TCS Daily

Density Is Destiny: On Politics and the Paperboy

By Patrick Cox - December 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Why are things the way they are, politically speaking? Why are the Republicans' most effective ads straightforward clips of Democrats contradicting themselves? Why are conservative pundits so frequently flanking their liberal counterparts? Why is the left-of-center blogosphere moving their party away from the Democrats' historic base while the right-of-center is co-opting libertarians and moderates?

Realizing that this is a question of the same magnitude as Douglas Adams' "Life, the Universe and Everything?" I nevertheless propose that the answer is "population density" in general and "the cost of newspaper delivery" specifically.

It all starts with an indisputable fact. Higher density urban areas tend to the political left of rural, lower-density areas. It doesn't really matter, in terms of this analysis, why this is the case. I'm not arguing the superiority of the conservative message, only its greater effectiveness at this time in history -- most easily evidenced by control of all three U.S. branches of government. There are, however, hints in history and economics about the reasons that cities tilt left.

The Role of Cities

This recent interview with demography economist Robert Fogel holds important insight into the underpinnings of the red state/blue state split as well as intriguing suggestions that the causative factors behind that division are already disappearing. Briefly, it is this:

Historically, there has been a higher perceived and practical need for government in big cities. Sewer systems, for example, are a matter of life and death in cities where diseases spread rapidly through densely packed populations. In the country, outhouses worked fine for most people until septic tanks with indoor plumbing came along, and neither needed government involvement or assistance to install and use -- except in so far as they might require permission from local regulators, who were therefore resented.

Clean and healthful running water in cities likewise entailed major public works programs as well as taxation in some form. Water in the country was usually a matter of drilling a well and was therefore untaxed. Garbage disposal in cities, required to prevent all sort of unpleasantness including vermin infestation and disease, has almost always involved government. In the country, you could burn or bury.

Crime rates, despite Hollywood's slander of the American West, have also traditionally been a more serious problem in big cities. When you can see people coming from far away and tend to know all those around you, those already accustomed to handling weapons and hunting have a different take on crime prevention than those who live among high-density strangers.

Additionally, immigrants to the US have traditionally settled mostly in cities, usually in areas where others of similar origin can assist with the many challenges involved in the transition to a new country and culture. This process, within an already politicized urban culture, led many immigrants who never looked at government as anything but an exploiter and oppressor before fleeing to America, to embrace a more benign vision of democratic government when it could be used to protect minority group rights. In low population areas, the economic payback for political activism was lower and frequently negative, so rural dwellers were more likely to perceive government as an interference than a benefactor -- except with respect to large national issues like defense.

Still, lifespans and quality of life were better in the countryside than in the cities, and most rural Americans were aware of this to one degree or another. This reality provided a powerful and consistent confirmation of their own philosophies.

So, regardless of the accuracy of my speculation on root causes, it is objectively true that cities have bred a more leftwing political culture than the countryside. This leads to the next major link in the causative chain -- the media. Or, to be precise, the newspapers.

All the Views That Are Fit to Print

The economics of the newspaper business is far more favorable to cities than to the countryside. The cost of news content production in cities, where populations are easily accessible, is much lower than it is in the countryside -- especially before the era of cheap and reliable telephones. Moreover, the cost of product distribution was dramatically less expensive in urban areas where paper boys often travel only yards, as opposed to miles in rural areas, to deliver a single, incremental newspaper.

As a result, big city newspapers thrived and the biggest city's newspaper, the New York Times, thrived most. That the journalists and editors who worked in the big city news business reflected the local political culture is not surprising. The sentiment that city folk are just a little bit smarter than country folk, or some equivalent chauvinism related to locational and team psychology, is not a conspiracy and probably couldn't have been prevented any more than you could get the majority of Green Bay Packers fans to root for New York, or vice versa.

