The November election will be played out along all the usual social memes – from gay marriage, racism and immigration to the “war against women.” But what may determine the outcome revolves around one key economic issue: energy. This has all come to a boil now as President Obama has backed an Environmental Protection Agency effort to accelerate tougher emissions standards, something that could shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants and slow fossil fuel development across the country.

The energy issue has become in our era what tariffs were in the 19th century: an increasingly insurmountable partition that separates Americans by region and class and which, ultimately, touches on the long-term economic trajectory of the country.

Of course, we have always had politics over energy – given regional variations in sources and kinds of supplies – but, until recently, both parties generally favored developing more oil and natural gas, largely because of the associated high-wage employment growth and potential for reducing the nation’s trade deficit. Now, energy increasingly has become a deeply partisan issue, with Democrats largely in opposition to fossil-fuel development and Republicans, fairly predictably, in support.

Reflecting this trend has been the rise of opposing sets of contributors whose primary concerns are wrapped around energy. On the Republican side, energy industry contributors, including the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, have become increasingly dominant. More than 90 percent of campaign donations from the oil and gas industries in 2012 went to Republicans.

At the same time, environmentally focused Democratic contributors, led by hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer, have made being anti-fossil-fuel de rigueur for most candidates in the party. Steyer and his allies have become the favorite place to go for cash for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats.

The Geography of Energy

The most-evident division – and most politically relevant – is geographic. A huge swath of the country, mainly along the Gulf Coast, Texas and the Great Plains, where shale-oil production has grown fourfold since 2007, is enjoying an energy boom that has created a surge in other high-wage, blue-collar fields such as manufacturing and construction. With the delays in approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline and looming new EPA emissions standards, Democratic senators and candidates from these states are, understandably, trying to distance themselves from their party’s increasingly anti-fossil-fuel policies.

More significant, over time, may be how energy plays out in the country’s major political battleground, the rust-belt states. Most of these states are highly dependent on coal for electricity, and some, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, are seeking to develop new oil and gas finds. Policies that limit fossil-fuel development, may prove a tough sell in some districts and could cost the Democrats several additional Senate seats.

In contrast, the most fervent support for strict climate-change legislation comes mostly from states – notably, the Northeast – that produce little in the way of energy and use relatively little carbon to power their economies. These states need less power than other areas as they already have deindustrialized and have very little population growth.

Two other ultrablue bastions, California and the Pacific Northwest, also advocate a green energy position. The Northwest relies largely on hydro power for its robust industrial sector, lessening dependence on carbon-based energy for electricity. California, itself rich in fossil fuels, largely disdains its resources, and its leaders prefer, for ideological reasons, to subsidize expensive renewable energy. Roughly one-fourth of all energy used in California comes from out of state, much of it from coal. But since this “dirty” power comes from elsewhere, the progressives in places like Hollywood and Silicon Valley can still feel good about our state’s “enlightened” policies, whatever their real effect.

The Class Divide

Historically, Democrats have been big supporters of expanding the energy sector, which includes such things as dams, nuclear power plants and pipelines. But the growing influence of the green movement has reversed that. Green policies are widely embraced by largely Democratic crony capitalists in places like Silicon Valley. They also enjoy almost universal support in academia, where boycotts of fossil-fuel companies are increasingly common. The media, too, is an ally, as is the predictably progressive entertainment industry.

Rest assured, we will never see an HBO series that celebrates George Mitchell, the entrepreneur most responsible for developing fracking. But campus-climate scientists who diverge in any way from the party line on global warming are routinely excoriated as“deniers” of “settled” science, even in the face of 15 years of relatively stable global temperatures. The media has also become a fierce defender of climate orthodoxy. TheLos Angeles Times, as well as the website Reddit, have chosen to exclude contributions from skeptics.

Of course, many traditional Democrats, notably in the construction trades and manufacturing, oppose this drift. Construction unions are apoplectic about the president’s endless delays on Keystone XL, which has two-thirds support from the public. The United Mineworkers, not surprisingly, oppose the new EPA emissions limits, claiming they will cost upward of 75,000 mining jobs.

Some Ohio construction unions, incensed by green opposition to both Keystone and fracking, have shifted support to prodevelopment GOP Gov. John Kasich, despite his conflict with public employee groups. The only prominent national Democrat to identify as pro-fossil-fuel is former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer whose possible run for the presidential nomination seems a bit quixotic in a party increasing dominated by environmental activists and their gentry allies.

What Kind of America do we want?

Ultimately, the energy debate reflects a larger discussion about the future of the country and the economy. This is not merely about emissions and climate change, per se. California’s Draconian laws, even supporters admit, will have no appreciable effect on a global basis, particularly given the state’s already relatively low carbon footprint (largely a factor of the mild climate and the slow growth in its interior in recent years). Indeed, virtually all the world’s significant increases in CO2 are coming from developing countries; since 1990, China has increased its emissions almost threefold, while America’s have dropped. China now emits roughly twice as much greenhouse gas as the U.S.

Some of the steps taken by environmental and renewable-energy interests against natural gas development can even be seen as counterproductive. The U.S.’s better recordon reducing emissions reflects overwhelmingly the shift from coal to natural gas for generating electricity, which has helped the U.S. reduce its carbon emissions more than either Asia or Europe.

Fracking, like any energy technology – including wind and solar – clearly creates environmental problems. There should be strong rules to regulate fracking to make it safer, as Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has worked to pass in his state. In addition, major reductions can be achieved through a shift away from oil and coal and toward natural gas, as well as conservation efforts.

Progressives, in particular, need to focus far more on what effects an ultrahigh-cost energy economy would have on the middle and working class. More attention should be paid in accelerating the current spike in job-creating foreign investment into the country, attracted in large part by the development of low-cost, clean natural gas. In contrast, policies hostile to fossil fuels will drive industry to less-environmentally conscious countries, particularly in the developing world.

Sadly, none of this is necessary. America’s economic future is best guaranteed by marrying the successes of Silicon Valley and Hollywood with a robust blue-collar sector that includes fossil fuels, manufacturing, logistics and construction. Emissions can be cut, for the time being, by such steps as replacing coal for generating electricity, improving efficiencies, promoting telework and boosting the use of natural gas for transportation.

Dividing the country, and the electorate, into totally polarized camps over energy may benefit the consultants in both camps who feed off contentious and expensive election campaigns, but will do little to help the futures of most Americans.

This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.

Cross-posted in New Geography.