Fred Hiatt: Gun control debate highlights just how divided the U.S. really is
In the week since modest gun control died in the Senate, those of us who don't think guns make the country safer have been inclined to blame a few cowardly senators whose votes could have shifted the outcome.
Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than that. Contrary to what then-Sen. Barack Obama told us in his inspiring breakout speech to the Democratic convention of 2004, there is a blue America and a red America. And the colors have been deepening over the decade since Obama spoke.
This isn't an original thought. Journalist Bill Bishop coined the phrase "the big sort" in 2004 to describe the increasing political homogeneity of American living patterns. It comes as no surprise that some 60 percent of households in Montana own guns, compared with 13 percent in Rhode Island; or that, with similar populations, Missouri has six abortion providers and Maryland 34.
But the red-state/blue-state fissure seems to be turning into a chasm in the months since President Obama won reelection. After the Newtown massacre, Connecticut and Maryland enacted sweeping bans on assault weapons and other gun-control measures. South Dakota enacted a bill authorizing school employees to carry guns.
North Dakota enacted a bill that, if enforced, seems likely to ban most abortions, while Maryland became one of the nine states (plus the District of Columbia) that recognize same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, such marriages remain illegal elsewhere and, in 30 states, unconstitutional.
As Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski point out in the National Journal, the chasm doesn't run only through social issues. Blue-state governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Martin O'Malley in Maryland have engineered tax and budget increases while red-state governors such as Sam Brownback in Kansas are cutting the income tax, the budget and the state workforce. The Kansas legislature is now so far to the right that conservative Brownback finds himself trying to moderate its enthusiasm for budget-slashing.
There are still a handful of purple states. In a few (such as Virginia), the parties have compromised and made progress; in others (Wisconsin), they have gone to political war. But as The Washington Post's Dan Balz pointed out recently, the number of states that are divided evenly enough for presidential candidates to fight over has been steadily dwindling. In 2012, only four (Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina) were decided by five percentage points or fewer.
The encouraging news, if there is any, is that these patterns aren't as immutable as they were, say, with the division between slave and free states before the Civil War. Populations shift over time, attitudes change, political parties evolve. The migration of foreign-born families into the heartland, for example, may help make immigration reform more achievable than it would be if immigrants were clustered only in traditional coastal cities. And, as Third Way's Matt Bennett pointed out to me, polls show voters often are more moderate than their politicians, even in deep blue or bright red states.
But on many issues the country is sharply divided, as it was between Obama and Mitt Romney (Obama won just 51.1 percent of votes). And while congressional gerrymandering amplifies the effect of the division, even fair redistricting would not bridge the chasm, as Rob Richie explained in a Washington Post op-ed last fall. (Richie's solution: Create multi-member House districts, so that the minority party in any given region could elect at least one out of three legislators.)
One result is that purported adherence to states' rights has become more situational than ever. Red-staters want to ignore Roe v. Wade while insisting that the most permissive state's concealed-carry law be accepted across the country. Advocates of gay marriage find themselves simultaneously against the federal Defense of Marriage Act because it doesn't recognize Massachusetts' primacy in allowing same-sex marriage and against California's ban on same-sex marriage because it violates the U.S. Constitution.
On some issues, liberal and conservative policies may get a chance to compete. Will the well-funded schools of Maryland help attract business and maintain the state's prosperity despite higher taxes, as O'Malley maintains? Or will Brownback's tax cuts more effectively drive growth? As red states resist Obamacare and blue states embrace it, where will people be healthier?
Unfortunately, across a range of issues state diversity won't work very well. A ban on assault weapons in Maryland is of limited use if you can buy a gun in Virginia. A married gay couple with children could risk custody if they move from Massachusetts to Mississippi.
But with Americans living in two separate worlds, that may be the reality we face for some time to come.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post's editorial page editor.