A number of commentators have noted that Americans have been sorting ideologically in recent years. Liberals seem to want to live alongside liberals, conservatives alongside conservatives. Increasingly, the cities are occupied by liberals, the small towns and rural areas conservatives. The urban/rural divide is not just a matter of preference about who your neighbors are. It has to do with very basic notions of what a community should look like.
In a 2014 poll, Pew asked Americans which of these 2 options they would prefer:
- The houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.
- The houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.
A whopping 77% of those identified as “consistently liberal” chose option 2. By contrast, 75% of those identified as “consistently conservative” chose option 1. 46% of consistent liberals would choose to live in a city, and another 21% would choose suburbs. Only 20% would choose a small town, and a mere 11% a rural area. Conversely, only 4% of consistent conservatives would choose to live in a city. There is a stereotype of conservatives as living in suburbs and exurbs, going to megachurches. But in fact, only 20% of consistent conservatives reported that they would choose to live in a suburb. 35% would choose a small town – and whopping 41% would choose a rural area. In other words, 76 PERCENT OF CONSISTENT CONSERVATIVES WOULD CHOOSE TO LIVE EITHER IN A SMALL TOWN OR THE COUNTRY.
Think about that. Almost half of consistent liberals would choose to live in a city – not the suburbs of a city, but the urban core. 3 out of 4 consistent conservatives would choose to live in either a small town or the country, and 4 out of 10 would choose the country over the small town. That is a huge difference in how people view their preferred surroundings. The whole idea of community is very different at different points on the ideological spectrum. It seems that conservatives want very few neighbors.
I grew up in a small town, in a rural state. I couldn’t wait to get out of that town when I graduated from high school – away from small-minded people who thought their little world was the whole universe. Ironically, I love the country, and I could easily see myself living on a farm. BUT – I could never see myself restricting my concerns to that farm. There’s a universe out there to explore, a universe of places, people, and ideas. Before the internet came along, I spent hours and hours at libraries, soaking up knowledge and new perspectives. Now of course I have the internet, and I use it. A lot.
As I have previously discussed, America is becoming more urbanized over time. Recent immigrants, who are overwhelmingly non-white, are heavily concentrated in places like Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. Most rural areas are slowly hollowing out. This is actually the continuation of a trend that has been going on for decades, as America has moved from an agricultural to an industrial and finally a service/information economy. All along there have been those who grew up in rural areas, but migrated to the cities, either because that’s where the jobs were or because rural life was just too limited for them.
Visiting rural America is often a bit like going back in time. Many small towns look little different than they did 50 years ago. This is even more true of many rural areas. And like the landscapes, the people often seem frozen in time – often overwhelmingly white, poorly educated…and resistant to change.
In 2014, researchers from MIT and UCLA published a paper on the ideological leanings of major cities in America – cities with populations larger than 250,000. They were interested not just in how liberal or conservative city leaders were, but how well they matched their constituents ideologically. So they polled city residents to get a clear idea of where they stood, asking them questions about taxation, government pensions, mass transit, subsidies for renewable energy, rent controls, health benefits for same-sex couples, and so on. From these questions they developed an ideological score for the residents of each city.
Of 67 large American cities, the researchers found that only 17 skewed conservative. 48 skewed liberal, and 2 had no skew either way. Furthermore, even the 17 cities that skewed conservative did not skew STRONGLY conservative. The most conservative city, Mesa, Arizona, had a score of 0.41. (The more conservative a city, the higher the score.) No city scored higher than 0.5. The most liberal city, San Francisco, had a score of -1.0, and 17 cities had scores of less than -0.5. The average score of the 67 cities was -0.28.
These researchers found, not surprisingly, that the policies of city leaders tend to track the political leanings of residents. And in fact, if we look at the mayors of these 67 cities, we find that 46 of them are Democrats, 3 are Independents, and 18 are Republican. Many large cities in red states have Democratic mayors – Phoenix, Arizona, Houston, Texas, and Nashville, Tennessee, for example.
There is not a single Republican mayor in a large city in the Northeast. Even in the South, almost half of the mayors of big cities are Democrats – if we count Missouri and Kentucky as southern states, it’s well over half (13 out of 23). It is clear that big cities in red states tend to be more conservative than big cities in blue states. Big cities in Texas tend to be more conservative than big cities in California. Big cities in Pennsylvania tend to be more liberal than big cities in Oklahoma. Of the top 20 most conservative big cities, 9 are in the South. None are in the Northeast, and only 2 on the West Coast. Of the top 20 most liberal big cities, 7 are in the Northeast and 5 on the West Coast. Only 2 are in the South.
