The deep roots of America’s rural-urban political divide

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Opponents of a special session bill submitted by Wisconsin Republican legislators hold "Stop Lame Duck" signs at a rally outside the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison on Dec. 3, 2018.
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The chasm of misunderstanding between rural and urban voters is one of the oldest divisions in US political life. It was there when Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers, and as cities grew in population, their residents returned the suspicion. States tilted electoral power toward rural areas, and it took a 1964 Supreme Court ruling to affirm the concept of “one person, one vote.” Still, the gap remains a defining feature of polarized politics. Rural voters tend to be white Christian Republicans. Urban voters tend to be minorities or more-educated whites, and younger and Democratic. “The divides are not just about politics but who we are as people,” writes political scientist Katherine Cramer. The geographic tensions persist in debates over gerrymandering, or controversial attempts by Republican state legislators to strip power from incoming Democratic officials – justifying their actions by arguing they represent all parts of the state, not just urban liberals. But historian Nathan Connolly, citing extensive migration between urban and rural areas, warns against oversimplifying geography into a “hard box” to explain US politics. “Our sense of this bifurcated country, it doesn’t really hold up once you start to bear down and ask basic questions.”

Why We Wrote This

Rural voters are an often-mentioned base of support for Donald Trump and Republicans generally. But there's a deeper story behind the rural-urban divide in US politics – and a danger in oversimplifying it. Fifth in our “Democracy Under Strain” series.

The chasm of misunderstanding and animosity between rural and urban voters is one of the oldest divisions in American political life.

From the beginning of the United States republic, farmers and other country dwellers have viewed cities with political suspicion. Cities were filled with immigrants, the poor, and other people who didn’t fit the Jeffersonian yeoman ideal. Here’s Henry J. Cookingham, delegate to an 1894 New York state Constitutional Convention, disparaging urban voters and municipal corruption: “I say without fear of contradiction that the average citizen in the rural district is superior in intelligence, superior in morality, superior in self-government, to the average citizen in the great cities.”

As urban areas exploded in size and power, urban voters increasingly returned such disdain. Rural residents were rubes or hicks. Urban agglomerations were the economic future, country roads the past. In 1921 the acerbic Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken envisioned new Republican President Warren Harding giving rural speeches to “small town yokels ... low political serfs.”

Why We Wrote This

Rural voters are an often-mentioned base of support for Donald Trump and Republicans generally. But there's a deeper story behind the rural-urban divide in US politics – and a danger in oversimplifying it. Fifth in our “Democracy Under Strain” series.

Today, almost 100 years later, the place-based insults are shriller than ever. The divide is getting wider. Polarized US politics – and politicians who exploit that polarization for their own gain – are pulling urban and rural voters farther and farther apart.

Take Wisconsin. Are the state’s rural voters more “real”? This December a Republican-controlled state legislature voted to strip powers from an incoming Democratic governor. One reason the move was legitimate, they said, was because Democratic voters are concentrated in Madison and Milwaukee. Republican votes came from all over the state. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” said Robin Vos, the GOP speaker of the Wisconsin state house.

Not that those same rural voters necessarily feel more real. Many feel downgraded, ignored, and despised by the urban elites. They remember what candidate Barack Obama said of voters in struggling small towns at a 2008 fundraiser (in a city of course, San Francisco). “They get bitter,” said Mr. Obama. “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

Perhaps the problem is that too many social and cultural aspects of personal identity are becoming aligned with politics and geography. Rural voters are predominantly white Christian Republicans. Urban voters tend to be minorities, or more-educated whites, and on the whole younger and Democratic.

When the voters in a particular area are alike in so many ways, their attachment to their fellows becomes stronger than ever. The other side becomes just that, “other,” not fellow voters at all. That gap grows.

“The divides are not just about politics but who we are as people,” writes University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer in the introduction to “The Politics of Resentment,” her book about rural consciousness and the Wisconsin rural-urban political divide.

From an agrarian to an urban nation

In the beginning, of course, rural areas were dominant, in the sense that they were where most people lived.

