Paul Krugman: What’s not the matter with Georgia?

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, pays compliments to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams while speaking at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Selma, Ala. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Right now, we all have Georgia on our minds. It’s probably going to end up called for Joe Biden; his lead is razor-thin, but most observers expect it to survive a recount. And the January runoff races in Georgia offer Democrats their last chance to take the Senate.

Beyond the immediate electoral implications, however, the fact that Democrats are now competitive in Georgia but not in Ohio, which appears to have become Trumpier than Texas, tells you a lot about where America is heading. In some ways these changes in the electoral map offer reason for hope; but they also suggest looming problems for U.S. democracy.

How did Georgia turn faintly blue? As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote, in a phrase I wish I’d come up with, the great divide in American politics is now over “density and diplomas”: highly urbanized states — especially those containing large metropolitan areas — with highly educated populations tend to be Democratic.

Why this particular partisan association? Think about the longer-term political strategy of the modern GOP. Republican economic policy is relentlessly plutocratic: tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for everyone else. The party has, however, sought to win over voters who aren’t rich by taking advantage of intolerance — racial hostility, of course, but also opposition to social change in general.

But both living in large, diverse metropolitan areas and being highly educated seem to make voters less receptive to this strategy. Indeed, many big-city and highly educated voters seem repelled by GOP illiberalism on social issues — which is why so many affluent Americans on the coasts back Democrats even though Republicans might reduce their taxes.

In practice, density and diplomas tend to go together — an association that has grown stronger over the past few decades. Modern economic growth has been led by knowledge-based industries; these industries tend to concentrate in large metropolitan areas that have highly educated workforces; and the growth of these metropolitan areas brings in even more highly educated workers.

Hence the transformation of Georgia. The state is home to greater Atlanta, one of the nation’s most dynamic metropolises, which now accounts for 57% of Georgia’s population. Atlanta has drawn in a growing number of college-educated workers, so that at this point the percentage of working-age adults with bachelor’s degrees is higher in Georgia than in Wisconsin or Michigan. So at some level it shouldn’t be surprising that Georgia apparently joined the “blue wall” in securing the presidency for Biden.

But if there’s one thing I hope Democrats have learned these past dozen years, it is that they can’t simply count on changing demography and growing social liberalism to deliver election victories. Red-state Republicans have fought tooth and nail to hold power — not by moderating their policies, but through gerrymandering and vote suppression. And Democrats need to do what they can to fight back.

Which is why Georgia’s blue shift is in one way a reason for hope.

Why, after all, did Biden win Georgia even as he was losing North Carolina, another relatively well-educated state with growing knowledge industries? The answer, in two words: Stacey Abrams.

Two years ago Abrams narrowly lost her bid to become Georgia’s governor, largely thanks to ruthless efforts to suppress the Black vote by Brian Kemp, the secretary of state — who also happened to be her opponent. She could, with considerable justification, have tried to make the case that the election was stolen.

But what she did instead was much more effective: She led a hugely impressive effort to get eligible Georgia citizens registered and to the polls. In so doing, she achieved a victory that would probably have delivered the White House to Biden even if he hadn’t carried Pennsylvania. Her efforts are a reason to think Democrats still have a chance at getting those two Senate seats. And partisan politics aside, we should celebrate evidence that hard work can sometimes overcome voter suppression.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the same forces that made it possible to turn Georgia blue are also exacerbating the underlying flaws in American democracy.

For the Senate hugely overrepresents voters in states with small populations — which mainly means states that are relatively rural and don’t contain big metropolitan areas. The Electoral College has a similar though smaller slant.

And the growing divide between rural and metropolitan voters means that outcomes like 2016, when Donald Trump won office despite losing the popular vote by a substantial margin, are increasingly likely.

Indeed, Biden will become president only after winning the popular vote by a near-landslide; once all the votes are counted, he’ll probably be ahead by around 5 percentage points. And the evidence keeps mounting that the party that benefits from this skewed system is fundamentally opposed to democracy.

So the news from Georgia is encouraging in itself, but is also a warning that American democracy remains very much at risk.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.