Why Rural America Controls the Debates Over Guns and Immigration

Republicans tend to represent places with lots of guns and few immigrants. Photo: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

This is one of those weeks when people who hate partisanship seem vindicated. Despite the pretty clear availability of a Dreamers-for-border-funding deal on immigration, the Senate killed that and every other proposal put to a vote yesterday. And in the wake of yet another horrific school shooting, no one in Washington seriously believes Congress will pass even the mildest gun-control regulation.

It’s fashionable to blame the politicians — and/or the lobbies to which they are beholden — for this gridlock instead of the virtuous and ever-reasonable public, which polls tell us are in favor of compromises on both immigration and guns. And there’s no question that absolutist organizations like the NRA have a grip on one of our two major parties that makes “solutions” other than total victory for its point of view all but impossible.

But it’s important to acknowledge that reflexive partisanship and gridlock are built on a foundation of cultural differences that undermine the trust needed for legislative compromises. And as Ron Brownstein points out in an analysis of these differences, the red side of the red/blue cultural divide benefits from massive institutional advantages that frequently thwart the will of a liberal/moderate majority on issues like guns.

The predictability of deadlock testifies to the power of the intertwined cultural, demographic, and economic divide now separating urban and non-urban America — and how closely the nation’s partisan split follows the contours of that larger separation. It also shows how population-distribution patterns that concentrate Democratic strength in the House of Representatives into the largest urban areas, combined with the small-state bias that accords each state two senators regardless of population, elevate rural over urban priorities in these polarized debates.

Thanks to the Senate’s wildly anti-democratic nature, which is reflected in an Electoral College that lifted Donald Trump to the presidency despite his popular-vote loss, compounded by the gerrymandering and superior vote efficiency that give the GOP an advantage even in the “people’s branch” of the federal government, what Brownstein calls “rural priorities” are very powerful in a Republican-controlled federal government. To a considerable extent, in obstructing popular immigration and gun legislation, the GOP is reflecting the values and interests of its predominant demographic constituency.

[O]ver four-fifths of House Republicans represent districts where the immigrant share of the population lags the national average. But, conversely, gun ownership is much more common among Republican-leaning constituencies and communities than in the nation overall.

These cleavages extend to economic issues as well, with the inland, nonmetro regions that make up so much of the GOP base tending to rely on industries — particularly resource-extraction — that generate high carbon emissions. It’s no accident that Oklahoma produced Scott Pruitt.

And even where Republicans represent urban and/or coastal communities, or high-immigration populations, the centripetal power of the GOP’s core constituencies make compromise difficult.

[O]n Thursday, most of the Senate Republicans from the 20 high-immigrant states — including Georgia’s David Perdue, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Texas’s Ted Cruz and John Cornyn—opposed the bipartisan compromise on immigration amid intense resistance to the plan from Trump and many conservative media voices….

When Congress last year voted to overturn an Obama regulation making it tougher for people with mental illness to obtain guns through the national background-check system, virtually all of the House Republicans from metropolitan areas sided with gun-control opponents to back the repeal.

So with a majority-of-the-majority-party in Congress reflecting the views of a distinct minority of the population, compromise on issues with great cultural salience like immigration and guns is always going to be difficult, and all the polls in the world showing openness to this or that deal won’t really matter. For Democrats, moreover, each time they pursue compromises that Republicans reject, the incentive grows to go into total opposition and await the moment when they have the power to impose their will via a Democratic president and Congress.

In other words, the partisanship and gridlock that characterize Washington on hot-button issues are not primarily the product of vote-selling to lobbyists or the zest for combat among professional activists, though these factors contribute to the toxic atmosphere. Underlying it all are real differences in outlook between different parts of the country, made more important by the distinct institutional features of a constitutional system designed to protect the interests of small, largely nonmetropolitan states.

Add in a president who specializes in inflaming the cultural grievances of people who think of themselves as “real Americans” fighting coastal, cosmopolitan elites, and you have a formula for the kind of paralysis that has stricken Washington this week.

Rural America Controls the Debates Over Guns and Immigration