Tag Archives: rural

The Density Divide

The Density Divide is the title of a very important paper issued in June by Will Wilkinson, Vice President for Research of the Niskanen Center. It looks in depth at the phenomenon that I usually refer to as the “urban/rural divide”–delving into the attributes that make individuals more or less likely to move into cities, and examining the consequences of those differences and the steady urbanization of the American polity.

The paper is lengthy–some 70 pages–but well worth the time to read in its entirety. it is meticulously sourced, and replete with graphs and other supporting data.

Wilkinson confirms what others have reported: a substantial majority of Americans now dwell in the nation’s cities and generate the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth. But he goes beneath those numbers, referencing a body of research demonstrating that people who are drawn to urban environments differ in significant ways from those who prefer to remain in rural precincts. He focuses especially on ethnicity, personality and education as attributes that make individuals more or less responsive to the lure of city life.

He goes on to describe how this “self-selected” migration has segregated Americans. It has not only concentrated economic production in a handful of “megacities”–it has driven a “polarizing wedge” between America’s dense and diverse urban populations and the sparse White populations remaining in rural areas. That “wedge” is what he dubs the “Density Divide.” (Wilkinson is careful to define “urban” to include dense areas of small towns–the divisions he traces aren’t a function of jurisdictional city limits. They are a function of residential density.)

Wilkinson finds that the “sorting mechanism of urbanization” has produced a rural America that is lower-density, predominantly White, and “increasingly uniform in socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, relative disinclination to migrate and seek higher education, and Republican Party loyalty.”

That sorting has also left much of rural America in economic distress, which has activated a “zero-sum, ethnocentric mindset.” (That mindset is reflected in the angry rhetoric spouted by rural MAGA hat wearers about “un-American” immigrants and minorities, and disdain for “liberal elites”–all groups that are thought to reside in those multi-cultural cities.)

The density divide–together with America’s outdated electoral structures– explains the 2016 election. The “low-density bias” of our electoral system allowed Trump to win the Presidency by prevailing in areas that produce 1/3 of GDP and contain fewer than half of the population. That low-density bias continues to empower Republicans far out of proportion to their numbers.

Wilkinson reminds us that there are currently no Republican cities. None.

As he points out, the increase in return to human capital and density has acted to amplify the polarizing nature of selective urbanization. Temperamentally liberal people self-select into higher education and big cities, where the people they encounter exert a further influence on their political attitudes. They  leave behind a lower-density population that is “relatively uniform in white ethnicity, conservative disposition and lower economic productivity.” Economic growth has been shown to liberalize culture; stagnant or declining economic prospects generate a sense of anxiety and threat.( In that sense, the political scientists who attributed Trump votes to economic distress were correct, but the distress wasn’t a function of individual financial straits–it was a reaction to the steadily declining prospects of rural environments.)

Wilkinson argues that there are no red states or blue states–not even red or blue counties. Rather, there is compact blue urban density (even in small cities in rural states) and sprawling red sparseness.

This spatial segregation of people with very different values and world-views is radicalizing; Wilkinson reminds us that a lack of exposure to intellectual diversity and broadly different points of view breeds extremism. Because urban populations are far more intellectually diverse, more homogeneous rural populations have shifted much farther to the right than urban Americans have shifted left.

The United States population is projected to be 90% urbanized by 2050–not too many years after we are projected to become “majority-minority.” Those projections suggest we will see increasing radicalization of already-resentful rural inhabitants.

The prospects for returning to rational politics and a truly representative governance will depend entirely upon reforming an outdated and pernicious electoral framework that dramatically favors rural Americans. Whether those reforms can pass our very unrepresentative Senate is an open question.

 

Rural Red, Urban Blue

Talk about living in bubbles….

It isn’t just the Internet, or our very human tendency to consult information sources compatible with our biases and beliefs. I’ve written before about The Big Sort, the 2008 book by Bill Bishop which tracked the “sorting” of Americans into residential tribes–especially urban and rural–a phenomenon Bishop warned was “tearing us apart.”