As other large city papers took news, inspiration, affirmation and expertise from New York, they also shared the New York political perspective. Even in small towns where politics were more to the right, ambitious journalists with dreams of "making it big" learned quickly which side of the ideological bread needed to be buttered if they wanted national careers.

When newer media began to emerge, due to technological change, these news businesses were naturally drawn to the economies of agglomeration and scale created by successful big city newspapers. Newer media drew, of course, on the older local news industry for personnel, inheriting their values and perspectives. National magazines and then radio and television networks were situated in the largest urban centers, primarily New York. The flagship of the MSM remains the Times.

Symbiotic Relationship

For a very long time, the existence of this pro-urban perspective in the MSM acted as a considerable advantage to those who favored national government solutions -- liberals. The MSM understood their views and, either consciously or unconsciously, favored them.

Important editors and producers mixed socially and professionally with political leaders who shared their views and, at times, acted in strongly partisan ways -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

The Democratic party had, therefore, a strong ally and silent partner in the national media. Often, the close-knit community of liberal journalists and editors were better informed, better connected and more experienced than their political cohort. Certainly, they were more articulate and media savvy.

A partnership, maybe even symbiosis, developed over time between the Democratic Party and the MSM. By the Vietnam era, journalists were doing the heavy lifting for the Democratic Party, puzzling out politically profitable angles and prompting politicians with precisely loaded questions. Liberal politicians got their "talking points" daily from the headlines and lead stories of the MSM and the DNC could focus on fundraising.

For ideologically grounded conservatives and libertarians, it was infuriating; the undecided swing vote could be swayed and Democrats prospered. Already, however, things had begun to change.

Technology and the Paperboy

Telephones, when they finally came to rural America lowered the cost of rural news collection. The shift of advertising expenditures from radio to television created low cost distribution opportunities for red state radio commentators.

And then, of course, along came the Internet, which is taking, at an increasing rate, market and advertising revenues away from newspapers and their colleagues in radio and television. Today, the cost of production and delivery of online news has plummeted; witness Matt Drudge, TCS Daily and the blogosphere. The balance of power has shifted as anybody with a modem can now self-publish or seek out news and commentary according to individual tastes, needs and preferences. Paperboys hardly matter anymore.

In the short run, these changes have been of tremendous benefit to the formerly underserved political right -- the red state people. It is not, however, simply that they now have some outlets that are respectful of their views. The right has the enormous benefit of decades of frustration with the MSM neglect and mischaracterization of their perspectives. Conservatives and libertarians had been talking back to their televisions and growling at newspapers for most of their lives, and still haven't got over the exhilaration of finding news sources that publish the debates they were having privately.

Liberals, however, were spared the best conservative arguments by editors who didn't like or understand them. Nodding at Walter Cronkite's and Dan Rather's interpretation of events, the left was lulled into the complacency of consensus in a world where consensus did not truly exist. The few alternative voices, hidden on the pages of mostly liberal editorial pages, were easy to dismiss as irrelevant or extremist.

Today, you can see this lack of familiarity with the fine points of public debate clearly as Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi continue to act as if they were living inside the old ideological news monopoly. It is why Democrats thought they could specifically contradict themselves on Iraq policy and expect not to be called on it. In the old days, they wouldn't have been -- except in the slow to arrive albeit brilliant monthlies and bi-monthlies like National Review and Reason, typically read only by cadres. (Both publications now have a robust web presence to compliment the dead tree publications).

The Situation Is Changing Again

The Bush administration, however, has been masterful in its use of the new media. Schooled by years of exclusion and disdain, they have consistently played ideological "ropeadope" until their own constituency is begging for a response, and unchecked liberals have taken their arguments over the edge into parody.

This MSM embargo of non-liberal ideas has led, as well, to a more effective Internet presence for the right, and is seen clearly in the differences between the two most important of the partisans, Instapundit and the Daily Kos. I don't think it would be too controversial to say that Glenn Reynolds is more gracious toward his detractors as well as more interested in building consensus on controversial issues than are Kos and his readers.

