Value conflicts run along the urban/rural fault line

Published November 21, 2004 12:01 am
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Religious conservatives say values like abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage re-elected George W. Bush. And that moral issues determine how people vote on most things. But gay marriage did not cause defeat of Utah's open-space initiative.

The non-partisan Pew Research Center found national voters tended to make morals their top choice only if it was one of several presented on a list. When asked to name issues important to them without a list, moral issues were seldom mentioned. Abortion and gays were not universal concerns. Feeding the poor, avoiding war and protecting the environment were also moral issues.

Faith was also claimed as a moral issue. Bush scored high with voters who went to church once a week. He also led with investors. Apparently faith in the market was as important as faith in God. Years ago theologian Harvey Cox made a convincing case that Americans consider the market to be God. But neither market nor God made Utahns vote against clean water and open space.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Center for Complex Systems developed maps that suggest values are related to where Americans choose to live. They mapped presidential election results from each U.S. county (http://www-personal. umich.edu/~mejn/election/). They start with the familiar map showing a sea of Republican red with a scattering of small Democratic blue islands.

With the exception of counties along the Mexican border and a few poverty counties elsewhere, blue dots are metropolitan areas. In terms of land area, the map shows a clear rural/urban split with what appears to be an overwhelming rural victory.

They then rescale the map as a cartogram where county size is shown by its population rather than land area. The result is no longer a red victory map with blue dots, but a tossup between two almost equal Republican and Democratic areas. Large segments of blue are separated by strips of red.

Then, the counties are re-scaled as shades of purple, with the proportion of red and blue reflecting the percentage voting Democratic and Republican. Dark bluish purple metropolitan spots are surrounded with broad reddish purple bands grading to narrow strips of light purple.

Paul Box, a research scientist for Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, says this map points to a common idea in economic geography: the concept of "core" and "periphery." The core represents urban, developed, educated, central areas, with the "best" society offers. The periphery is isolated, rural, impoverished and behind the core in most social and economic measures.

This concept is usually applied to places like Brazil, China, Russia or less developed countries. It is considered less relevant in economically advanced countries. This map shows the idea of core and periphery is very much a reality in the U.S. I had not expected that, but it describes America's political divisions much more clearly than any other concept I can think of right now.

Values that separate our country are not primarily those of Christian right vs. liberal left. Votes from predominantly Mormon Utah on Initiative 1 show population density reflects values better than religion. Values are population sensitive: cooperation vs. individualism, planned landscapes vs. random development.

The initiative failed except in two counties known to support green causes. But it almost passed in heavily populated Salt Lake County where 49.8 percent favored it. Strictly rural counties rejected it 2 or 3 to 1. People living in core, urban Salt Lake City depend on rules and cooperation for order. In red spaces it's me and God against the world.

Truly rural areas contain only a small minority of voters. Most Bush support came from towns, suburbs and exurbs. Though many red voters live in rapidly growing metropolitan areas like Cache Valley and St. George, they remain rural at heart. Their values are based on the ideals of a past that can never occur again.

Defining marriage may have been the issue that got Utah voters' blood boiling. But population-sensitive value conflicts such as personal vs. communal space, sharing vs exclusive use, planned vs. random landscapes, compromise vs. conflict and others that set rules for social interaction are the real issues that divide us.


Thad Box is a former dean of the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.



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