Tag Archives: rural/urban divide

Revisiting the Big Sort

A recent article posted to the website of the Niskanen Center  corroborated a depressing theory that I have entertained over the past several years.

The United States is not very united.

Americans have been sorting themselves along ideological lines into like-minded regions of the country, increasing polarization in congressional voting patterns, and creating a striking division in political preference and party loyalty between city-dwellers and the denizens of low-density exurban and rural counties.

Population patterns matter; they also defeat truly representative government. The United States has considerably more Democratic than Republican voters, but the Democrats are  concentrated in a handful of Democrat-heavy cities and states; Republicans, on the other hand, are spread relatively thinly but evenly across the non-urban regions of the country.

Add gerrymandering, and the Republican electoral advantage becomes overwhelming.

What does the urban/rural divide look like?

Because America’s highly-schooled creative, political, academic, and business classes tend to cluster in liberal cities, the town-and-country split corresponds to a rough class distinction between so-called “elites” and non-urban non-elites. Underline “rough” here.

People of color number heavily among urban non-elites, and tend to vote with (mostly white) urban elites, so it’s wrong to conflate the town-and-country divide with the elite/ordinary folks divide. Many, many millions of ordinary Americans aren’t white and live in big cities. That said, the United States will remain a white-majority, white-dominated country for another few decades. Populist anti-elitism, as it has manifested itself behind Trump, seems to me largely a reaction of non-city-dwelling whites against urban whites and the cosmopolitan, multicultural conception of American identity they affirm.

But let me repeat that “white people who don’t live in cities” is not remotely the same thing as “the people,” most of whom do live in densely populated metropolitan areas, and many of whom are African-American, Asian, and Hispanic. And it’s important to clarify further that “white people who don’t live in cities” is also not remotely the same thing as “the white working class,” as there are many millions of non-urban, white people with college degrees and upper-class incomes. The ruling political, business, and cultural classes in Republican-dominated places like to pretend that they’re “just folks,” too, but they aren’t. They’re elites.

The point being made is important, because many pundits continue to focus on economic distress as the reason for the urban/rural divide. The theory is that poor rural residents resent the comparative affluence of their urban counterparts. A number of studies conducted after the election, however, have reached the same conclusion as the author of this article–Trump voters actually were economically better off on average than Clinton voters. (They were not, however, from regions that were as economically productive–and as the article explains in the conclusion, that matters.)

The author notes a variety of efforts to explain the personality differences between liberals and conservatives, before concluding that evidence confirms the “big sort” first identified by Bill Bishop.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

To make matters worse, as Cass Sunstein’s work on group deliberation shows, we tend to radicalize in the direction of our predispositions when we’re surrounded by people who already agree with us. In short, we’re moving into bubbles of people who resemble us and an echo chamber effect pushes our opinions to extremes.

If this were the whole story, America’s future would be grim indeed, but as the author notes, entire cultures tend to become more liberal in their attitudes over time. The content of conservative ideology has changed–liberalized–over my own lifetime, and the article delves into the reasons for that phenomenon.

It also explains how and why improving economic productivity liberalizes social beliefs and values–and notes that, in the U.S. at this particular moment in time, “Clinton” counties are far more productive than “Trump” counties.

The United States may be dividing into two increasingly polarized cultures: an increasingly secular-rational and self-expression oriented “post-materialist” culture concentrated in big cities and the academic archipelago, and a largely rural and exurban culture that has been tilting in the opposite direction, toward zero-sum survival values, while trying to hold the line on traditional values…For a certain group of Americans, liberalizing post-materialist cultural change has been ongoing. For another, it has stalled or reversed.

To (partially) sum up:

A shrinking number of counties is accounting for a rising proportion of America’s wealth. Partisan affiliation is breaking along this population/productivity divide in a way that suggests that America’s moral and political culture has been polarizing along this divide, as well. Given the specific counter-majoritarian mechanisms in the U.S. constitution, this is a recipe for political dominance of the less economically productive conservative white minority, who control most of the country’s territory, over the liberal multicultural majority who live in increasingly concentrated urban centers of wealth. To the extent that increasing economic security is liberalizing and stagnation and decline tend toward an illiberal, zero-sum survival mindset, this amounts to a recipe for the political imposition of relatively illiberal policy on increasingly liberal and increasingly economically powerful cities. This is not a stable situation, and bodes ill for the future of American freedom.

The rest of the (very long) article considers why this is happening, and a subsequent article by the same author suggests policies that might ameliorate the divide. Both are well worth reading and considering–although I suggest accompanying that endeavor with a stiff drink.