In touting an article by Richard Florida on the Atlantic magazine website, the Albany Times Union quotes the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute to the effect that "Republicanism is increasingly becoming the politics of those left behind." Florida wants to explain the increase of Republican party identification that has reportedly taken place in 47 states, but he seems to say the opposite of what the Albany paper implies. He writes that this shift has little to do with how Americans perceive the current condition of the economy." On the other hand, he notes that "Republicanism is most pronounced and growing fastest among America's least well-off, most blue-collar states with the bleakest futures." Echoing observations by Michael Crowley and Thomas Frank -- the latter writes, however, that Florida's "theories of planned coolness" set off his "bullshit detector," -- Florida finds support for Democrats strongest in the richest states (as opposed to among the richest people) and in the tech sectors as opposed to blue-collar sectors. Distinguishing between unemployment and poverty, Florida reports that poorer states tend Republican, but higher unemployment doesn't increase Republican support among voters. However, Republicans are more likely, according to a Gallup poll, to believe that the economy will get worse. Their anxieties about the future, Florida suggests, matter more than their complaints about the present.
Florida's moral is that President Obama needs to "make real inroads on jobs and economic recovery" in order to reverse the alleged "rightward drift" of the country. But Florida himself notes that "correlations...do not necessarily add up to causation," and his account leaves room to question whether the coincidence of Republican growth in blue-collar regions reflects an economically-stressed perception among new Republicans that they've been or will be left behind. The resentment that fuels Republican growth may be based as much on culture as on economics. Florida's statistics show a "statistically significant association," for instance, between growing support for Republicans and the percentage of immigrants making up a state's population -- though Ron Unz has disputed the validity of similar findings in The American Conservative. When Florida finds correlations between religious identification, proportion of homosexuals, and Republican growth, the implication seems opposed to Florida's conclusion. Unless all these traditionalist and intolerant attitudes themselves follow from economic deprivation, it seems unlikely that any success by Obama on the economic front would improve his standing with blue-collar reactionaries so long as he's still perceived as a cultural liberal. Florida thinks that "optimism" is the key, hinting in his last sentence that greater optimism about the economy might make blue-collars less reactionary across the board. But optimism was Ronald Reagan's great trump card, and was never inconsistent with intolerance toward cultural and sexual diversity. Optimism isn't an end unto itself; it can well be blind and unfounded. What seems obvious is that blue-collar sectors need to be brought up to speed to participate in the 21st century economy, especially since the education necessary for such adaptation seems to discourage reactionary and Republican attitudes. What seems less obvious is whether everyone can be brought up to speed, and whether the economy even needs everyone currently in the job market. If the 21st century economy is doomed to leave many Americans behind, as Florida finds to be the case right now, the consequences for the major political parties ought to be of less concern than the consequences for our country and its civilization.