Since the publication of that book, the divisions between city and rural dwellers have only deepened–with suburbs appearing to move toward the urban side of the scale. Given the other long-term trends that I’ve been noting (and about which I’ve been posting) the ability of Republicans–at least, in their current iteration– to retain control of the national government over the long term looks decidedly grim.

Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the urban/rural divide, noting that the GOP is simply out of touch with diverse urban areas.

The Times interviewed Jerry Sanders, a Republican who had served two terms as mayor of San Diego. The story noted that in 2012, Sanders was the most prominent Republican city executive in the country. A former police chief who was close to the business community, in a rational world, Sanders would seem to be a a political role model for other urban  Republican mayors–he was a political moderate who worked with the Obama administration on urban policy and endorsed gay marriage.

Sanders left the GOP on January 7th.

The report noted that Sanders’ sour evaluation of the GOP’s urban appeal was borne out in off-year elections.

From Mr. Sanders’s California to New York City and New Jersey and the increasingly blue state of Virginia with its crucial suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Republican Party’s feeble appeal to the country’s big cities and dense suburbs is on vivid display.

Where the G.O.P. once consistently mounted robust campaigns in many of these areas, the party is now all but locked out of all the major contests of 2021.

The realignment of national politics around urban-versus-rural divisions has seemingly doomed Republicans in these areas as surely as it has all but eradicated the Democratic Party as a force across the Plains and the Upper Mountain West. At the national level, Republicans have largely accepted that trade-off as advantageous, since the structure of the federal government gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated rural states.

Indeed, as the article makes clear,  the only metro areas where the G.O.P. maintains influence are in red states (like Indiana) where Republican governors and state legislators can impose their policy preferences on local leaders.

The consequences of this urban/rural “big sort” are mostly negative. From a governance perspective, the ability of  significantly fewer rural voters to thwart the electoral choices and policy preferences of popular majorities is dangerously anti-democratic . If the structural influences that give undue power to those “sparsely populated” rural areas aren’t countered, that situation will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government. (It has already facilitated a gridlock that has gone a long way toward destroying its stability.)

But it isn’t just political structures that are damaged by the dominance of liberals in cities and conservatives in rural areas. The divide damages our ability as citizens to participate in reasoned debates with neighbors who have different perspectives. Conservatives living in urban areas feel politically powerless, as do liberals who reside in rural precincts of the country. The media’s tendency to lump voters into categories of “red” or “blue” also blurs the very real differences within those categories. 

Most concerning of all is the ability of “sorted” populations to inhabit wildly different realities. As a long-ago student from a small town in Indiana reminded me during a class discussion of the Filter Bubble, bubbles can be geographic as well as informational. 

If we fixed the structural glitches that allow today’s Republicans to ignore urban constituencies, perhaps the GOP would once again embrace contemporary versions of Jerry Sanders, Bill Hudnut and  Richard Lugar, in order to become competitive in the nation’s cities. And perhaps Democrats would come out of their rural closets.

Yeah, I know. Perhaps pigs will fly…..

 

 

 

Urban Archipelago Redux

Last Sunday’s New York Times had a visual representation of the urban/rural political divide. 

The article pictured a variety of neighborhoods, and asked readers to guess how that neighborhood had voted in the 2020 Presidential election. It was stark, visual evidence of what has been called the “big sort,” in which people have essentially voted with their feet, residing in neighborhoods composed of generally like-minded Americans. The only dubious areas pictured were suburban, where residents were more evenly divided.

It was reminiscent of the Urban Archipelago described by Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger several years ago, in the wake of the 2004 election.In the years since, the divisions between blue cities and red rural areas has become even more pronounced. America these days isn’t really divided between blue and red states; it’s divisions are far more frequently between blue cities and the red states in which they are located.

That conflict was the subject of a very interesting article in The Week, titled “How Red States Silence Urban Voters.”

The article began by noting that a major storyline of the pandemic had been Donald Trump facing off against Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newson; after the election , that storyline was reframed as President Biden urging caution versus GOP governors, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, throwing their states open without masks.

