By now, everyone is familiar with those post-election maps of the United States, showing most of the nation a bright red, solidly Republican, speckled with some small blue dots, where Democrats dwell. It looks like an overwhelmingly Republican country, but Democrats dominate, as they did last week, because the blue dots are cities, where people live. The red vastnesses are more rural, with fewer voters and more empty space.
But there are some exceptions, splotches of blue in rural, less-populated areas, Democratic outposts where you wouldn't expect them, Obama bastions unexplained by cities or university towns. Some of these are in New England, naturally, but also a patch in northern Montana, a swath along the Mississippi River between Mississippi and Arkansas, a Democratic stronghold in the iron range north of Duluth, where Minnesota juts out over Lake Superior.
And then there's one true curiosity -- a cluster of mostly rural counties and small towns in southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. This also happens to fit exactly with a region called the Driftless Area, a four-state region around the Mississippi River. It's called the Driftless Area because the glaciers that flattened most of the rest of the Midwest gave it a pass, leaving a lovely hilly area carved by rivers, home to small farms and little towns.
As I wrote in an earlier post, the Driftless Area includes 25 to 35 counties, depending where you draw the boundaries. Most of these counties are economically depressed and seem to have a hard time working together, which makes this political unity all the odder.
There's not much industry here. The region lies just south of Minneapolis to the north and north of the Quad Cities, with the liberal college towns of Madison and Iowa City beyond its eastern and western fringes. You expect St. Paul, Davenport and Madison to be blue. But Black River Falls? Decorah? Winona?
All four of these states went for President Obama. But cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Des Moines contributed most of his votes. Otherwise, the less-urban counties of all four states stayed reliably Republican.
Except for the Driftless Area.
The area's singularity was first spotted by Wall Street Pit, a financial news website, in a piece written by Scott Sumner, a Madison native who admitted that "I don't have a clue" why these counties voted as they did. The site published the relevant maps, which you can see here:
If this phenomenon baffled Sumner, it was quickly explained by commenters to the blog, who said it was all due to the superior character of the residents -- "hard-working, open-minded peaceful people, (who) value people above profit, are neighborly and fair-minded...not cut-throat capitalists...engaged voters...an epicenter for education, medicine and organic farming. People are against suffering, and believe in helping others and creating strong communities." Organic farming in the area seemed especially vital to the region's progressive, true-blue flavor. Also, there's lots of residents of Scandinavian heritage, especially Norwegian.
Ah, that explains it. No argument here. I've spent time in the Driftless Area and it indeed is full of folks who are the salt of the earth, peaceable types who feast on organic produce, value fairness and hence are natural Democrats.
And then I got to thinking. Chicago also went solidly Democratic. So did Detroit and Cleveland. As a Chicagoan, I have to admit that my neighbors are a little more hard-edged, competitive, opinionated, a little pushy and, given a choice, prefer a good steak raised on a factory farm to organic broccoli. Yet, like the easy-going Driftless denizens, they're Democratic to the core.
I've seen no polls comparing the political preferences of organic and non-organic farmers, but in my experience, farmers everywhere tend to be a conservative lot, more likely to vote Republican. And while Scandinavia is known for its social democracy, Norway splits its votes between left and right: in fact, cities are more likely to vote left, rural areas right -- just like here.
So the existence of all these Democratic voters in the hills and hollows of the Driftless Area remains a mystery. Without question, they are fine folk. But why are they Democrats?
This preference isn't new. The Driftless Area voted for Obama in 2008, but so did many of the surrounding counties. The president's margin in the four states was greater than in the recent election, so the blue uniqueness of the Driftless Area's didn't stand out on post-election maps.
(In 2000, when George Bush defeated Al Gore, only southwestern Wisconsin voted Democratic. In every presidential election since then, red Driftless counties in the other three states have been turning blue.)
There are a few small cities in this area -- La Crosse and Dubuque, for instance. Rochester, Madison and Waterloo hovers on the fringes. There are some good colleges and universities in the region -- the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, for example, or Luther in northern Iowa. But the Midwest is filled with small industrial cities, mostly Democratic, and academic outposts that don't seem to tilt their entire regions to the left.
The small towns here do seem special. Many, like Galena in Illinois or Spillville in Iowa, carefully preserve a unique history or ethnicity. The area draws in outsiders, not only empty nesters but artists and writers seeking an unspoiled way of life: many residents are indeed organic or small farmers, consciously rejecting big agriculture.
Community spirit remains high, with residents willing to do battle for pet projects. But again, this is true in many rural areas, where idealistic newcomers find themselves scrapping with entrenched old-timers, and often losing.
So the blueness of the Driftless Area remains a puzzle, at least to this blog. If any readers have explanations, I'm anxious to hear them.