to looking up the vote totals, I would have guessed that my native county tended to lean to the political right, but I would not have guessed that the divide was so close prior to 2000. That was a bit surprising to me because I noticed a strong partisan lean to the right as a teenager, and that impression left me feeling as though the partisan lean of the county had pretty much always been strongly in favor of the GOP. My teenage years were all post-2000 though, as I started high school in the fall of 2001.

 

The year 2001 is a rather obviously important one for Americans, as it marked the greatest single terror attack on US soil carried out on September 11th of that year by Al Qaeda operatives who hijacked multiple airplanes and ultimately brought down the World Trade Center towers. I remember watching the events unfold in the classroom, I also remember that it was picture day. Since my last name begins with “B” I was one of the first to go to the gym for my picture. When I returned to my classroom, my teacher had the TV set pulled out in front of the class. This alone was nothing new as we spent most of that semester in that class watching hunting videos and playing cards (this was not a class I learned much of anything in. It was “Introduction to Construction Technologies 1” and to call it a “fuck-off” class would be an insult to “fuck-off” classes everywhere. We didn’t do shit in that class, but that is a rant for another day). That day, Mr. Garner had the television turned to CNN, and as I sat down in my seat and began to wonder what the hell was going on, the second plane flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until several years later that the full gravity of that day’s events really began to dawn on me.

 

That appears to me to mark the beginning of the political divide in my native county, as the proportion of the population voting in favor of the GOP begins to steadily climb each election year after that. The 2004 election saw a 13.5 percentage point increase in the votes the GOP received relative to Democrats. This was followed by an additional increase of 13.6 percentage points in the 2008 election, and then another 9.2% percentage points towards the GOP in 2012, and another jump in the 2016 election but this time a jump of 18.3 percentage points.

 

What the hell happened? How did a rural county where the share of people voting remains fairly constant through time, and had previously had a roughly even split between Republican and Democrat voters, shift so drastically?

 

I am going to focus primarily on 2 events, because I think they explain the majority of this shift. The first I have already mentioned, the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the 2nd is the recession of 2008. Now, you’ll have to forgive me as I am not an economist, nor am I a political scientist or military expert. I am also no psychologist, or sociologist. So, this will be the opinions of one guy who knows enough about statistics to make some informed observations, as well as my own observations and personal anecdotes. So, while I think I have a decent grasp and opinion of what may have happened, I won’t claim to be able to explain 100% of the observed trend. Life is often not that predictable, especially human behavior.

 

What I noticed as a teenager growing up in the rural south from 2001 onwards, was a trend towards a more aggressive form of political commentary. There is a saying I grew up with that it isn’t polite to discuss politics or religion, but post-2001 Lawrence County didn’t really seem to observe that. What I began to notice was that right-leaning media and commentary was on the rise and becoming more popular. One might have found just as many people watching CNN as watched Fox News prior to 2001 in Lawrence County, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone post-2001 who didn’t watch and discuss primarily the right-leaning news media.

 

Talk Radio and Fox News were extremely common, and people seemed to stop shying away from discussing both religion and politics. But, the conversations were almost always one-sided. What seemed to be happening was that if you leaned politically left in Lawrence County post-9/11, you tended to keep it to yourself. Striking up a conversation about politics with those on the more conservative end of the spectrum tended to result in extremely heated exchanges. My suspicion is that most of the left-leaning population in places like Lawrence County, figured they would ride out the conservative trend in the wake of 9/11, and maybe they would have been correct if not for the recession in 2008, but I am getting a little ahead of myself.

 

First, why would the events of 9/11 cause a shift to the political right? The explanation here seems to be to look historically at how countries react after being attacked. People seem to become more protectionist, and this protectionism manifested itself in the US as a series of wars in the Middle East.

