With remarkable clarity, this year's
presidential campaign exposes the stark regional conflicts shaping
U.S. politics. The country's fastest-growing states overwhelmingly
favor Texas Gov. George W. Bush, while the poorest economic
performers support Vice President Al Gore. Undecided "battleground"
constituencies are, almost without exception, average-growth
Recent polls confirm the surprising correlation between a state's
presidential preference and its economic performance. Since
1992, more than 21 million new jobs have been created in the
United States. About half, however, were generated in 22 fast-growing
Southern and intermountain Western states, including Texas,
Georgia, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, where barely one-quarter
of the U.S. population resides.
Bush's support is overwhelmingly concentrated in those states.
On average, they grew by more than 3.4% a year, 60% faster than
the rest of the country. Fifteen of the nation's fastest-growing
20 states over the last decade currently support the GOP nominee.
In contrast, Gore's political base is almost exclusively drawn
from the nation's slowest-growing, heavily urbanized states,
including New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California.
On average, these states grew by 1.8% a year and produced only
30% of the nation's new jobs even though they contain half the
country's population. Eight of the nation's 10economically worst-performing
states since 1992 lean toward Gore.
The economies of battleground states, including Florida, Michigan,
Missouri and Washington, grew by about 2.7% a year since 1992,
almost exactly the national average. They generate nearly one-quarter
of U.S. employment and account for roughly the same proportion
of new jobs.
Ironically, if the election were held today, states that benefited
most from the decade's booming economy would overwhelmingly
reject the candidate of the party under which they flourished.
Those that did the worst, however, would opt for more of the
same. And the country's average-performing states are up for
What explains this correlation?
In the absence of a universally popular candidate, the country's
historic cultural and economic regional divisions are playing
a greater role in determining November's vote. During the 1990s,
as the performance gap between the nation's slow- and fast-growth
states widened, so did the divisions between their underlying
Slow-growth states are strong Gore supporters because a more
regulated, less robust economy best suits the constituencies
that control the country's urbanized communities. Most, like
New York or the Bay Area, share common histories of rapid industrialization,
economic conflict and grinding decline. These experiences generated
support for government to soften economic hardship and mediate
between the haves and have-nots. Later, as new advocacy groups
emerged, the scope of regulation was broadened to include noneconomic
concerns like ethnic and environmental issues.
The politics and demographics of slow-growth regions were profoundly
affected because, over time, high-end development pursued by
the wealthy or well-connected--such as big-ticket stadium projects
and large, urban, mixed-use projects backed by influential investors
and corporations-stood the best chance of navigating the growing
maze of bureaucratic and interest-group constraints. Overall,
economic activity fell in slow-growth regions, but the costs
of scarce housing, land, commercial properties and other urban
amenities soared. Paradoxically, regulation greatly enhanced
the already considerable power and wealth of urban elites.
In return, the privileged in places like Los Angeles' Westside,
Manhattan and San Francisco were willing to pay higher taxes
and live with a more intrusive government as long as it kept
the peace and their assets appreciated in value. To achieve
this, most slow-growth regions developed an elaborate system
of transfer payments for "targeted" recipients chosen by government.
These ranged from high-tech companies frantically courted and
subsidized by urban governments to public-works projects to
social programs aimed at appeasing high-profile ethnic-advocacy
groups. The result is the 1990s-style urban economy: relatively
slow growing; a burgeoning super-rich and the high-end amenities
they desire; a large public bureaucracy; and targeted intervention
to ameliorate potential social conflicts.
This strategy, however, sacrificed businesses and families
that depend on reasonable costs of living and that were not
favored with targeted government assistance. During the 1980s
and 1990s, the white middle class and manufacturing enterprises
were particularly hard-hit. As a result, inequality skyrocketed
in the country's slow-growth regions. Yet, because disaffected
groups usually gave up and left rather than fight against the
political tide, slow-growth regions brokered a more or less
stable social compromise among their remaining residents.
All this was made possible by the explosive development of
fast-growing communities in the neighboring intermountain West
and South. These areas racially homogenous than slow-growth
regions, strongly influenced by self-help Protestant values
and deeply suspicious of unions and government. Building on
this culture, they promoted themselves as the economic and moral
antithesis to slow-growth society.
Their efforts spectacularly succeeded. Disgruntled middle-class
families, disfavored urban businesses and displaced workers
flooded into boomtownslike Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City,
Denver, Dallas and Raleigh-Durham. California and slow-growth
mid-Atlantic states lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing
and middle-class jobs to aggressive and increasingly antagonistic
states like Texas, Utah and Georgia.
In the battleground states, there is a rough parity between
constituencies attracted to either the slow- or fast-growth
model. In Ohio and Michigan, for example, large urbanized areas
are surrounded by rural communities that have more in common
with the South. In Florida and Washington, wealthier slow-growth
elites from California and New York struggle for power against
indigenous agricultural and industrial interests far more enamored
with Texas or Georgia. The election outcome may hinge on whether
Gore and Bush can rally their natural allies in such states.
Yet, both candidates would be better served if they realized
that the slow- and fast-growth models cannot stand on their
own. Each would benefit from the principles of the other.
The problem with slow-growth communities, for example, is that
they tragically limit economic opportunities that best help
the poor and disadvantaged. Media-savvy advocates can manipulate
the regulatory process to block virtually any activity they
Bureaucratic caprice of this sort discourages investment and
development in heavily regulated areas. That's why low and median
family incomes rose in fast-growing states over the last decade
but fell in the more liberal Northeast and California. The broader
a region's range of economic activity, the more equitable its
Gore could ensure greater equity by advocating that slow-growth-style
regulation be limited by clear rules and standards that truly
protect public goals. To be sure, certain activities would still
be precluded even with such reforms, but those that meet clear
standards could proceed without risk. This would dramatically
expand social opportunities in slow-growth areas.
Bush's challenge is to recognize that the desire for government
intervention in slow-growth regions reflects legitimate equity
and social concerns. Many of the problems bedeviling slow-growth
regions-social fragmentation, widening class divisions and wealthy
antigrowth movements--are emerging in fast-growth constituencies.
It is not clear that they can be brushed aside in the future
with the same self-help economics and Protestant orthodoxy that
worked so well in the past. Bush could blend legitimate equity
concerns with fast-growth ethics by proposing a reduction in
payroll taxes, for example, which help working families far
more than cutting income-tax rates.
It seems unlikely, however, that either candidate will take
note of, let alone learn from, the profoundly different constituencies
they represent. The conflict among the country's fast- and slow-growth
communities will continue to deepen long after the November
election. One way or another, the next president cannot avoid
the task of bridging America's increasingly troublesome regional
Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times