Opinion | Why People Are Fleeing Blue Cities for Red States

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By David Brooks

Opinion Columnist

There are a lot of us in the Northeastern media who properly spend a lot of time slamming the Republican Party for what a mess it’s become. I have only one question: If we’re right, why are so many people leaving blue states so they can live in red ones?

Between 2010 and 2020, the fastest-growing states were mostly red — places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina. During the pandemic that trend accelerated, and once again, most of the big population-gaining states are governed by Republicans.

If you go back further, you see decade after decade of migration toward the more conservative South. The Brookings Institution demographer William Frey has noted that in 1920, the Northeast and the Midwest accounted for 60 percent of America’s population. A century later, the Sunbelt accounts for 62 percent of the nation’s population. These days we are mostly a Sunbelt nation.

Why are these red states growing so rapidly? The short answer is that they are more pro-business. In a study for the American Enterprise Institute, Mark J. Perry compared the top 10 states people were flocking to in 2021 with the top 10 states people were flocking from.

The places they are flocking to have lower taxes. The 10 states that saw the biggest population gains have an average maximum income tax of 3.8 percent. The 10 states with the biggest population loss have an 8 percent average rate.

The growing states also have fewer restrictions on home construction. That contributes to lower housing prices. The median home price in those 10 population-gaining states is an average of 23 percent less than that of the 10 biggest population-losing states.

Perry goes down a range of other factors and concludes that Americans are moving away from blue states with high energy costs, byzantine regulatory regimes and unfriendly business climates. They are moving to economically vibrant red states with lower costs, more conservative fiscal policies and more job opportunities.

Fifty years ago, few would have predicted that the American South would emerge as an economic dynamo — and that people would be flocking to places like South Carolina and Tennessee, but it’s happening.

So can we tell a simple story here: Republican policies work, Democratic policies don’t?

Well, not quite. When you look inside the red states at where the growth is occurring, you notice immediately that the dynamism is not mostly in the red parts of the red states. The growth is in the metro areas — which are often blue cities in red states. A study from the L.B.J. Urban Lab, for example, found that Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth accounted for 71 percent of the jobs created in Texas in 2019.

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist who studies cities, provided me with data that showed which cities enjoyed rapid employment growth between 2019 and 2021. They tended to be from warmer parts of the country, an all-star team of Sunbelt blue cities: Austin, Raleigh Durham, Miami, Nashville, Tampa and Phoenix. Republicans may be proud that many of their states are growing, but Austin is not CPAC’s utopia.

If you look at these success stories you see they are actually the product of a red-blue mash-up. Republicans at the state level provide the general business climate, but Democrats at the local level influence the schools, provide many social services and create a civic atmosphere that welcomes diversity and attracts highly educated workers.

Very often the conservative state authorities are at war with the more liberal city authorities over things like minimum wage laws and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. But, at least for right now, the red-blue mash-up seems to work.

So if this is the formula that produces a dynamic and cosmopolitan society, where is the political party that is conservative-leaning on business matters and more liberal-leaning on things like education, immigration and work force development?

Where is the party that stands for the policy blend that manifestly works?

Once upon a time you could squint and imagine the George W. Bush/Mitt Romney Republican Party morphing in that direction. No longer. The G.O.P. is a working-class populist party that has no interest in nurturing highly educated bobo boom towns. The G.O.P. does everything it can to repel those people — and the Tesla they drove in on.

If you look at Democrats on the coasts you don’t see much movement in that direction, either. But Democrats have been growing stronger in exactly these growing Southwestern states. Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win Maricopa County (Phoenix) since 1948. Democrats now hold all six of the Senate seats from Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. They held both seats in Arizona until Kyrsten Sinema went independent.

As the Democratic Party becomes more and more the party of the college-educated voters and as the Republicans become more the party of white working-class voters, Democratic prospects in the upper Midwest get worse. But Democratic prospects in the Southwestern growth areas get better. It would not surprise me if a different kind of Democrat emerged from these areas.

We know the policy mix that creates a dynamic society. We just don’t yet have a party that wants to promote it.

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