Nov 11, 2020

The battle for the Senate begins.

The battle for the Senate begins.

Plus, why is there an urban-rural political divide?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The battle for the Senate begins. Why is there a rural-urban divide in politics?

United States Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Veterans Day.

To all my readers who are serving or have served in the armed forces, and their families: thank you. I have written about my opposition to some of America’s military interventions, but being opposed to how our leaders decide to deploy our military forces does not mean opposition to the men and women who so often sacrifice comfort, safety and indeed their lives, by taking on a job for all of us that I don’t have the desire or courage to do myself. The COVID-19 pandemic has also been especially hard on veterans who are often facing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression already — and now have been forced into isolation. One day a year we’re asked to say thank you, and I don’t think that’s much to ask. I am grateful every day for the work that you do. So thank you, and I hope this day brings you and your families some joy.

Tangle length.

I just wanted to drop a quick note and say that I am aware the newsletters have been quite a bit longer the last couple weeks than usual. Frankly, it’s just because things have been a lot more complicated than they typically are! Regardless, I do understand that one of the core value propositions of Tangle is that it delivers a holistic look at the news in a digestible, easy format that doesn’t take too long to consume. I’m doing my best to cut the fat and keep the newsletter as tight as possible, but there will also be days where in order to reflect the nuance I have to embrace a little extra length. Cheers.

Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court appears poised to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s essential components in the face of the latest Republican challenge, according to The Washington Post.
  2. Election officials in dozens of states representing both political parties have clearly said there was no evidence of fraud or other irregularities that would change the outcome of the presidential race.
  3. Georgia’s secretary of state announced a full hand recount of the presidential race this morning. The post-election audit was always planned in the event of a close race, and is, as we have noted, very unlikely to change the outcome.
  4. The Pennsylvania USPS worker whose claims of fraud have been cited by many top Republicans has recanted his allegations, telling investigators he fabricated the evidence. He then denied that he had recanted his allegations in a YouTube video, despite signing an affidavit to that effect.
  5. On Tuesday, the United States recorded more than 135,000 new coronavirus cases and an all-time high 62,000 hospitalizations.

What D.C. is talking about.

The Senate. As I explained in my answer to yesterday’s reader question, the January 5th double Georgia runoff in the Senate is about to become the center of the political world for the next two months. As it stands, Republicans control the upper chamber of Congress with a 50-48 majority. If Democrats manage to win both of the Georgia Senate races, they would bring it to a 50-50 tie. In that scenario, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would become the majority leader and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be able to break any 50-50 tie votes.

Still, the formal control of a 50-50 Senate for Democrats would not yield as much power as an outright majority. For one, a 50-50 tie means McConnell would still be able to control elements of “everything from floor procedures to committee seats,” as Axios reported. Democrats would need 50 votes to change any rules in Congress or pass major spending bills. That means they’d need the support of every single Democrat, including Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona), who are far more moderate and independent than other members of the party.

At the same time, a 50-50 split would create serious headaches for McConnell and the Republicans, too. If they became the formal minority, more independent Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, all of whom have bucked both Trump and McConnell, would wield far more influence because they would all then be major swing votes in the Senate.

Of course, Democrats also face the question of eliminating the filibuster on legislation. That’s the rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on a topic and move it to a formal vote. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans have used the filibuster to obstruct the other side’s legislation by never formally ending debate and voting on it. The filibuster rule has already been abolished for the nominations of federal judges and executive branch positions, but it’s still in place for legislation.

If Democrats don’t get the majority, then the Biden agenda will face serious uphill battles. He’ll need to win over Republican senators to simply approve judges and pick members of his cabinet — or have any chance of passing sweeping climate change bills, immigration reform or health care. All of this makes the January 5th Georgia runoffs, with Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler facing Democrat challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, all the more important.

What the left is saying.

There’s some disappointment. Given the expectations, Democrats really thought they had a strong chance to flip the Senate outright. Now they need an unlikely pair of wins to get the slimmest advantage possible. But there’s a chance.