 

Basically, we got punched in the jaw and reacted by throwing a series of haymakers in the hopes that we’d land a few and crush our enemies. They reached out and hurt us from across the world, and we wanted to respond in kind. I won’t say whether or not this was the best reaction to have or not, and in hindsight I’d say that starting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were much bigger mistakes than they were anything else. At the time I was certainly all for both wars, and you can look at how the culture around Country Music reacted in response as a gauge of just how widespread that opinion was in rural America. Patriotic songs about striking at our enemies began to become more popular, while those who spoke out against the wars were ostracized from the Country Music scene (remember the Dixie Chicks?). It is also no secret that George W. Bush played up these patriotic sentiments in the run-up to his re-election campaign (remember the 2003 picture of Bush in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln? That was very premature to say the least, but certainly drummed up support from people still angry over the lives lost in 9/11 and the subsequent wars).

 

The events of 9/11 help us explain the partisan divide up to the 2004 election, and the wars started in response to 9/11 certainly played an integral role thereafter. The next most serious event was the recession of 2008 that began under George W. Bush with the housing crisis.

 

This is where things get a bit more complex and is also where you’ll have to forgive my ignorance of economics and political science. A study by Larry M. Bartels titled “Political Effects of the Great Recession” published in November of 2013 in The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, will provide some of the basis for my opinions that follow, as well as articles I link to herein.

 

In response to a recession, the electorate tends to shift in one political direction or the other based on the perception of which party is in power. Which is to say that when the financial crisis started under George W. Bush, most Americans opted to vote in the direction of the political left in response, thus electing Barack Obama (D) in 2008. But, look at the trend in rural America as evidenced by the Lawrence County vote data. That year John McCain and the GOP got a staggering 66% of the vote compared to 32.2% in favor of Obama. So, even though the reaction to the recession seemed to be a jolt to the left, rural America seemed to stay on a more conservative-leaning track. In fact, I’d argue that most of the world trended more to the right than the left in the wake of the recession, primarily because the full effects didn’t really begin to become apparent until after Obama was elected (again, this is something alluded to in Bartels’ article). Look at what happened during the first mid-term elections of Obama’s presidency with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010. The right-leaning conservative ideology of the Tea Party was extremely popular in rural America at this time, and ultimately got a handful of politicians elected to both the House and Senate where they would begin to change the perception of the GOP to the “party of no” as the partisan divide became increasingly stronger and the use of filibusters began to explode. This article in Politico from 2015, highlights the observed trend: https://www.politico.com/story/2015/04/graphic-data-america-partisan-divide-growth-117312.

 

What that article above shows, is the loss of partisanship and political compromise. Regardless of what your political ideology is, politics are necessarily about compromise and debate. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (plus the events of 9/11 and the subsequent wars), partisanship almost seemed to die in the US. Political opinions began to become a “my way or the highway” approach as more and more advocated for their political party to get everything they wanted at the expense of the other. The Democrats lost control of Congress in the wake of the 2010 midterms, and while Obama won re-election, he found himself with a congress that was hostile towards not only his agenda, but any left-leaning agenda. The partisan politics of the conservative right (emboldened by the rise of the Tea Party), drove the wedge deeper between Democrats and Republicans.

 

Take a look at the figures here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics

 

(Edit to clarify: I incorrectly calculated the number of days the 104th Congress was in session by a year. For some reason, I calculated the number of days originally as if it only lasted until October of the same year it started its session. I have since corrected my statistics and made the necessary edits below) 