Lest the right become too satisfied, however, its worth warning that the underlying roots of this situation have changed in ways that are not yet obvious. The left will learn to argue and, perhaps more importantly, cities are now as healthy as the heartland. The bases of the Red/Blue state split are diminishing as the cultures that created them become less and less differentiated -- largely because of the Internet.

Most importantly, the world wrought by the current Internet technology, enabled most spectacularly by Marc Andreessen when he and his Netscape democratized the Web, is on the verge of the next anarchic and unexpected seismic shift, which I'll get to in a later article.

Patrick Cox is an economist and editorial columnist in Central Florida where he lives on an island in a remnant of original everglades.


God Made Man
It used to be God made man and Sam Colt made all men equal.
Now, it is Bill Gates that made all men equal.

Density doesn't explain very well
The problem with this analysis is that is doesn’t really deliver what it seeks to on the basis on demographic patterns. The dichotomy between urban and rural environments and their different political cultures sounds accurate, but we are not (and are not becoming) a rural nation. Rather we are becoming increasingly urbanized while rural areas are losing po****tion. Yes, suburbs and exurbs count as cities too: they have fairly high po****tion densities, require water, sewer and garbage service, need police protection from criminals, have lots of roads to be maintained, and feature the same sort of alienation where no one knows his neighbors that big cities frequently do. In fact, suburbs, where residence patterns are based on nothing more unifying than income, are probably more alienating than large cities where one still finds fairly many neighborhoods based on ethnicity or other identity factors: China-towns and Poletowns and ***borhoods. Based on that one would expect the political culture to become even more liberal.

Diminishing Returns
This is from Pat Buchanan's magazine:

Diminishing Returns
The American Conservative, December 19, 2005

...Ten years after winning control of Congress, the REPUBLICAN MAJORITY HAS BECOME STAGNANT. The party's candidates have tried to run on a platform that consists largely of warmed-over Contract With America agenda items and bashing Democrats, a message SWING VOTERS MOSTLY FIND IRRELEVANT. Iraq and Bush's leadership in the war on terror briefly revived Republican fortunes. Faced with falling poll numbers on both fronts, the party finds itself adrift.

The GOP has gained electoral strength over the last 20 years by using conservative means to ADDRESS PRESSING VOTER CONCERNS. But a political party can't hold power forever by trying to solve the problems of 1980 or 1994. If the Virginia governor's race demonstrates anything of national significance, it shows that if Republicans forget this they can ridicule their opponents as Liberals as much they want -- AND STILL LOSE.

No the Repubicans have gotten so liberal that they have pushed the democrats to the absurd
No the Repubicans have gotten so liberal that they have pushed the democrats to the absurd.

Police & Entertainment
A good effort. Two additional points, relating to the taxpayer-subsidized nature of city living.

What struck me in my last visit to my old neighborhood in Washington, D.C., west of the park (lived there mostly from 1937 to 1997), was the overwhelming police presence. Granted, the Israeli embassy is down the street and so are several belonging to Middle Eastern countries. Even so, I guess I saw over a dozen MARKED cars in the space of a few square miles and God knows how many unmarked. (The ones that guard the embassies include unmarked federal vehicles loaded to the gunwales with heavy duty weaponry.) Needless to say, there were no street dudes lounging around on the sidewalks by St. Albans waiting for a hit or whatever. Northwest DC was totally peaceful. It's easy to be ready to hand out lemonade to your gardener when you have that kind of overwhelming police presence, day and night.

Point two. The city government is likely to spring for $700 million to build a baseball stadium, the Kennedy Center is undergoing its umpteenth renovation, free concerts abound, the dozens of Smithsonian museums beckon--high quality subsidized entertainment brought to you by taxpayers for the benefit of the enlightened.