But below the surface, there’s been a possibly more consequential fight over COVID that has not received nearly as much attention. It’s not between the president and the states, but between red state governors and their blue cities, which almost universally promoted mask mandates and other mitigation measures — and by all evidence were the key element staunching the spread of the virus in those states.

That red state-blue city conflict on COVID also reflects a more far-ranging battle, itself part of the ideological right turn in the Republican Party over the last decade, in which Republican-dominated states have attacked local government power, as cities even in red states become more liberal and non-white. The recent Georgia legislation giving the state the power to override local election boards is of a piece with wave after wave of state legislation that has preempted local minimum wage laws, overturned local gay rights bills, and nullified local paid sick days bills.

Virtually every large and moderate-sized city has imposed mask mandates. Several Red state Republican governors have not simply declined to impose state-wide restrictions, but have moved to overrule and invalidate mask mandates in effect in urban areas–despite the fact that all available evidence supports their effectiveness in reducing infections.

If this success on masking shows the importance of local government action, the shutdown of that local flexibility by red state governors last month reflects the broader trend of expanding state preemption of local power in large swathes of public policy.

If the conflict between cities and their red states was limited to Covid precautions, that would be worrisome enough, but the quoted paragraph is correct–increasingly, state officials and legislators responsive to rural constituents are moving to curtail the ability of city officials to respond to the needs and expressed desires of urban residents.

Republicans have blocked cities from raising the local minimum wage above the state’s rate in rural counties. The article details several instances, and reports that 25 states now prohibit local minimum wage laws.

Voting laws are moving in the same direction. Much of the political fire during the aftermath of the 2020 election came from Trump and others demanding state governments override the election counts made by local boards of elections. While state leaders and legislators in the end could not come up with plausibly legal excuses to do that, in 2021 they have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions, many of them aimed at severely limiting the power of local governments over elections.

I have previously posted about Indiana’s legislative bias against Indianapolis and the other urban areas in our very red state, but we are clearly not alone. One academic study found multiple examples: states have prohibited cities from requiring fire sprinklers in new homes; from banning fracking;  passing firearm regulations; requiring paid sick days; decriminalizing marijuana; banning plastic shopping bags; passing discrimination protections for LGBT workers; regulating e-cigarettes; imposing regulations concerning land use; passing undocumented immigrant protections; regulating factory farms; banning police drones; regulating local airports; initiating municipal broadband services; creating anti-GMO policies and more.

As the article points out, this is largely a story of Black and Latino voters gaining a governing voice in local governments, “only to have that voice made worthless as the power wielded by those local governments has been reduced or eliminated.”

I don’t know what the answer is, but this is a huge problem, and it is one of several ways in which rural Americans are punching above their weight–exercising political authority wildly disproportionate to their numbers.

 

The Downside Of Democracy…

It’s hard to disagree with the pundits and political scientists who point to the vote for Brexit (and the worrisome number of votes for Donald Trump) as evidence that majority rule is not necessarily a blessing.

In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support. (Political scientists Achen and Bartels dubbed this the “folk theory’ of democracy in their book Democracy for Realists. I recommend it…)

One problem is that much of 21st Century policy has become too complicated and/or interdependent with other aspects of our common lives to allow the average voter to be genuinely informed. Another is that campaigns and candidates are richly rewarded for misrepresenting reality. There are electoral advantages to be gained by turning issues into “us versus them” choices, and plenty of political actors willing to do so.

Brexit is a good example. The Week recently had a very good description of the “unanticipated consequences” of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Those who followed the campaign noted that it played heavily upon resentment of EU bureaucracy, and especially tensions over immigration. The Vote Leave campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who led rallies in a red bus featuring the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Johnson and the other proponents claimed that the U.K. would keep its tariff-free trade with the EU, but no longer would be subject to EU law; best of all, the U.K. could “take back control” of immigration. Wages would be higher and the country would sign new trade deals with better terms. 

All gravy, no gristle.

Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different. Import/export companies face a raft of new paperwork that will cost them millions of pounds a year. Worse, the trade deal doesn’t cover the services sector, which represents some 80 percent of Britain’s economy.