Let’s start with the 98th Congress during Reagan. It enacted 677 laws, passed 331 resolutions, and 561 bills got a vote. The numbers fluctuate a bit after that, but the lowest number of enacted laws up to 2010 was 337 by the GOP-led 104th Congress from January, 4th 1995 to October 4th, 1996, with 598 passed resolutions and a total of 444 bills having come to a vote. Now, compare that to the minimum during the Obama presidency by the GOP-led 112th congress (January 5th, 2011 to January 3rd, 2013) which enacted only 284 laws, passed 722 resolutions, with only 390 bills getting a vote. This might seem somewhat misleading at first because the latter congress passed more resolutions while getting fewer bills voted on and even fewer to become law but note how long these 2 congresses existed. The 104th Congress lasted less than a year (639 days if I did the math correctly), while the 112th lasted just over 2 years (732 days if I did the math correctly). Now, obviously Congress doesn’t work every single day, but my point here is that for the 104th Congress, the minimum number of bills getting to a vote and becoming law worked out to about 0.5 enacted laws per day, 0.9 passed resolutions per day, and 0.7 bills a day got a vote. Compare that to the 112th Congress which only 0.4 enacted laws per day, 0.9 passed resolution per day, and only 0.5 bills received a vote per day. A drop in 2 of the 3 categories.

 

Again, what the hell happened? Part of this can be explained by the prevalence of the filibusters by the GOP, led primarily by the support of the Tea Party. (https://tcf.org/content/commentary/graph-why-we-need-filibuster-reform/). Take a look at the graph in the article linked and note that filibusters began to increase during the Nixon administration, and began to level out during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, only to explode in use by the GOP during Obama’s presidency. This is consistent with the partisan divide we saw previously and seems to correspond to the increasing partisanship in rural America that sparked the idea for this blog post. To give you some perspective, the most filibusters up until the Obama presidency came during the Clinton administration at 50 cloture votes. At the peak under Obama, the GOP more than quadrupled that record with 218 cloture votes.

 

What seems to me to best explain what we have seen happen in rural America post-9/11, is a hyper-partisan divide that I’d argue has been driven largely by where rural America has turned to for its news and opinions.

 

In 1949, the Federal Communication Commission’s (the FCC) Fairness Doctrine was introduced (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FCC_fairness_doctrine). This policy basically required any agency reporting the news to do so in an “honest, equitable, and balanced” way. The gist of the policy was to hold news organizations accountable for what they reported and put at least some pressure on news organizations to fact-check and do at least some measure of quality control to separate opinion and speculation from factual reporting. This helped inform readers of any inherent bias a news or media organization may possess.

 

I want to break for a moment and note that I have absolutely no issue with partisan news sources. That’s cool with me, and many of our country’s oldest and most trusted news sources are clearly affiliated with one end of the political spectrum or the other. That in and of itself isn’t an issue because if I know what the political biases are of my preferred news outlets, then I know not to kid myself that I am getting an unbiased view of all sides of the argument.

 

Or to put it another way, if I were a conservative then I might prefer to have subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times because I know those tend to be conservative leaning, and that is the news I’d prefer to read on a regular basis as it most closely aligns with my political interests. A liberal might opt to subscribe to the New York Times and Washington Post, as they are known to lean more to the political left.

 

What would be irrational for me to do, would be to try and convince myself that I am getting a fair and accurate assessment of conservative opinions from liberal-leaning news sources, and vice versa with respect to the conservative-leaning news. If, as a progressive liberal, I want to know what conservatives are arguing, I need to go to conservative news sources. If a conservative wants to know the arguments a liberal is making, then they need to engage with the liberal-leaning news sources.

 

In 1987, Reagan let the Fairness Doctrine lapse. The most pronounced effect of this doesn’t appear to have been immediate, but I’d wager that this action alone was probably the most important thing to happen to drive the partisan wedge we see in the US today.

 

In 1996, Fox News was founded. In the 2000’s, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a TV in public in Lawrence County not tuned to Fox News (perhaps CNN too at first, but its share of public TVs seemed to dwindle as time went on). And the news on the radio tended to lean to the right as well, with Talk Radio programs by people like Rush Limbaugh. What I am trying to get at here is that if you lived in rural America through the 2000’s, my bet is that the vast majority of the news and opinions being reported daily around you, leaned to the right politically. If you were to ask people about the partisan lean of their news sources however, I’d wager that they would have been more likely than not to tout Fox News’ inaugural slogan of “fair and balanced.”

