“Why geography makes it difficult for Democrats to get along”

In light of the post-election debates raging in the Democratic Party between moderates and progressives over how to position the party for future elections, I thought it was worth re-upping this Washington Post essay that Jonathan Rodden and I wrote in the run-up to the 2018 midterms. The issues remain the same:

Democrats have engaged in a passionate debate leading into the midterms on Nov 6. “Progressives” argue that the path to victory this year and beyond lies in motivating their youthful urban base by moving the party to the left. “Pragmatic” centrists, on the other hand, argue that victory requires ideological moderation that will attract independents.

Paradoxically, both sides might be right, which is why this tension is unavoidable and likely to endure. To understand this, we must grasp how electoral geography shapes politics. President Trump won 230 congressional districts to Hillary Clinton’s 205, even though she outpolled him by more than 3 million votes nationwide. This reflects, in part, the fact that progressive voters are increasingly concentrated in the areas that make up urban congressional and state legislative districts, while moderates and conservatives are more evenly dispersed in exurban and rural districts.

Democrats have engaged in a passionate debate leading into the midterms on Nov 6. “Progressives” argue that the path to victory this year and beyond lies in motivating their youthful urban base by moving the party to the left. “Pragmatic” centrists, on the other hand, argue that victory requires ideological moderation that will attract independents.

Paradoxically, both sides might be right, which is why this tension is unavoidable and likely to endure. To understand this, we must grasp how electoral geography shapes politics. President Trump won 230 congressional districts to Hillary Clinton’s 205, even though she outpolled him by more than 3 million votes nationwide. This reflects, in part, the fact that progressive voters are increasingly concentrated in the areas that make up urban congressional and state legislative districts, while moderates and conservatives are more evenly dispersed in exurban and rural districts….

To win control of Congress and state legislatures, Democrats mustcapture relatively conservative districts that support Republicans in presidential elections. Structurally, this is nothing new. Democrats have been relatively concentrated in urban districts since the New Deal, and for decades, their geography made it necessary for them to field congressional candidates who could win on “Republican” turf in the suburbs and countryside..

Whatever the outcome this fall, the Democrats’ basic geography problem is likely to endure. To maintain control of the House or state legislatures beyond the isolated wave election, self-styled exurban and rural Democrats will feel the pressure to craft local brands that distance themselves from their party’s liberal reputation, even if that reputation serves the party well in winning the national or statewide popular vote.
Political geography — not just ideological conflict on its own — thus makes it likely that tensions between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party will endure.
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