The Two Americas Will Be the Defining Trend of 2014

This morning, one of my editors suggested that I might comment on what I thought the big issues of the coming year are going to be. When it comes to the things that will dominate political discussion, most of it we can't predict. There could be unforeseen crises, natural disasters, war breaking out somewhere, or the emergence of previously unknown yet charismatic political figures. A baby might fall down a well, or a little boy could pretend to float up in a balloon, or a young singer might stick out her tongue and move her hips in a sexually suggestive manner, precipitating a national freakout.

One trend I do think will shape people's lives this year and in years to come is the increasing divergence between the places where lots of Democrats live and the places where lots of Republicans live. Yes, it sounds trite and overdone to talk about Two Americas, but it is true, and it's becoming more true all the time. And one question I'm curious about is whether we'll see an increase in people picking up and moving to places where public policy either accords better with their values or offers them important benefits they need to live their lives (or both).

The new year always sees a whole raft of state laws taking effect, but the ideological implications of some of them this year are particularly stark. And liberal states are showing some of the aggressiveness we've come to associate with conservative states. The minimum wage is going up in places like Connecticut and California. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 18 states plus D.C. In Colorado you can walk down to a store on the corner and buy cannabis, and you'll be able to do the same in Washington in a few months. There are new restrictions on guns in blue states, and new laws making guns more ubiquitous in red states. There are also new laws in conservative states aimed at making abortions all but impossible for women to get, and making it as hard as possible for certain kinds of people to vote. And in one of the most critical changes, as of yesterday millions of Americans are getting health coverage through Medicaid—if they live in the right place. Approximately 5 million Americans are missing out because of the refusal of Republican states to allow the Medicaid expansion, in what Ed Kilgore has evocatively termed the "wingnut hole."

Obviously, the underlying divisions that drive this policy divergence are as old as the nation itself. But there are more reasons than ever for people to get up and move to the states where the political leadership is working to make it the kind of place where people like them would want to live. The more we talk about it, the more conscious people become of it, and the closer a conservative in Maryland or a liberal in Mississippi gets to saying, "That's it—I'm finally getting the hell out of here."

There are limits to how far this can go. Even though getting up and moving to a new state is a common part of many people's lives at one time or another, and we tend to associate it with something fundamental in the American spirit—taking a risk, striking out for new horizons, the wind in your hair as you hurtle down the highway toward a brighter future—there are a lot of forces that keep people in place, too. Even if your state's public policy makes your life more difficult, if you grew up there chances are you've got family, friends, and the general familiarity with your surroundings that makes leaving it all behind very daunting. But if the number of people moving not just for a new job but for ideological reasons increases, then that will feed a cycle in which more states become even more ideologically homogenized, which leads to public policy even more ideologically one-sided.

Since I'm a liberal, I believe that the liberal states will become models of freedom, justice, and prosperity, while the conservative states will become hellholes of exploitation and cruelty. Conservatives will naturally see things differently. But watch what's on the ballot in states in 2014, and what state laws get passed in the coming months. State-by-state divergence is my guess for the key political/social trend of the coming year.

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