The Universal Notebook: Two Maines, two brains?

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When one of the callers to John McDonald’s Sunday morning talk show on WGAN noted that the difference in the November election was not so much between northern and southern Maine as it was between rural and urban Maine, McDonald asked me why I thought urban areas were more liberal than rural areas.

I knew I would be putting my foot in it, but I told him what I thought anyway: education.

I was on the radio to discuss my “Sour grapes, sore loser” post-election column. Since I take perverse pleasure in poking the beast of conservatism, I figured WGAN (local pied-on-air for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck) would be a good place to do it. Listeners were very tolerant of my liberal leanings until I suggested education might have something to do with the liberal-conservative split between urban and rural areas of the state.

The indignant reaction might best be summed up as “who are you calling stupid?” My contrite response is “no one.” But the difference in educational attainment between urban Maine and rural Maine is real and it does seem to correlate to a degree with political leanings.

If you look at a U.S. Census map of Maine color-coded for the percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher, you see that it closely tracks the results of the recent gubernatorial election. Counties along the coast have higher percentages of college graduates (Cumberland County leads the way with 39.5 percent) and voted for Democrat Mike Michaud. Inland and upstate counties tend to have lower percentages of college graduates (Piscataquis brings up the rear with 15 percent) and voted for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Does this mean that conservative voters tend to be less intelligent than progressive voters? No, just less well-educated.

A 2012 demographic profile of Maine prepared by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, however, notes an inverse relationship between percentage of educational attainment and percentage of people born in Maine, observing that “the same regions with low proportions born in Maine have a high percentage of well-educated citizens.”

I guess the charitable reading of this might be that LePage carried the native Maine vote. But just as there are conservatives with doctoral degrees, there are also a lot of liberal Maine natives such as myself. And then there are demographic anomalies, such as the St. John Valley, which is solidly Democratic when percentages of natives and college grads suggest it might be otherwise.

Some WGAN callers suggested that the reason rural areas tend to support more conservative candidates is that they are populated by independent people who don’t look to the government to solve their problems. Sounds good, but it doesn’t stand up.

A 2010 “Poverty in Maine” report prepared by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine found that rural counties had a higher percentage of personal income from transfer payments such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment benefits than more urban counties. Washington County (35.7 percent), Aroostook County (31.9 percent) and Piscataquis County (30.9 percent) led the way in government assistance, while Cumberland County (14.3 percent) had the least.

So much for the myth of hardy, independent country folk.

Then, too, the difference between liberals and conservatives may be as much biological as educational or geographical. British researchers comparing MRI brain scans have determine that conservatives tend to have larger amygdalas, the almond-shaped area of the brain that responds to fear and anxiety, than liberals do. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, the region of the brain that enables people to cope with complexity.

Reporting on these findings in 2011, Psychology Today observed that “Most societies are divided into a party that wants change (the more liberal party) and one that is afraid of change (the conservatives). The liberal party is generally more intellectual and the conservative party is more anti-intellectual.”

Sounds about right to me. A little over-simplified, but then conservatives apparently like simple: just say no, lock ‘em up, no new taxes. And that’s my analysis of the conservative victory in 2014. Voters in rural Maine responded to the simplicity of LePage’s campaign pitch.

“He’s not a smooth-talking politician, but he get things done,” parroted one WGAN caller. Not true, but simple and easy to understand.

In darker moments, however, I tend to think the 2014 elections were a triumph of fear over reason. The GOP managed to scare voters with the bogus bogeymen of welfare fraud, illegal immigrants and Obamacare. No matter that welfare fraud and illegal immigration are not real problems in Maine and Obamacare is working pretty well; people with enlarged amygdalas apparently scare easily.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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