Never in my lifetime has the political rhetoric so often questioned the sanity of the opposition. "Socialism!", the conservatives say. "You want to put the government in charge of everything! That's crazy!" Likewise, the liberals hear about conservative wistfulness for the good old days of close-knit neighborhoods, tons of freedom, and a church in the middle of every town and social event, and think "That's crazy! The world isn't like that any more". The problem here isn't that anyone is crazy. The problem is that many voters assume the entire country is like the place they live, and don't understand just how different other environments are, and how different expectations can be.
There is a culture war in America all right, but it is not between rich and poor, black and white, men and women, or even liberals vs conservatives. The battle is between city dwellers and country folk, between those who live in wide open spaces and those who live with the constant presence of other human beings. It's all about how congested your world is.
Just look at the county vote map from the 2008 election:
The pattern is near total. If where you lived was full of people, you voted Democratic. If you lived with a lot of fresh air, open spaces, and more animals than humans, you voted Republican. Want to find the cities in otherwise sparsely populated states, just look for the blue. Take Texas for example. Those 5 isolated blue spots are, clockwise from the northwest, Abeline, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, with Austin in the middle. Try it for the rest of the country, the correlation is very strong.
This pattern persists because what government system works best depends on the factors mentioned above. If you live out in the country with no one within half a mile of you, and little need for recreation or services other than a working well, and a porch to sit on to enjoy the peaceful view, then a system emphasizing rugged individualism works just fine. You can let your dogs run loose, go hunting in the woods, play your TV or radio as loud as you like at 4 in the morning, start a bonfire with gasoline, and stay up all night hooting and hollering and shooting up beer bottles til the wee morning hours. You can drive off road, pick any flowers you see, even litter a little bit. No real harm done to anyone. And if you accidentally use too much gasoline and blow up everything within a hundred yards of the fire, no harm to anyone that wasn't accepting the risk themselves (at least if all your guests were adults). Also, if you've ever had dealings with small town sheriffs and mayors, it is small wonder that those who live among them want their power limited.
However, in a city neighborhood or apartment complex with 500 people within 100 yards, the situation completely changes. Everything you do effects everyone around you, and some of them might not like it. Exercising your rights violates theirs. Play your stereo loud at 4 am, and your neighbors around you have their right to get some sleep violated. Blow up your fire and innocent unwary people get killed. Litter, let your dogs run loose, and shoot whatever bird or squirrel you fancy, and the neighborhood quickly becomes one full of garbage and dog shit, but no birds or squirrels.
Limited resources require more rules to insure everyone gets their fair share. In many ways it's identical to parenting. When you have three kids and 20 cookies, there's not much need for rules. Each child can eat his fill, regardless of what the others do. But a situation with 20 children and 3 cookies, absent some common bond to guide them (like familial bonds) requires rules to insure equity all around. The same applies to adults, except instead of a parent, the rule maker and enforcer is government.
That's the bottom line: more congestion means more conflicts of interests and rights, which means more government to sort it all out. It's unavoidable. That's why all over the world, congested areas have more collective approaches to government and rights. Contrarily, the darling examples of rugged individualist governments, like Switzerland, are always open-spaced, sparsely populated areas. Apply Switzerland's rules to Japan, or New York City, and chaos would ensue. Apply New York's rules to Montana, and the inefficiency would be immense.
In part II I'll get to the implications of all this politically.