In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin — once a staunch conservative but now a chief critic of Trump and Republicans — wrote that Georgia had a chance to restore a functioning government.

“Democrats will no doubt face the argument that a Republican majority in the Senate is needed to provide a check on the Biden administration,” she said. “That is an entirely specious argument. Biden is not inclined to pursue a radical agenda, and even with a 50-50 split — and Kamala D. Harris casting tiebreaker votes as vice president — he would be unable to pull it off. Without a 60-vote majority (no one believes the filibuster will disappear now), Biden will be constrained and require substantial support from Republicans to push through his agenda…

“The issue is whether Georgia wants to return the Senate majority leadership to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), giving him an opportunity to resume his obstructive practices and preventing votes on bills for which there is wide public support. McConnell, who so far has been unwilling to stand up to President Trump and congratulate Biden on his victory, remains the leader of the burn-it-down, anti-government Republican base.”

In CNN, Ronald Brownstein explained why the Senate looks so difficult for Democrats.

“The state is rapidly changing and both parties expect the twin runoff elections anticipated in January to be competitive,” he wrote. “But Republicans have reigned in the state for a generation, and Democrats have not elected a senator in Georgia since 2000, when Zell Miller, a conservative former governor, won a special election. Now, to secure a Senate majority that will determine the fate of Biden's agenda the party's only chance is to elect two, on a single day in January…

“Democrats have struggled to turn out Black voters in earlier Senate runoffs in Georgia, though they are optimistic that the presence of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is African American, in one of the contests, and the robust get-out-the-vote machinery built by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, will largely rectify that problem. Republicans, in turn, worry that some rural voters who surged to the polls for Trump might be dispirited by his loss and stay home. Win or lose, the fact that Democrats must sweep the two Georgia Senate seats to reach even a 50-50 Senate split after an election that Biden will probably win by well over 5 million in the national popular vote underscores the long-term squeeze Democrats face in the body.”

What the right is saying.

The right is optimistic that they can hold onto their majority — and keep Biden’s agenda in check — but they are also hoping that President Trump will quickly join the fight.

In The Washington Post, Marc A. Thiessen argued that if Trump wanted to run again in 2024, with 71 million voters behind him, he could. But “how he handles the next few months will be decisive.”

“Before leaving the White House, he has one last job to do: He must save the Republican Senate majority,” Thiessen wrote. “If Democrats win the two Georgia Senate runoffs on Jan. 5, they will take control of the chamber. They can then get rid of the filibuster and pass whatever radical legislation they like. They will also have the power to reverse Trump’s judicial legacy by packing the courts, and lock in their majority by making the District of Columbia a state, giving them two safe seats. The only way to prevent this is to turn out Trump’s loyal base. And the only person who can do that is Trump…

“He needs to hold rallies for Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, and campaign for them like he did in the final days of the November election. He also needs to make the election about the future and stopping the radical left from imposing its agenda on the American people, not about the November vote. If Democrats win in Georgia, it will be seen as a final repudiation of Trumpism. But if Trump can lead the effort to hold the Senate in Georgia, he will leave office with a major victory — and perhaps launch the first salvo of his 2024 campaign.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board explained why the Georgia runoff was so important for conservatives, painting the picture of the future if Democrats pick up the last two Senate seats.

“Bernie Sanders would run Budget, which means a squeeze on the Pentagon. Sherrod Brown of Ohio would run Banking, and Ms. Warren would run the financial institutions subcommittee. Have fun, bankers,” the board said. “Oregon’s Ron Wyden would run Finance. He supports the $4 trillion Biden tax increase plus he wants to tax even unrealized capital gains as ordinary income. That means taxing the appreciation in the value of assets even if they aren’t sold during the year…

“Some business folks think nothing like this could happen in a 50-50 Senate,” it added. “West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin would supposedly save the day, or Joe Biden would intervene. Don’t count on it. Mr. Manchin is a reliable Democratic vote on every big issue when it really matters, and Mr. Biden will be under pressure from progressives (and Ms. Harris) to achieve their goals… All of this should be front-and-center for voters in the Georgia runoffs. The suburban Atlanta Republicans and independents who voted for Mr. Biden to oust Donald Trump are likely to support a GOP Senate as a check on Mr. Biden’s left wing if they know the stakes.”

