Tag Archives: rural/urban divide

The Next War

The extreme polarization America is experiencing is, as many have noted, more than just political. People–not just in the United States, but globally–seem to be choosing identities–tribes– that include but go well beyond partisan affiliations. 

It’s difficult to imagine how a “war” could be fought between these contending ideological forces, which overall tend to be rural versus urban in nature. Would Red rural inhabitants attack Blue cities, or vice-versa? How would that work? 

Rather than armies, will we see increasing acts of terrorism from gangs of Neo-Nazis, Incels, or self-identified “Patriot Militias”?

This admittedly strange mental exercise was triggered by a letter to Talking Points Memo. The writer worried that– between relief that Biden had won, and what he characterized as Trump’s “essential absurdity”– we are insufficiently prepared for what he fears will come next.

Specifically, I keep thinking back to Trump’s attempt to turn Lafayette Square into a mini version of Tiananmen, complete with importing troops from a far-off province (the Bureau of Prisons) to lay waste to the locals. It wasn’t that Trump hesitated, or Barr, or any of them — it was that the military leadership, ultimately and publicly, refused to play along. (The same leadership that Trump is now gutting with a month and a half to go in his presidency.)

Following Trump’s defeat we are seeing what I have rapidly come to think of as secession-in-place, which also applies to the greater Republican Party over the past fifteen years. The Tea Party wasn’t so much a domestic political movement as a psychic break in response to having a Black man in the White House, and since that moment the post-policy Republican Party has never retreated from that view. (In that context, Trump is the leader they were waiting for, not some charismatic fiend who led patriotic Republicans astray.)

What we’re watching is a percolating cold war which Trump keeps trying to ignite. The Republican base has checked out, Trump is leading them and shows no sign of faltering, and the Republican Party is almost entirely complicit and stands in silent support. And I see no way that this gets better no matter what Biden does over the next four years.

The most troubling part of these observations, at least to me, was the fact that they seem obviously and objectively correct. What part of this analysis can we dismiss as fanciful? Overblown? 

An essay from The Week, titled “The Hidden World War,” only added to those concerns.  

The author began by discussing earlier hopes for globalization–the once widely-held assumption that technological advances in communication and  transportation would lead to more open societies and improved cultural understanding globally. As he recognized, that didn’t happen–at least, not in the way it was envisioned. 

The recent shocks to both the international system and liberal expectations for the future haven’t turned back globalization entirely. They have revealed, instead, that the technological advances that were once considered a gateway to a more homogeneous world actually encourage and foster the creation of new, potent forms of cross-national solidarity and political conflict.

In other words, in much the same way that social media has allowed geographically-distanced like-minded people to forge alliances in the U.S., it has facilitated international right-wing alliances that cross national borders. Technology has made it possible–really, simple–for populists living in the mostly rural areas where such sentiments are strongest to link up with far-flung likeminded compatriots. The author argues that the internet has  galvanized anti-establishment movements around the world.

The American-focused far-right QAnon conspiracy theory has spread to countries around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, and Finland. Even more widespread have been kindred protests against COVID-19 restrictions, and especially mask mandates, in dozens of nations. Trump has even found expressions of support for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election on the streets of Tokyo.

The same cross-national affinities have occurred on the left. The bottom line?

Thanks to the flood of information and images flowing ceaselessly into the incredibly powerful compact computers we carry around with us everywhere we go, political and cultural identities, affinities, and animosities are now constantly being forged and activated on a global basis. Humanity is uniting and dividing in new ways that transcend national borders. 

Again, I find it difficult to argue with the analysis–and more difficult still to picture how this conflict will be waged, or how it will end.

And I have absolutely no idea what people of good will can do about it.

Our Non- Industrial Revolution

Not long after the 2016 election, The Atlantic published an article investigating the cultural effects of higher education, or more accurately, how the financial benefits attributable to a college education were contributing to the growing urban/rural cultural divide.

The article began by describing two individuals from Indiana–a small-town resident with a high school education (80% of rural Americans lack a college degree) and an Indianapolis resident with a degree.

The article used the very different lives and prospects of those individuals to illustrate what it termed the  “diverging fates of two parts of America in the past two decades.”

Half a century ago, economic opportunity and upward mobility were available to many white Americans, regardless of where they lived and what kind of education they had. They could graduate from high school and find a job at a local factory and make a good wage, or graduate from college and sit behind a desk and make a slightly better wage. About 90 percent of kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents did, according to work by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. But beginning in the 1980s, the returns on a college education started growing, and more of the benefits of economic growth started accruing to only those with an education, as those without an education saw their opportunities shrink.

The gulf between those with a degree and those without has led to a politically consequential divergence between Americans who live in cities and those who populate the country’s struggling rural regions.

For a century leading up to 1980, poorer regions were catching up to richer regions of the country in terms of wages, as an oversupply of workers in richer regions drove wages down, while an undersupply in poorer regions drove wages up. But this “convergence,” as economists call it, petered out with the rise of computers.

Ever since the 1980s, computers have made some people more productive and others economically obsolete. The data shows that healthy regions with educated workers began to do better and better. ( Remember Richard Florida’s The Creative Class?) This divergence  had geographic implications: people with college degrees are more likely to move to metropolitan regions, attracted not just by better job opportunities, but by the presence of other people like them.

Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Enrico Moretti, an economist at Berkeley. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

One of the striking consequences of increasing educational and economic separation is that the winners are becoming more and more different from the losers. One scholar who studies this phenomenon calls it the “Great Divergence.” “

The consequences for small towns and rural regions are dramatic–and dire. Those consequences include high unemployment rates,  skyrocketing numbers of poor mental health days, the Opiod epidemic, increasing numbers of suicides, and shorter life expectancies.

The Industrial revolution–also disruptive–introduced manufacturing jobs that didn’t require advanced training and education. The current “revolution” is focused on innovation and knowledge, rather than on the production of physical goods. As the author notes, companies that produce physical goods today can send those jobs overseas or automate them, a reality that has further depleted job opportunities for high school graduates.

The most pressing problems created by urban/rural economic disparities are political and cultural. The data shows that Trump’s base is largely located in areas where jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. He  “performed well among voters without a college degree, and in places where full-time employees don’t earn very much.” Democrats, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supported by those who live in urban areas and increasingly by inhabitants of suburbia. Extreme gerrymandering has given rural voters an edge, despite the fact that they are numerically a minority. How long that will last is uncertain.

What isn’t uncertain is the cultural gulf between those two Americas.

Our “bubbles” aren’t all digital. They are also geographic. And I have no idea how to answer the most important question posed by this situation: what should we do to ameliorate it?

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.