Analysis

How red America and blue America became two separate countries

Americans are increasingly trying to create two very different countries in the places we live. Just look at recent laws in Mississippi and New York.

By this November, all (or at least most) Americans may become united in the belief that making Donald Trump the most powerful human being on Earth would be exceedingly unwise. But in the meantime, we keep getting more reminders that America is fundamentally two different countries, increasingly at odds and moving farther apart.

Look at what's happened just in the last week. In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed a bill allowing all manner of private entities to discriminate against gay people if they justify it on the basis of their religious beliefs. That follows on a recently passed North Carolina law which forbids any city or county from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT people. At the same time, the Democratic governors of California and New York signed bills raising their states' minimum wages to $15 over the next few years. And if you look at the measures that will be on state ballots in the fall, you see even more of this divergence: Liberal states will be voting to legalize marijuana and raise wages, while conservative states will try to restrict abortion rights, undermine unions, and create a constitutional right to hunt and fish.

All politicians say (at least after they get past the primaries) that we're all in the same boat, and we should unite around our shared values and goals. Which is true to a degree. But it's also true that we're increasingly trying to create two very different countries in the places we live.

That divergence is enabled by the fact that the two parties have become both more ideologically extreme (though Republicans have moved farther to the right in many ways than Democrats have moved to the left) and more ideologically coherent. Half a century ago both a Northern liberal and a Southern segregationist would call themselves loyal Democrats, but there's much less diversity of perspective within each party today. And with the differences heightened and clarified, when one party gains power, its leaders move with as much urgency as they can to transform the place they control.

That urgency is often particularly evident in places that are, as a whole, ideologically divided. This is another important part of the dynamic: Many of the states we think of as "swing states" aren't that way because they have a lot of moderates, but because they have similar numbers of both liberals and conservatives. We just had a primary in Wisconsin, where conservative Republicans gave Ted Cruz a win. But the state is also home to lots of lefties in places like Madison. It's represented in the Senate by Tammy Baldwin, the first gay senator, and Ron Johnson, a hard-right tea partier.

So when an ambitious politician like Scott Walker becomes governor, he moves with all deliberate speed to drag the state's policies as far to the right as possible, knowing that any gains he makes could be lost if Democrats take control. We saw something similar in North Carolina: When Republicans took total control of the government after the 2010 elections, they went on an bender of conservative legislating that hasn't ended to this day. Their anti-gay law was triggered by the liberal city of Charlotte passing an anti-discrimination ordinance, which Republicans found intolerable.

The divisions are not absolute, of course. For instance, in Georgia — a red state getting bluer — Republican Gov. Nathan Deal recently vetoed an anti-gay bill much like the one in Mississippi, after coming under heavy pressure from the state's business community. And there are certainly issues where large majorities of Americans agree. But increasingly, people are not just trying to make their communities and states reflect their politics, but deciding where to live based on where they can find a politically amenable community.

While we often lament this geographic sorting that divides us, the farther Red America and Blue America move apart, the more logical it is for any given individual to make that a factor in where they choose to live. Yes, every state has liberal and conservative pockets, whatever its overall character. But if you're a conservative, do you really want to live in a place where abortion and pot are accessible, labor unions are strong, and you can't get a plastic bag at the supermarket? Conversely, what liberal wants to live where the state is allowing corporations to pollute, giving business license to discriminate, and telling people which bathrooms to use?

Our contemporary media also exacerbate this trend by enabling any issue, no matter how small or local, to get national attention. That allows us to feel connected to people who share our beliefs anywhere and everywhere. If we find ourselves in a place that doesn't jibe politically, we can ignore the people around us and seek community from those we connect to electronically. Or maybe just pick up and move. And each step the two Americas take away from each other makes moving even farther make more and more sense.

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