Red Economy vs. Blue Economy

Really interesting piece from Brookings filled cool maps, charts, and statistical info…

Not only are red and blue America experiencing two different economies, but those economies are diverging fast. In fact, radical change is transforming the two parties’ economies in real time. Which is a key takeaway of a new data analysis—published today—that we developed with the Wall Street Journal’s Aaron Zitner and Dante Chinni.

What do the new numbers show exactly? Based on standard economic data linked to recent congressional district outcomes that we have tracked over time, the Journal/Brookings analysis depicts above all the extreme pace in which the economies of the two parties’ districts are changing in this decade.

Some of the change is already familiar based on how the map of congressional vote outcomes has evolved in the last decade:

Map 1

In the 111th Congress in 2008, Democratic-voting, often-urban districts encompassed 39% of U.S. land area compared with the 61% expanse of Republican districts. By the 116th Congress, just ten years later, the Democratic share had fallen to 20% of the map, with Republicans’ expanse rising to 80% of the nation’s land area. [emphases mine] Certainly, those numbers point to economic change, although they also reflect gerrymandering and the low population density of rural areas…


With their output surging as a result of the big-city tilt of the decade’s “winner-take-most” economy, Democratic districts have seen their median household income soar in a decade—from $54,000 in 2008 to $61,000 in 2018. By contrast, the income level in Republican districts began slightly higher in 2008, but then declined from $55,000 to $53,000…

Looking deeper, it’s clear that big shifts in industry geography and composition are driving the parties’ changes of identity. Look at the matrix of 10-year trends depicted here:

Figure 2

Democratic districts, for example, have grown significantly more dynamic in the last decade. Overall, “blue” territories have seen their productivity climb from $118,000 per worker in 2008 to $139,000 in 2018 as recent demographic changes and electoral sorting ensured they became better educated and more urban. Republican-district productivity, by contrast, remains stuck at about $110,000, reflecting only slight improvements of bachelor’s degree attainment and Republicans’ increasingly non-metro domain.

Relatedly, and equally striking, Democratic districts are rapidly increasing their dominance of the nation’s urban-tilting professional and digital services employment while ceding their historical, more rural shares of manufacturing and agriculture-mining activity…

It could be, instead, that the nation is only heading deeper into a period of continued stand-off, where economic change reinforces cultural backlash, and both gerrymandered districts and the Constitution’s allocation of two senators for every state prop up the political power of a declining fraction of the economy. If that’s how the politics of the decade’s changing economy are going to play out, then political analyst Ron Brownstein may be right that the nation may be heading deeper into an era of sustained turbulence that “pits what America has been against what it is becoming.”


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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