The Urban-Rural Divide in American Politics

2010 House elections Pennsylvania

One of the emerging theories we've been hearing about in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election concerns the urban - rural divide, the degree to which urban voters are out of touch with rural America, and the anger some rural Americans have been feeling at being ignored or mocked by the Democratic Party, news media, urban voters, and so on. While I continue to resist simple explanations that focus on single variables, I think there might be something to this one.

In many prior elections, we became accustomed to hearing about red states and blue states. The problem with this is that few states are completely red or blue even if the state-level vote ends up turning out that way. What the state-specific maps demonstrated clearly in this election is that there can be great within-state variability as we look county-by-county. The large cities tend to be blue, and everything else tends to be red. In many of the swing states, we see tiny blue dots on the maps where the large cities are surrounded by red. The more rural an area is, the more likely it tends to be red.

Why do I think that the idea of an urban-rural divide might be one factor to consider not only in explaining the results of this election but also in rebuilding the Democratic Party into something that can be more competitive in the future? I've lived in both conservative rural areas and liberal cities, and I've spent quite a bit of time visiting both urban and rural areas within the same states. I've seen up close how many city-dwellers view people living in rural areas, and I'm familiar with how many people living in rural areas resent the power those living in cities have over their states.

I grew up in a part of rural America that almost nobody thinks about. I lived in a small conservative town located in a coastal state that was slightly to the left of center at the state level back then and has since become quite a bit more liberal since. In my youth, the cities were quite liberal and the rest of the state was quite conservative. Many who lived in the more rural areas resented the power the liberal city-dwellers had to influence politics due to their numbers, and many who lived in the cities mocked those of us in the rural areas as uncivilized cretins.

We don't often think about there being this much variability within states, but it exists in many of them. Starting in the town in which I grew up, I could get to the most liberal city in the state in just under an hour. I could also get to several of the most conservative towns in roughly the same amount of time. Despite the close proximity, the attitudes I encountered were vastly different. Religion was certainly one difference. In the liberal areas, one could be open about one's atheism without having to worry about repercussions. This was not the case in conservative areas. Attitudes toward LGBT persons was another difference that showed the same pattern. There were many others (e.g., education, income, political views).

Many of the people living in the liberal cities were quick to tell you that they did not understand those living in rural areas. "Why would anyone want to live there?" They were convinced that their cities offered a far superior way of life and that anybody who did not get that was clearly a moron. To say that they looked down on the rural areas and those of us who lived there was an understatement. They viewed us as beneath them. Many of us in the rural areas appreciated some of what the cities had to offer, but we had little interest in living there. For us, life in the rural areas was preferable though certainly not without drawbacks. We did not understand why we were looked down on, and I do remember the resentment even back then. I'm not sure anybody enjoys being looked down on like that.

I certainly internalized some of the negative attitudes about rural living to which I was exposed over the years. I made up my mind to get out of rural America as soon as I had the chance, and that is exactly what I did. I left the state where I grew up at 18 and moved to a city in a neighboring state. There were parts of it that I loved and parts I hated. It was an experience I needed to have, and I do not regret it in the least. Still, I learned that city living is not for me. I also had the opportunity to see more of how the city-dwellers viewed the rural areas and those living in them. It wasn't pretty.

Despite my being quite liberal, I can understand and even relate to some of the resentment that many people living in conservative rural areas feel toward those living in liberal cities. I've heard countless times that I'm missing out by not living in New York City, Los Angeles, or another huge city. I agree that there are many things I am missing out on my not living in a large city. There are large cities in which I have spent considerable time and which I absolutely love to visit (e.g., San Francisco, Seattle); however, I am not interested in living there. I find small town living far preferable, and I am willing to give up the perks of a large city in exchange for the perks of rural living.

Early in the evening of November 8 as the election results started to roll in, I saw one particular sentiment being expressed on Twitter over and over again by those living in liberal cities on the East Coast:

Oh look, Trump won another state that nobody wants to live in!

These references were, of course, to the South, the Midwest, and really everywhere between the coasts. Plenty of people live here, and plenty of people want to live here. And plenty of us are well aware of how we are viewed by those living in cities along the coasts.

It will be interesting to see what lessons the Democratic Party takes away from this election. There are so many possibilities! I hope they give some thought to whether the coalition on which they were counting to elect their candidate has much of a future if they continue to alienate entire regions of the country. I think they have made a mistake by turning their backs on rural America over the last couple decades. So many of the problems rural America faces are tailor made for the Democrats to address (e.g., access to health care, education, employment). And yet, it is tough to convincingly take the side of people while simultaneously looking down on them. I see no reason why rural America should be ceded to the Republicans.