My take.

It’s a startling position to be in. My best read on what’s happening in Georgia is that just enough moderate Republicans soured on Donald Trump to oust him as president but those same Republicans still have the clear upper hand when it comes to who will turn out in the January runoffs. The next few weeks will be critical for both sides.

I can also tell you what I’m seeing from my perch here in Brooklyn. In order to stay apprised of the campaign happenings, I signed up for text messages and emails from Donald Trump, Joe Biden and both the Republican and Democratic parties. I’m essentially posing as a supporter of each of them to see what comes in. The messages from the Trump campaign the last few days have all been about the alleged “stolen” election and the legal fight they’re waging. The campaign is asking for donations to fund those legal battles, with a small footnote indicating that more than half of the money will be used to pay off the campaign’s debts.

Meanwhile, when people in Atlanta poured into the streets on Saturday to celebrate Trump’s defeat, there were reports that Stacey Abrams’ groups were literally walking through crowds registering people to vote. That kind of ground game is not going to stop. Democrats are blowing up my phone seeking out phone bankers to dial up residents in Georgia, get them registered to vote in time for the runoff and convince them to vote blue. If the dichotomy between these two approaches continues, I think Democrats have a real chance. Republicans have about another week to entertain the idea that Trump is going to somehow overturn hundreds of thousands of votes before they have to refocus and turn their eyes to Georgia.

There’s part of me that wants to see a divided government — just to watch Democrats and Republicans be forced to actually confront each other, converse and work together. But there’s not much in the way of evidence that McConnell would play ball. My favorite part of Joe Biden’s campaign is his constant pursuit and emphasis on unity, even if he and his supporters sometimes fail to live up to those ideals. At the same time, the outcome of this Senate race will give incredible power to a handful of people: If Ossoff and Warnock pull it out, then Democrats like Kamala Harris, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will control the fate of cabinet picks, legislation and the budget. If Republicans pull it out, then Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney suddenly become the most powerful people in the American government (one could easily argue that McConnell already was).

That’s the choice for voters in Georgia. Whoever they pick will give us a good idea of where the state is now — but no matter what the outcome is, Democrats and Republicans are barrelling toward a future where they’re actually going to have to work together to get anything done.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Looking at this year’s election map, I’m struck more than ever by the way the vote breaks down geographically. Whether a state is red or blue, when you zoom in and look at results by county it’s almost invariably the metro areas going for Biden and rural areas for Trump. Is this a recent trend, or have American elections always broken down this way? What do you think it would take for a candidate or party to unite these apparently disparate demographics?

— Mike, Livermore, California

Tangle: Every year, the urban-rural divide in politics seems to become starker and a more important topic of conversation. This 2020 election season is no different.

It certainly wasn’t always this way. This urban-rural divide is not unlike what we used to imagine as the north-south divide. In fact, it is basically our modern day version of that. Back then, state and regional divides most reliably predicted political loyalties. The Mason-Dixon line was the division politicians understood as the line between red and blue. Now, it appears the biggest difference is not where people live but how they live. If you’re in an urban area with 100,000 or more people, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the north, south, east or west: odds are good you’re in a place with a majority of Democratic voters.

The trend appears to have really picked up in 1984, and ever since then more and more American cities vote blue. In 2012, Obama won in 27 of America’s 30 most populous cities. This year, Biden looks poised to win all of the biggest cities in America outside of Oklahoma.

The why behind this, though, is much harder to parse. Interestingly, this divide is not just happening in America — it’s happening in other Western democracies across Europe, too. As Josh Kron wrote in 2012, the conventional wisdom for a long time has been that “people don't make cities liberal -- cities make people liberal.” This school of thought essentially comes down to the idea that people in urban areas get exposed to more cultural and economic diversity, and thus adopt more liberal values.