As for the financial savings, the true net amount that the U.K. paid to the EU was $208 million a week, less than half of what was claimed, and little of that money is going to the NHS, which remains strapped for cash. While the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, there will be customs checks.

There’s a lot more (grim) detail in the linked article, but the bottom line is that Brexit is predicted to cost Britain about 4 percentage points of its gross domestic product over the next 15 years, and unemployment, inflation, and public borrowing are all likely to rise.

In the United States, we have plenty of examples of campaigns that over-simplify or distort the issues involved, and count for their success on the likelihood that most voters will not recognize the complexities or potential pitfalls. But thanks to demographic shifts and the peculiarities of our electoral system, we also have a growing problem that most other Western countries don’t have.

In 2018, Norman Ornstein explained it in a tweet:

“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”

Ornstein’s analysis was checked by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, which concurred. 

Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.

I have posted before about the reasons that Indiana’s legislature is dominated by–and answerable to–rural areas of the state, and the multiple ways in which that reality makes us backward and dysfunctional. If Ornstein is correct–and he is–the entire country will be in our shoes–dominated in the very near future by voters whose priorities simply do not reflect–or even include– the preferences and needs of urban America. 

I don’t know what you would call that outcome, but it sure isn’t democratic….

 

 

How Did We Get Here?

Last Thursday, I participated in a (virtual) presentation for my university’s Senior Academy. The focus was upon the election, and since most of us are laser-focused on November 3d, I thought I’d share my remarks, which followed a colleague’s presentation on partisanship and political psychology.

___________________________________

Like most of you, I’ve followed the ways in which partisanship and our incommensurate realities have affected our elections, but since 2016, I’ve been obsessed with a different question: How did we get here? What explains our current tribalism? What explains the 35 or 40 percent of Americans who continue to support Donald Trump?

I’ve concluded that the answer is deceptively—and depressingly—simple: the central motivation is racism (with a fair amount of misogyny and religious bigotry thrown in.) The tools that Mitch McConnell and his ilk use—tools that allow a minority of American citizens to effectively dominate the majority—are elements of our legal and electoral structures that have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had.

There’s growing awareness of several of those structural defects: both parties gerrymander, for example, although the Republicans are much better at it; the Electoral College, which has given us a President who lost the popular vote twice since 2000; the filibuster, which as currently used effectively requires a Senate super-majority to pass anything; and the dubious legality of a variety of thinly-veiled vote suppression tactics.

There are other systemic flaws that we are only beginning to recognize, especially the degree to which population movement and demographic change have turned the U.S. Senate into a massively unrepresentative body. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. As a result, fewer than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators.

Republicans currently hold a Senate majority while Senate Democrats  represent well over half of the American population.

Recently, Nate Silver sorted the country into four categories—or as he called them, “buckets”– those with fewer than 25,000 people living within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban.

Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent were rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

Silver then looked at the Senate, and found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has “two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. Silver says it’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. Rural residents also tend to be more Christian, more socially conservative and less tolerant of diversity than residents of urban areas. Don’t get me wrong; these folks deserve representation. But they don’t deserve wildly disproportionate representation.

When we connect the dots, we realize that the dominance of rural interests at both the state and federal level owes a lot to gerrymandering. Since rural folks tend to be Republican and urban areas these days are solidly Democratic, when Republicans draw the district maps—as they do in Indiana—they cut up urban areas and put the pieces in districts that are largely rural. It’s been estimated that for purposes of the Electoral College, each rural vote is worth 1 and a third of each urban vote.

This isn’t the way a small-d democratic republic is supposed to work.

One reason we’ve gotten to this point is because we’ve neglected civic education, and have ignored the importance of informed civic engagement.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although many don’t.)

Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–you can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. We desperately need a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and that recognition requires knowing what “properly” looks like.

We actually are fortunate that Donald Trump is so visibly incompetent and corrupt that even an electorate that is constitutionally-illiterate can see it. If the polls are right and the monumental turnout we are already seeing is as anti-Trump as it seems, we will have narrowly escaped an existential threat.

Still–over a third of the voting public is more concerned with protecting white privilege than repairing our democracy.

We have our work cut out for us.