The partisan regional paradox of internet politics

This is a map depicting high speed internet availability and options in the United States.

The green areas are places where high speed internet options are widely available. The less green you see, the fewer options and lower internet availability. You might know that I hype high speed internet as a potential economic development tool for northern Minnesota all the time. And while this map does account for the cable and DSL options available in regional cities like Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia, it also shows that for those like me who live on the outskirts of the cities or out into the township have few options for high speed internet. Neither, for that matter, does most of the West or Appalachia.

Why does this matter? Well, if you care why Chip Cravaack beat Jim Oberstar last November, it matters. If you care why the region’s economy never seems to be especially good or particularly bad, it matters.

Paul Waldman at the American Prospect makes an interesting observation about this map.

You’ll note the irony that at the moment, Democrats are working to get broadband to every area of the country, yet the places where there are lots of Democrats already have it. Republicans aren’t favorably inclined, yet the places where there are lots of Republicans are drastically underserved. Welcome to American politics in the 21st century.

No, the internet does not make you a Democrat. That’s not the point. The point is that attitudes that drive support, both political and capital, of high speed internet seems to be related to some aspect of political orientation in our modern times. It’s like looking at church attendance or gun ownership. Trendlines are clear, and it doesn’t really seem to matter what’s in anyone’s economic or political interests; people vote the way that feels right for their attitude.

Let’s talk about Range townships and towns again.

The townships are to the Range what the suburbs are to the Twin Cities. If you have a little bit of money and you want to raise a family someplace nice, you try to go to the country if you can. Frankly, that’s what I’m doing. The towns have most of the population and many positives, but also have decaying housing stock and increasing financial problems. The population in the towns is plummeting; the population in the townships is skyrocketing. (Towns have lost roughly 40 percent since 1980, Townships have doubled or tripled). One could say, “stop that.” But people aren’t going to stop it without reason. In some ways, developing the townships as retirement, vacation and retreat “neighborhoods,” could allow the cities to do what they need to do: rebuild and reinvent themselves in a new model, much the way a big city might after suburban flight. The cities need to be more appealing than the country to young families and right now that is not happening on the Iron Range.

Remember when I mentioned the Cravaack/Oberstar MN-8 Congressional race? The stunner where an unknown conservative Republican upset the powerful longtime incumbent Democrat? Look at MN-8 on this map. Look at WI-7 in northern Wisconsin, where Republican Sean Duffy took a similar longtime Democratic seat, or MI-1 in the U.P. where the GOP’s Dan Benishek did the same. The lack of high speed internet didn’t make these guys members of Congress, but the attitudes that has kept the whole Lake Superior region from breaking away from a natural resources-only/culturally-exclusive economic model are part and parcel.

This is not a cause and effect relationship, rather a trend to observe. The market for high speed internet in northern Minnesota may not be grandma and grandpa in their old mining house, but rather the grandsons and granddaughters that moved away, their spouses, their friends from other places. If this group moves back to the Range to live, work and create, they’ll bring economic prosperity and diversification with them. If they stay away, then diversification is nothing more than a rhetorical fantasy.Whether or not they are Democrats or Republicans is immaterial, for this decade’s purposes anyway.

It’s increasingly obvious that no progress in this nation is possible until our two cultures start talking to one another. This will require them to both know how to use more than the “forward” button on their e-mail. They’ll need Skype. And have you tried to Skype in the townships? Try it. You’ll see.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)


  1. In my opinion the reason Cravaack beat Oberstar was the internet. I saw Oberstar make an absolute fool of himself at the DECC on the internet (flat earthers) and the blogs lit up. The mainstream reporting of the debate was pro Oberstar. There wasn’t one Range paper that backed Cravaack, that I know of. More information leads to more informed voters, I’m all for that.

  2. We’ve been over that Duluth debate several times here. I think it was an absolute disgrace for all involved. Oberstar acted poorly but only after several minutes of cat-calling from the audience. Cravaack acted poorly in not calming his people down. I didn’t see the “mainstream” reporting as being biased toward Oberstar at all, and I’d honestly admit it if I did.

    Where the internet played a role were for people with strong opinions to echo those strong opinions back to each other. That’s what I saw happening. The people I know who switched Oberstar to Cravaack this time around usually made the determination based on a variety of issues, most dominant being “it was just time for someone new” along with anxiety over one or more of the issues Cravaack was pushing. But the coffee klatches, word of mouth and break rooms were as important to that equation as anything. No DFLer logged onto the internet, read Shot in the Dark or True North, and changed their minds.

    On the trivia, no Range papers endorsed Cravaack. The Mesabi Daily and Timberjay both endorsed Oberstar. Newspapers on the Range are in editorial ideological limbo that you can’t really look at them as reflective of the community, exception being those two, even though the MDN gives me fits sometimes.

  3. As I stated earlier I watched the DECC debacle on the web. I would have missed it without my computer. I believe the ability to talk on line helps the conservative movement because the mainstream media is so slanted towards Lib values. I completely disagree with the premise that Dems push for more access to broadband. It is more who is going to pay for access and installation of high speed internet.

  4. Another topic perhaps but if the mainstream media was ever biased toward liberal values you’re watching that change dramatically with the conservative-leaning corporate takeover of state media companies. Forum Communication and Hubbard have tremendous power in state media and they’ve drawn editorial themes to the right. We have a center right media.

    Case in point, can you imagine a state media outlet ever treating a proposal for single-payer health care with any respect whatsoever? (Knowing that you’d oppose such a measure). I cannot. I can however imagine the local news personalities cheerfully reporting on a “cost saving” measure to bust the state’s unions. That’s what I’m talking about. Putting aside our respective belief systems, we have a center right media.

    I also watched that debate online. I think we agree that the internet has provided conservatives in northern Minnesota the opportunity to communicate with each other in a way that had seemed difficult before. That emboldened conservative activists and GOP enthusiasm was a key part of Cravaack’s win. So I guess I can see your point there, though I must stress that most 8th CD voters have a tenuous relationship at best with the internet — in my professional experience.

  5. If the state media is center-right does that mean the Strib and Pioneer Press are center-right? Or are they overwhelmed by the KSTP empire?

  6. I would include the Strib and PiPress in the center right equation. I grant that the Strib used to be center left but it’s switched since the ownership change.

  7. I must say I’m a bit stunned to hear the Strib, as currently constituted, described as center-right. It leaves me curious as to where you perceive the political center to be. Is the DFL a centrist party? Is Tommy Rukavina a centrist politician? Is David Schultz a centrist political thinker?

    Also, on why Cravaack beat Oberstar there were a few reasons it seems to me.

    1. Oberstar’s campaign. No need to dwell. Ditto for the Cravaack campaign.

    2. The 8th District isn’t the Iron Range District anymore. It is the district that contains the Iron Range. If you look where the population center line, north/south, is for the district it is somewhere around Moose Lake. That really surprised me.

    3. This one is huge. Oberstar’s vote for Obamacare. And specifically because it didn’t contain Hyde-type language for abortion. It cost him the pro-life endorsements he’d had in the past. Oberstar bled thousands of votes here in Crow Wing County and in Morrison County. This area historically tended to elect pro-life DFLers. There was a time when northern DFLers were noted for their hostility to the shedding of innocent blood. I think their gradual abandonment of the unborn is going to continue to be problematic for them.

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