The opposite would also be true: living in small towns and rural areas means less exposure to cultural and economic diversity, so it would promote political conservatism. It’s easy to connect these dots. Someone who lives in a small rural town with two police officers may be far more likely to support gun rights for self-defense, while someone living in Brooklyn next to a terrific Nigerian restaurant may be more interested in a pro-immigration government.

But there’s quite a bit of research to suggest this common-sense conclusion isn’t true. Instead, it appears the urban-rural divide exists simply because different types of people decide to live in different geographic areas to begin with. Rahsaan Maxwell’s research suggests that these trends are tied directly to the structure of our economies: highly skilled workers in technology, finances or creative industries have little choice but to seek out jobs in big cities across Europe and the U.S., because that’s where those jobs are. Given that there are strong correlations between things like education and pro-immigration sentiment, these trends seem to be driving the growing urban-rural divide, both in Europe and America.

In Switzerland, Maxwell also found that conservatives who do move to urban areas do not experience changes in their attitudes about immigration — further proof that it’s people picking cities, not cities transforming people.

Jonathan Rodden, another researcher who has explored this phenomenon, notes that cities in the South only turned reliably blue in the last 20 years. He also credits this to an explosion of college-educated adults and large companies popping up in those places — as well as Black families who once left urban areas to seek out manufacturing jobs now returning to metro areas in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

What’s fascinating about all of these theories is that we may find out soon which, if any, hold any weight. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend of young adults leaving wealthy, metropolitan areas to head to the suburbs and more rural areas in the south and western parts of America. These adults are seeking out more affordable housing and good jobs, but also landing in reliably Republican areas. Whether these areas eventually turn blue, too, or those young adults adopt the values and views of those around them, could determine the future of American politics.

Of course, none of this is as simple as blue versus red. Some of our strongest notions about the electoral map can be misleading. California, for instance, is often cited as some kind of liberal pipe dream underworld, yet because of its sheer size Donald Trump got nearly as many votes there (more than 5 million) as he did in Texas. There are more Trump voters in Washington state than in Alabama. Trump won more votes in Philadelphia this year than he did in 2016. All these things are worth considering when parsing the nation into red and blue.

A story that matters.

Social media companies took their most aggressive stance yet during the 2020 election cycle — and now users are wondering how long it will continue. Facebook and Twitter “have applied fact-checking labels to posts from the U.S. president, deleted entire online communities and hobbled some functions of their own platforms to slow the spread of what they deemed false or dangerous content,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Democrats celebrated the move, saying it was overdue, while Republicans hammered the platforms for censorship and claimed the rules were being applied unevenly. But both Twitter and Facebook say their goal is to ensure the public gets reliable information about the election. Now the question is just how long they will keep these efforts up.


  • 79%. The percentage of Americans who think Joe Biden won the Nov. 3rd election.
  • 13%. The percentage of Americans who think the election has not yet been decided.
  • 3%. The percentage of Americans who think Donald Trump won.
  • 5%. The percentage of Americans who say they don’t yet know the winner.
  • 14.9. The number of divorces in America per 1,000 marriages, a new 50-year low.
  • 5,099,274. Joe Biden’s current lead in the popular vote.
  • 10,270,877. The number of people in California who voted for Joe Biden, the first time any candidate has ever gotten to eight figures in one state.
  • 26. The minimum number of women House Republicans will have in Congress based on the races that have already been called, the most in U.S. history.

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Have a nice day.

New York City says it is going to begin trying to reply to mental health calls without police present. Mental health crisis workers in New York City are going to start responding to such calls under a new pilot program announced on Tuesday, and will be composed of teams from the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services unit. The change comes after protests across the city and the United States calling for changes in policing, and one major request has been to reduce police presence in situations where there is not a threat of violence. A police officer will still accompany mental health workers if there is “imminent risk of harm” or a weapon present.

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