And yet in recent years, as the conflict between the coalitions of restoration and transformation has grown more intense, even most of those outlier legislators have been pulled toward their party’s side in this fight. In 2013, every Senate Democrat, even those from red states, voted for an immigration-reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. And on Thursday, most of the Senate Republicans from the 20 high-immigrant states—including Georgia’s David Perdue, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Texas’s Ted Cruz and John Cornyn—opposed the bipartisan compromise on immigration amid intense resistance to the plan from Trump and many conservative media voices.
On guns, the general pattern over the past 15 years has been that gun-control opponents have succeeded somewhat more than gun-control advocates in pressuring the legislators behind enemy lines to cross over. When Congress last year voted to overturn an Obama regulation making it tougher for people with mental illness to obtain guns through the national background-check system, virtually all of the House Republicans from metropolitan areas sided with gun-control opponents to back the repeal. (That included many of the Republicans from blue-state metro areas who top the Democratic target list in 2018, such as Steve Knight and Mimi Walters near Los Angeles, Barbara Comstock in Northern Virginia, Leonard Lance in New Jersey, Carlos Curbelo in Miami, and Ryan Costello and Brian Fitzpatrick outside of Philadelphia.) And while few House Democrats crossed party lines to support the repeal, it did win backing from five Senate Democrats facing reelection this year in states Trump carried (including Manchin).
The structure of congressional representation in both the House and Senate tilts the scales in these arguments toward rural interests, even as population growth tilts more emphatically toward urban centers. If you assigned half of every state’s population to each senator, the supporters of the 2013 background-check bill represented 194 million people, while the opponents, who were centered on sparsely populated Plains and Mountain states, represented only 118 million, according to my calculation at the time. But, using a filibuster, the opponents were able to block action. (The proposal would have faced uncertain prospects anyway in the House, which then, as now, was controlled by Republicans mostly representing non-urban areas.)
All the cultural and racial controversies raging through the Trump presidency increase the odds that the trench between the coalitions of restoration and transformation—metro and non-metro America—will deepen. The more attention that is drawn to explosive cultural fights on immigration, guns, and the like, the harder it becomes to survive for both red-state Democratic senators and Republican House members in blue metro areas. Many incumbents in each category could face a very difficult election this fall.
Both the immigration and gun-control debates flaring today capture two very different Americas living through divergent experiences and losing interest in compromising with each other. The best advice for voters may be to get used to that dynamic—because the social and political distance between these two Americas seems poised to only grow wider.