Needless to say, nothing like these taxpayer subsidies reach the Northern Neck of Virginia, which I now call home. Entertainment prin****lly means getting something out of Nature, either actively like hunting or fishing, or just enjoying the outdoors. Police presence means a very few deputy sheriffs for a large county and an occasional state cop. Richmond seems like an alien object in a far off land. D.C.? Off the screen.

From what I can tell, most former suburbanites upon retirement are making tracks for the likes of our neighborhood as fast as their pick-ups can carry them. A few may thirst for the government-subsidized culture on offer, but I don't see all that many heading back downtown.

Everybody's moving out
I'm one who moved from the city, (Chicago, just west of Wrigley field,) to what once were the boonies, 65 Miles NW of Chicago. And yes, I now drive a pickup. And the wife and I could never move back.

I still read the Tribune and Sun Times, (electronically,) but also read the San Jose Mercury news, (where I get my paycheck.) Yes the internet has done strange things.

But a buddy and neighbor Tim the other day was talking about moving out, 'cause there is much to much building. (The 65 acres of farm across my road is for sale, and bet your life it'll be housing in a couple of years.) Tim's going to move to middle of nowhere Wiscornsin. Even the rural folks are moving out.

It's what surrounds you
It's the environment. If you are surrounded primarily by people, you will think that ways to affect peoples' behavior - politeness, threats, bribery, law - are the ways the world is organized.

If you are surrounded by a lot of other things - nature, weather, animals, machinery - you will know there are a great many things that are not amenable to interpersonal interaction. No amount of politeness, bluster, or legalism will stop a tornado.

As a result, people who live in high-density areas think talk is the most important thing. People who live in the low-density areas know that large areas of reality are unaffected by talk. Can you think of a clearer way to distinguish between Blue and Red areas of the country?

interesting theory but there are nuances
This is an interesting theory that has much to recommend it, but there are nuances. For example, between the Civil War and the Great Depression, cities satisfied their needs for food and fiber by tieing farmers to one crop economies, railroad shipping, and crop loans from big city banks. Farmers were radicalized by this. On the one hand, rural nativist resentment of the polyglot urban po****tion engendered support for prohibition and other manifestations of the religious right such as the KKK, which in addition to being anti-Black was also anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. On the other hand, rural areas supported economic populism that led to expansion of federal power over the economy and easier credit. The rise of newspapers in the XX century was abetted by technology and scale economies that encouraged elite to mass communication. Publishers, the most politically powerful and richest men in America, bought ink by the barrel and newsprint by the mile. Large circulation newspapers were much cheaper than any other form of communication. Remember also, in the XX century people worked for large corporations and spent their meagre wages on goods produced by large corporations and sold in large department stores. Liberal Democratic politicians acted as tribunes for urban dwellers, especially for recent immigrants, and mediated and personalized their relationships with these large organizations. The internet and related technological changes are destroying that mass economy. Stay tuned.

Density hides perversity
High density po****tion centers have always been less subject to social controls aqnd mores of institutions than other areas explaining wby socil problems and diseases are alwys more pronouced in cities. Pathologies such as rape, murder, child abuse, animal abuse, the list goes on and on are most evident in cities because they can't be hidden in smaller po****tion areas. NAMBLA couldn't survive or flourish outside of urban areas. One only need examine why fringe groups concentrate, for good reasons, in cities where they can exercise political muscle they couldn't hope to in more rural areas. This also expalins why some states are so pro big government, such as Vermont, which has had to suffer an flood of outsiders.

Its also interesting to note where Leftist pathologies have taken root in cities such as Boston, NY, Philadelphia, St Louis, Chicago, Newark, etc we see the same old story of decline, collapse of the middle class, development of generations of an underclass of welfare dependees, high crime, and government dependency.

But this is true in Europe too. One only need look at the scholl systems in the UK, hospitals in Canadian cities, housing in Parius, the list is endless.

On the positive side one sees the development of vast suburbs as people rush to seek the freedom from Leftist dogma that has strangled cities.

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