Nevertheless, the overall pattern is clear. Big cities tend to be blue. Here is a map showing the party identification of big city mayors. The Democrats are blue, the Republicans red, and the Independents white:
The ideological map of big cities is becoming less and less red over time. Formerly red states like Arizona and Florida are increasingly battlegrounds. Fast-growing large cities such as Austin and Atlanta are overwhelmingly Democratic.
If you’re wondering, dear reader, why so many state governments are dominated by Republicans, while their largest cities skew liberal, the reason is that rural and small town America leans strongly Republican, and rural areas have a strong electoral advantage at the state and federal levels. And the fact is, a huge number of Americans remain in small towns and rural areas. But this is slowly changing. As I said, rural America is slowly hollowing out.
Over the last 50 years, America has become much more efficient in its use of natural resources. The result is that the demand for basic energy and materials has relaxed, and it is rural areas that have satisfied that demand. Coal, oil, iron, timber – the 20th century saw enormous surges in demand for these things. But in the 21st century, we’re doing more with less – and extractive industries are often the main employers in rural areas. On top of that, all of these industries have become more automated. This is likely to accelerate in the future, leading to an even faster depopulation of rural America.
The partisan divide in America is, to a great extent, an ethnic divide. This has been true for decades, ever since the Democratic party abandoned segregation. But more recently, it has also become a urban/rural divide, with a corresponding educational attainment divide. America as a whole is becoming increasingly non-white. But this trend is much less pronounced in rural America. However, rural America is aging, is already in a state of population decline, and is relatively poorly educated.
The median age for urban Americans is 36 years. For rural Americans – 43 years. But even this does not adequately describe the difference. The single most prevalent age class among rural Americans is 50-60 years of age. There are currently about 10 million rural Americans aged 50-60 – and only about 6 million aged 20-30. By contrast, the single most prevalent age class among urban Americans is 20-30 years of age. There are currently about 27 million urban Americans in this age class. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where these numbers lead.
Between 2010 and 2016, 2/3 of all non-metropolitan counties lost population, and almost ¾ experienced net out-migration. Meanwhile, metropolitan areas gained population and saw net in-migration. The entire white population under the age of 55 declined in non-metropolitan America during this time. Rural America as a whole is slowly depopulating.
Only 20% of rural Americans have Bachelor’s degrees, compared to 29% of urbanites. And whereas in 1992 49% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents had at least a Bachelor’s degree, today that figure is down to 41%. The corresponding figure for Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents is now 53%. Meanwhile, poorly-educated Americans are becoming increasingly conservative. In 1992, 55% of Americans with high school or less identified as Democratic or Democratic-leaning Independents. Today that number is down to 46%. And since non-whites are identifying as Democratic or Democratic-leaning Independents as much as ever, the conclusion is inevitable – it is poorly educated whites that are becoming more conservative. These poorly educated whites are concentrated in rural America.
Even among big cities, there is a relationship between educational attainment and ideology. Although there is a great deal of spread, big cities with the most highly educated populations tend to be the most liberal. Many of these are in the Northeast. In the graph below, northeastern cities are blue, southern cities red. Washington, D.C. is the most highly educated big city in America. It is also one of the most liberal. Boston, Massachusetts also ranks highly on education. It is also very liberal. Oklahoma City and Jacksonville rate much more poorly on education – and are among the most conservative large cities.
This relationship between education and ideology is relatively new. In the past, more highly educated Americans tended to vote Republican. But in the past, more highly educated Americans were overwhelmingly white. As I have previously discussed, college campuses in America are increasingly non-white and non-male. White college graduates still tend to vote Republican. In the 2016 presidential election, a whopping 71% of non-white college graduates voted for Clinton. But only 45% of white college graduates voted for her. Even so, this is a much higher percentage than that for whites without college – only 28%.
There is also the fact that American colleges were once dominated by males. No longer. In 1970, about 52% of American college students were white males. Today, only about 24% of college students are white males. Today almost 40% of young American women have Bachelor’s degrees. Only about 32% of young men have them. For rural men the percentage is only 14% – and strikingly, a smaller percentage of young rural men have degrees than older rural men! Women tend to be more liberal than men, educated women particularly so. In the 2016 presidential election, only 39% of white males with college degrees voted for Clinton. But 51% of white FEMALES with college degrees voted for her.
Americans are increasingly registering as Independents, and a higher percentage of white Independents today lean Republican (54%) than 25 years ago (46%). As rural whites slowly disappear, the country’s ideology increasingly skews liberal. Only the inherent electoral advantage of rural America clouds this trend.
With each new census, rural states will lose ground. Iowa has gone from 10 electors in 1960 to 6 today. Mississippi has gone from 8 to 6 in that time. West Virginia from 8 to 5. Meanwhile, Florida has gone from 10 to 29, and California from 32 to 55. The Republican party loses ground, year by year, as America becomes more urbanized and more diverse. The Republican party as we have known it has no future. It will either change dramatically or be replaced by a new party.