A few years back, a friend from college came to visit me in Memphis. He lives in a small town in southern Illinois. I took him to play golf at one of our local courses, and afterward we decided we needed a beverage, so I pulled into a Mapco on Summer Avenue.
"You're stopping here?" he asked, obviously alarmed.
"Yeah, why not?" I said. Then I looked around and saw the store through his eyes. Almost everyone in sight was black or brown. He saw it as a scary place; I saw it as a place to buy beer.
A friend from Detroit came to visit me a while back. He loves fly-fishing, so I took him over to Sylamore Creek in Arkansas to catch some smallmouth. In order to get past a deep spot in the stream, we had to cross a small pasture populated by maybe a dozen cows.
"You're going across that field?" he asked.
"Yeah, why not?" I said.
"Aren't you worried about those cows coming after us?" he said.
It's human nature: If you're not used to something, you tend to fear it. It's what we fear that shapes the real divide in the U.S., and it's manifested in our politics. If you look at the latest post-election maps, most of the blue voters are in urban areas, while vast swaths of red cover rural America.
In Tennessee, in an election that saw around 40 percent of the electorate go to the polls, the red areas won last week, resulting in roughly 21 percent of the voting-eligible population getting four amendments passed, including Amendment 1, which opens the door for far more restrictive abortion laws. Tennessee's urban voters were heavily against Amendment 1; rural voters were overwhelmingly for it.
Urban progressives who feared the state government's intervention in what they saw as a medical decision were out-voted by rural conservatives who feared Tennessee would become an "abortion destination" and that God would be displeased with a 'No' vote.
Conservative fears won in Alabama, too, as voters there passed their own Amendment 1, which bans "foreign laws" from being implemented in the state — like that's going to happen. But fear of "Sharia Law" trumped reason.
Fear won almost everywhere, actually. Millions of voters around the country ignored years of sustained job growth, falling unemployment, a rising stock market, low gas prices, and a national deficit that's been radically reduced and voted from fear — of the manufactured crises of Ebola, ISIS, child immigration, gay marriage, and most of all — a scary, despotic, socialist black president.
The golden rule of politics is no longer: "It's the economy, stupid."
It's: "Scare them stupid."