The Great Political Migration
Conservatives yearn for a big, clarifying electoral victory in November 2012, but they’re already winning decisively whenever Americans vote with their feet—or their moving vans.
New census numbers show citizens fleeing by the millions from liberal states and flocking in comparable numbers to bastions of right-wing sentiment. Call it the Great Political Migration.
Between 2009 and 2010 the five biggest losers in terms of “residents lost to other states” were all prominent redoubts of progressivism: California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. Meanwhile, the five biggest winners in the relocation sweepstakes are all commonly identified as red states in which Republicans generally dominate local politics: Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia. Expanding the review to a 10-year span, the biggest population gainers (in percentage terms) have been even more conservative than last year’s winners: Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Texas, in that order.
The shift in national demographics has already rearranged the playing field for the upcoming presidential election. States that Barack Obama carried were the biggest losers in the reapportionment that followed the 2010 Census, with New York and Ohio dropping two electoral votes each. Texas, meanwhile, gained a whopping four votes all by its Lone Star lonesome self. Even in the unlikely event that Obama carried exactly the same states he carried in 2008, he’d still win six fewer electoral votes in 2012. Even more tellingly, if the epic Bush-Gore battle of 2000 played out on the new Electoral College map, with the two candidates carrying precisely the states they each won 11 years ago, the result would have been a far more clear-cut GOP victory margin of 33 electoral votes (instead of the five-vote nail-biter recorded in history books).
Fifty years ago, the United States saw a mass migration from east to west. Today we’re witnessing a comparable migration from left to right.
This significant shift in population not only presents progressives with significant problems in terms of practical politics, but also confronts them with profound ideological challenges.
If liberal approaches work so well, why are so many people choosing to pack their bags and desert some of the most progressive, pro-labor, big-government states in the union?
And if uncompromising conservatism is a cruel, fraudulent disaster, why do small-government, pro-business, low-tax, gun-toting, and churchgoing states draw such a disproportionate number of America’s internal immigrants?
In the emerging presidential campaign, it’s easy to see a version of these questions dominating the debate. Why should anyone choose to endorse liberal, Democratic policies when a single year (2009-10) saw 880,000 residents packing up their belongings to place Barack Obama’s Illinois in their rear-view mirror, while 782,000 new arrivals helped drive the robust economy in Rick Perry’s Texas?
During the bad old days of the Cold War, so many people tried to leave East Germany that the communists built a wall to keep them in. The world rightly took that gesture as evidence of failure and corruption in the Stalinist system.
California can’t raise a wall to prevent people from abandoning the Not-So-Golden State, or somehow deter or return the 2 million who decamped between 2009 and 2010. Doesn’t this overwhelming outflow of residents count as powerful evidence of the failure, corruption, and bankruptcy of the state’s leadership—long dominated by legislative leftists, even under the moderate GOP governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger? For the first time since statehood in 1850, a new Census brought no increase in California’s representation in Congress (or the Electoral College).
California has become a sad symbol of dysfunctional government at its shabbiest, shadiest, most sclerotic, and irresponsible—an exquisitely painful irony for those of us who recall the Golden State’s onetime position in the national imagination. Not so long ago, the whole nation (or at least its most enterprising and adventurous elements) seemed to envy the state and to embrace the notion of “California Dreamin’.”
My late parents cherished that dream and made the trek from Philadelphia to my dad’s first job (after graduate school on the GI Bill) in San Diego. They loaded a battered, gray ’53 Plymouth with their possessions and their 5-year-old son (me) and drove across the country for a thrilling new life. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, nearly everyone we knew seemed recently arrived from somewhere else, thrilled to experience the electric atmosphere of a place that seemed to define America’s bright future.
After my parents’ divorce, my father eventually decided to leave California for a corner of the earth that promised even more excitement and significance—Israel—and he spent the last 19 years of his life in Jerusalem. As for me, I finally persuaded my wife, Diane (a fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors arrived in Gold Rush days), to move our family to Washington state in 1996, and there’s never been a day when I regretted that decision.
To some, this move from one center for liberal lunacy to another progressive outpost made no sense: Seattle offered the lefty politics of California but with considerably less sunshine. But there is one striking difference between these two Pacific Coast states: When it comes to income taxes, California’s top rate recently crested to an appalling 10.3 percent (on top of federal tax burdens, sales tax, property tax, and much more). Washington, on the other hand, imposes no income tax at all, and ongoing growth makes Washington the only blue state (that’s right, the only one) that added a congressional seat in the recent Census.
The impact of state income taxes helps explain the flow of business and families to those states with more hospitable, less-intrusive attitudes toward enterprise. The dollars involved are hardly trivial. California punishes the stinking, selfish, filthy rich by imposing the second-highest rate–9.3 percent—on every dollar an individual earns beyond the obscenely lavish sum of $46,766. New York takes similar aim at privileged plutocrats, with individual tax rates of at least 6.75 percent for any earnings above … $20,000. But if those hard-pressed wage-earners make their way to Nevada, they’ll pay nothing in state income tax, and revel in their residence in one of nine states that avoid punishing earning and effort. Even in left-tilting Washington, voters in 2010 rejected (by nearly 2 to 1) a state income tax placed on the ballot by Bill Gates Sr.
There are no real political refugees within the United States, and few families move from one state to another to search for more congenial political leadership. Climate, family concerns, and job opportunities are all factors. But the contrasting cultures that state politics help to shape make a big difference in determining which parts of the nation seem more or less promising to potential migrants. With the Gallup poll showing self-described “conservatives” outnumbering self-proclaimed “liberals” by nearly 2 to 1 (41 percent to 21 percent) it’s not surprising that states with pro-business, pro-family attitudes draw disproportionate numbers of new arrivals. At the same time, it makes sense that those states with aggressive, intrusive bureaucracies, high taxes, and relentless experiments in multiculturalism will encourage mass departures.
The millions of resettlers who move their families to more sympathetic venues surely feel motivated by personal considerations more than ideology, but they still play a role in reshaping the nation’s political future. For generations, conservatives tried to convince doubters that their ideas were right in some ultimate, philosophical sense. Now, with countless frustrated families making fresh starts in right-leaning states, they’ve obviously made the case that in the real world, it’s the conservative approach that works.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of states with no income tax and incorrectly included Utah on the list.