 

Or to put it another way, while the dominant source of news in Lawrence County (and rural American in general) leaned heavily to the right, people had managed to convince themselves it was neutral and that they were receiving a fair assessment of the left end of the political spectrum from right-leaning media organizations claiming to accurately reflect all sides of the political debate. This was simply untrue, but the power of the idea seems to have spread like wildfire.

 

What this had the effect of doing was to create a series of straw men arguments of liberal/progressive views and opinions. A straw man is a logical fallacy whereby someone makes an argument on behalf of their opponent to rebut/debate, but the argument is based on an inaccurate version of their opponent’s actual beliefs. What this means is that the right-leaning news machine began to present views and opinions of left-leaning groups, that they did not actually possess. Many times, these were constructed by oversimplifying the actual arguments as opposed to being outright lies, but the effects were the same.

 

Consider the above with respect to one of the most divisive issues in the US, abortion (an issue that drove many Republican-leaning voters to cast their vote for Trump in 2016 even if they did not like him as a candidate). What would you say the pro-choice opinion is, as explained by the pro-life movement? My guess is that you’d say it was “pro-abortion,” which is what Mike Huckabee (R) said here: http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/08/05/democrats-abortion-anti-pro-life-party-huckabee. Or maybe you’d equate it with being in favor of murder, as many others do: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2015/08/18/abortion-industry-corrupt-to-core.html.

 

What you probably wouldn’t do, is accurately describe what most pro-choice advocates actually believe. I am pro-choice, and anti-abortion. I don’t like abortion. I think it should be avoided if at all possible. I am for any measures that reduce the need for abortions, like improved access to healthcare and contraceptives, as well as sex education that actually teaches people about sex instead of abstinence (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/reducing-abortion-rates-policy_us_589b8ea5e4b09bd304bfd920). We know those things work, because we have the data to show it. Being pro-choice doesn’t mean I am for murder, or that I am anti-life, I don’t care what your conservative-leaning source said. They are wrong. Dead fucking wrong.

 

This is what is the biggest issue as I see it. Stop listening to what other people tell you the “other side” believes or doesn’t. Go fucking ask someone who actually holds that belief instead. If you are a conservative pro-life advocate, go actually read the opinions of those of us who are pro-choice and stop assuming that other pro-life advocates are accurately describing our opinions.

 

Stop relying on a singular news source for your information and opinions. By relying on one news or media organization for both, you are literally relying on them to formulate your opinions for you, as well as allowing them to dictate what the most important news is for that day.

 

Consume media from all sorts of different outlets and think about them for yourself. Consider all the options, not just the ones you think you’ll agree with at the outset. Talk with people who hold opposite political opinions, and I don’t mean that you should try and speak over them but actually listen and converse and try to understand. If you honestly seek to understand them, they’ll likely respond in kind.

 

I’ll end this extremely long blog post with a quote that I once saw attributed to Abraham Lincoln but have never been able to verify (that in and of itself is a reminder to think about the message of the quote instead of concerning yourself with the source):

“You can either agree with everything someone says or disagree with everything someone says. Either way, you never have to think for yourself again.” -Anonymous

 The figure above was generated from data pulled from Wikipedia (which cites the data from more reliable sources, but since Wikipedia is so easily accessible, I opted to just use that). Red means GOP/Republican, Blue means Democrat, and black means 3rd party. The lower left graph is calculated as the absolute difference between the percentage of votes received by democrats vs republicans, and the lower right graph is simply the total number of votes for each presidential election year.

The figure above was generated from data pulled from Wikipedia (which cites the data from more reliable sources, but since Wikipedia is so easily accessible, I opted to just use that). Red means GOP/Republican, Blue means Democrat, and black means 3rd party. The lower left graph is calculated as the absolute difference between the percentage of votes received by democrats vs republicans, and the lower right graph is simply the total number of votes for each presidential election year.