Conservative Coast

It’s always odd to hear conservatives talk about coasts, specifically coastal states and cities. It’s as if they think there is something about the ocean water that warps the brain. Or maybe it’s some kind of foreign influence drifting in on the ocean currents.

I sort of know what conservatives mean, in terms of recent voting patterns for the parties. But it’s a bit historically, demographically, and ideologically clueless.

Sure, many of the biggest cities are found on the coast, although not all. Besides there are plenty of big cities in conservative states. The fact of the matter is that most conservatives, like most liberals, live in urban areas. The rural conservatives who have outsized voting power in our electoral system are a miniscule minority of the total number of conservatives.

This also ignores the simple fact that the majority of Southern states are on the coast. There are nine southern coastal states. And that includes some highly populated states and big cities.

In fact, Texas is far larger than most countries in the world and one of the most influential states in the country (e.g., the textbook your child is likely using in school). Texas has six of the largest cities among the top twenty largest cities in the country, with three of them in the top ten. Not even California has this many big cities in the top level of population rankings.

Plus, the South has a growing population. For quite a while, it has been the largest regional population in the country, presently consisting of more than a third (37.6%) of US citizens — and, with places like Texas, a disproportionate number of non-citizen residents.

It’s true that the largest city by far is New York City. But why do conservatives dismiss city dwellers? New York City has a long history of being the home of working class whites. Most people who live in cities are working class and the largest proportion of the working class is white. Do conservatives mistrust these people because these working class whites tend to be ethnics, as the early 20th century conservative movement targeted ethnic whites as one of the greatest dangers to the country, just as they now attack Hispanics? Do WASPs still have a bad taste in their mouth all these generations later from their earlier political fights with ethnic whites?

Most people these days live in cities, not just liberals and rich people. A massive part of the big city population grew up in rural areas and small towns or else that is where their family came from a generation or two prior. Until the 1970s, the majority of the black population was still rural. Many big city residents still have family outside of the big cities, family they might visit or be visited by on holidays.

More than anything, when conservatives talk of coasts, they think of the West Coast or as it sometimes is called the Left Coast. Even more specifically, they have Californian in mind. But California has always been a divided state. From before the Civil War to after WWII, there were many large waves of immigrants from Southern states and most of them were working class whites, the most famous example being the partly misnamed Oakies. Unsurprisingly, most of those Southerners settled in southern California. It almost led to the Civil War erupting on the West Coast.

Southern California is the location of the second largest US city, Los Angeles. Ronald Reagan spent much of his time there and his politics were shaped by his experiences at that time. Next to it is the infamous right-wing Orange County, where Richard Nixon was born and raised. Southern California, along with being a major center of the military industry, is where originated big agriculture and an early strain of the corporatism — all of that now being among the most powerful influences in the US economy and politics. It was in this atmosphere that Nixon developed the Southern Strategy and Reagan became a leading figure, first as a corporate spokesperson and then as a politician. Reagan began his highly effective red-baiting while still in California.

That was the soil out of which mega-churches grew and the religious right rhetoric was honed. The preachers of those California mega-churches were televised around the country. Southern California was the headquarters for the Moral Majority movement. Some of the largest conservative rallies of the culture wars happened in and around big cities such as Los Angeles.

That isn’t the California that conservatives like to dismiss as a stereotype. None of these kinds of places quite fit stereotypes. Conservatives fear minorities, even though minority populations are far more socially conservative and religious than white Republicans. It confuses white Republicans that conservatives would vote Democrat.

But that is where the cluelessness comes in. Democrats have always been a big tent party. What Republicans should ask is: In the past, why did so many conservatives, especially among the religious right, vote for reform candidates like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and gave such strong support to the New Deal? Until Trump, why did most of the white working class vote Democrat for most of the past century, even with the rise of identity politics following the Civil Rights Movement? It’s not because of minorities and liberals that Republicans have in the past lost electoral success in certain big cities and in certain coastal states.

Maybe this election will finally get whites on the political right to rethink their false and unhelpful assumptions about their fellow Americans. Republicans have won a complex coalition with this election. But what will they do with it now that they have it? And will they be able to keep it?