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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Not-So-Curious Divide

The Not-So-Curious Divide
Charles R. Brayton, founder of
Rhode Island's machine politics
A few days ago, David Scharfenberg of the Phoenix wrote a blog post entitled “The Curious Divide” noticing the distinct difference between Rhode Island’s liberal federal delegation and its state legislature, which skews moderate (and as one reader has pointed out, significantly to the right of most Democratic state legislatures, with some Democrats more conservative than some Republicans). Mr. Scharfenberg explains his view:

the split vote – elect a moderate local rep and a liberal federal one – seems to perfectly capture Rhode Island’s deep unease with its own politics: it is a liberal state uncomfortable with its liberalism.

I’d agree, but I don’t think it’s exactly right. Take the last election. In the race for Governor, Lincoln Chafee’s advantage mainly came from two places; the cities of Providence and Pawtucket and a group I like to think of as “Bay Progressives” (though there were probably liberal Republicans in there as well).

These are also places where David Cicilline did extremely well against John Loughlin II, though he was weaker in the Narragansett Bay communities than Mr. Chafee. Mr. Cicilline’s advantage in Providence and Pawtucket overcame the lion’s share of his deficits elsewhere and pushed him to victory. These are also the same places where David Segal performed well in the CD1 Democratic primary.

Basically, the central urban areas, with their minority and working class populations, tend to be strongest for liberal voters, and they can push elections to liberal candidates. The bay area also attracts large concentrations of well-off, highly-educated elites (as do the well-off portions of Providence and Pawtucket). 

They tend to be strong on green issues and liberal on social issues. This Urban-Bay coalition is a key part of the progressives who dominate federal politics. Their enthusiasm can make or break a liberal candidate running for statewide or federal office.

This isn’t to say there aren’t urban progressives in Newport or Woonsocket or North Providence, nor that there aren’t equally important progressives in the more woodland areas of South County. But their margins of support are less overwhelming, and there are fewer of them. Providence tends to make up the deficit.

There’s the actual tension. It’s not that the state is uncomfortable with its liberalism, it’s the historical tension that’s existed between urban core and country since the Industrial Revolution poured Italian, Irish, Portuguese, and Quebecois into the cities.

It’s where Rhode Island’s corrupt political machine politics got their foundation; then under the control of Republican “Blind Boss” Charles Brayton, the countryside prevented the working poor and immigrants in Rhode Island’s cities from getting the amount of political representation they deserved. This is not a secret, the General Assembly’s own history makes this pretty clear (and is a pretty amazing narrative of that body until about 1994).

Now, of course, Providence’s representation is roughly proportionate to its population; but that tension lingers. The well-off countryside can easily view the urban areas as basically a charity basket-case. No wonder they vote for more conservative legislatures. The problem is exacerbated by the largely assimilated white countryside and the as-yet unassimilated immigrant and second-generation Americans who inhabit the cities.

Taken collectively, our state skews liberal; both because it actually is (even our Republicans are more liberal than their peers in other states), but also because the cities have a powerful voting constituency. In the General Assembly, the towns and villages have more distinct representation, the conservative ones can largely counterbalance the liberalism of the urban core. Their own progressives can be outvoted by the larger numbers of conservative voters. When progressives and liberals unite across the state, they’re a very powerful constituency.

And that’s why I think our federal politicians are so different from our state politicians.

P.S. This analysis has missed moderates, and that’s largely because moderates don’t pull the Assembly one way or the other.

Samuel G. Howard - A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.