North and South in the Republican Party

By Megan McArdle

One of my commenters has some thoughts on NY-23:

I have a lot of relatives in NY-23. They are all Republicans, and that affiliation has been passed down through the generations (along with Catholic church membership and a tendency to dress like the pictures in the LL Bean catalog).


And few things get them angrier than how the Republican party has been taken over by "the Texans." This is shorthand for the southern-oriented, Protestant-oriented religious right. They hate that crowd more than any Democrat could. Betrayal by your own side always hurts the worst.


Some of them have even started voting for Democrats as a protest. I don't think they like doing it, but it's the only thing they can think of to smack their party back to its senses. And to its historical roots.


So the question for me is, can the Republicans accomodate a northern wing that is middling conservative, but very different in outlook from its southern wing? Or will they abandon that part of the political spectrum to conservative Democrats? Of course, one could ask the same about the Democrats and their conservative wing as well.

This resonates with me, because my mom's from Western New York.  I remember once noting that until I was in college, I hadn't known any Republicans, to which my mother blinked, and replied "You knew your grandparents."

"But I didn't know they were Republicans."

She blinked again.  "Well, we didn't try to hide it from you."

My grandparents were hard core Republicans.  My grandmother still won't let you say mean things about (either) George Bush in her presence.  They lived in a hard core Republican district--I think Wayne County is the reddest in New York State.  But it's not Republican the way that, say, the Florida panhandle is Republican.  If my family had lived in one of the redder areas of the South, I doubt I could have missed it. 

Social conservatism just isn't the main issue there.  Abortion will be legal no matter what happens on the federal level, and a lot of local Republicans are perfectly fine with that.  Evolution will be taught in the schools.  What animates Republicans in the upstate is a deep economic conservatism.  Their social issues are confined to frowning at drug use, excess drinking, and people who won't work to take care of their families.  (And in rural Western New York, there's no question about who can't work, and who won't . . . it is not an anonymous sort of place.)

Rural areas have a farmer's contempt for welfare, and the entire upstate region knows too well that the taxes and regulations imposed by the rich downstate voters are crippling their economy.  No, this is not libertarian cant; it's obvious to basically anyone who spends any time there.  New York has onerous business taxes, a deeply problematic workman's comp system, and various rules about public sector unions that are slowly destroying the budgets of the local cities.  Combine this with a whole lot of cold weather, and there's no way they can attract new businesses to replace the big industrial plants they've lost. 

I mean, it's quite possible that the economy wouldn't regenerate anyway--but it's 100% sure that it won't as long as the state's tax and regulation levels are so bloated.  But the finance industry throws off enough money that the downstate can afford a costly and often inefficient welfare state (1 in 3 New Yorkers are on Medicaid!).  And New York's major industries, which tend to be information based, are less harmed by corporate regulation. Downstate voters are the majority in the state.  So nothing changes, and the upstate slowly strangles.

As long as social issues dominate the Republican Party, they will continue losing their north--I had a lot of relatives who at least considered voting for Obama.  Ironically, I wonder if the tea parties won't help bring the two wings of the Republican party together:  guns and lower government spending are the two things all members can agree on.  But if the south wants to keep its northern Republicans--and the congressional seats that come with them--it's going to have to back off trying to make the northern party look like a miniature version of itself. 

Not least because northern Republicans share one more feature with their southern brethren--they hate people from some distant city telling them what to do. If you find that hard to understand, just picture how y'all feel when the ACLU starts its annual Nativity Scene Hunt through the town squares of Alabama and Mississippi.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/11/north-and-south-in-the-republican-party/29604/