Founding father Thomas Jefferson famously thought this the principle on which democracy should be based. To Jefferson, a small farmer and his family represented virtue and wisdom (he said much less about the slave labor that worked much of the Southern countryside). Cities were evil, dirty, and perhaps monarchist.

“The strong allurements of great cities to those who have any turn for dissipation, threaten to make them here, as in Europe, the sinks of voluntary misery,” wrote Jefferson to David Williams in 1803.

When Jefferson penned that letter about 94 percent of the US population was rural-based, leaving 6 percent in cities. This dominance of numbers was backed by a political system that gave disproportionate influence to large, thinly populated areas of land. Under the Constitution, every state is guaranteed two senators and one representative, no matter its population. Thus Wyoming, with 580,000 people, is as powerful in the Senate as California, with 40 million residents.

But cities grew as fast as corn. Jefferson was right about “strong allurements.” The urban population marched up with the nation’s industrial might, with the tipping point reached in 1920. That’s when a census first showed a majority of Americans living in urban areas.

Unsurprisingly, this set up a conflict. Rural voters did not want to give up their political power, says historian Doug Smith, author of “On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought ‘One Person, One Vote’ to the United States.”

The cities were full of immigrants, people who spoke different languages and practiced different religions. They were Italian, German, and Irish. Were they really entitled to the franchise?

“There was definitely a sense that the cities had attracted the mobs, lower classes, the people were somehow different, not real Americans at that particular time,” says Dr. Smith, whose book contains the pointed Cookingham quote that starts this story.

Before ‘one person, one vote’

So rural powerbrokers turned to malapportionment. The Constitution said congressional districts should be divided by the census, but gave no specifics. States governed state legislative districts. State legislatures controlled by rural interests simply drew lines that gave rural areas more representation.

The disparity worsened and grew entrenched from the 1920s through the middle of the century, when virtually every state in the nation was malapportioned to some degree. In some states 20 percent of the population could elect a majority of the state legislature. Business often lined up with rural interests, seeing them as more stable and conservative. Spending projects that benefited cities – school funds, infrastructure, overtime and minimum wage rules – were often bottled up.

In an egregious example cited by Smith, in California at one point one state senator represented the 6 million residents of Los Angeles County. And one state senator represented 14,000 residents of three counties on the east side of the Sierra Mountains, effectively giving those residents 450 times the political power of their urban counterparts in state Senate voting.

After World War II this situation became legally and politically less tenable. Cities continued to grow, and frustrated urban leaders fought back in the courts. (Christian Science Monitor Boston State House reporter George B. Merry was then one of the leading voices on the abuses of malapportionment, notes Smith.)

Civil rights were intertwined with the anti-malapportionment movement in many ways, and the Supreme Court began to consider and move on both these huge issues in the early 1960s. Finally, in June 1964, the Court ruled that state districts needed to be drawn on the basis of one person, one vote. It was a momentous decision.

“We are really talking about a system of minority rule. With malapportionment that was happening,” says Smith.

But there is more than one way to manipulate electoral systems. A cousin of malapportionment, the venerable practice of gerrymandering, survives.

Gerrymandering, the manipulation of political boundaries in favor of one party or class, is practiced by Democrats and Republicans for their own purposes. Essentially it’s used to protect entrenched power. Increasingly for the GOP that means power in rural areas.

In Wisconsin, for instance, unified control under a Republican legislature and outgoing GOP Gov. Scott Walker produced a state map so favorable to Republican candidates that the GOP won 63 of 99 assembly seats – though Democrats won 54 percent of Assembly votes cast. (This map has faced court challenges and will undergo another federal judiciary review in April.)

Rural Republicans also benefit from the simple fact of geographic clustering. Democratic votes are increasingly concentrated in big cities. Former President Obama famously got all votes cast in 59 Philadelphia precincts in 2012.

That “wastes” lots of votes, since a candidate only needs a majority to win. Republicans are scattered less densely across rural and suburban areas. This doesn’t matter much in statewide votes, such as for governor. But it does matter in legislative races. It’s a sort of natural gerrymander.

Rolled together, these reasons help explain the enduring power of the Republican coalition of rural and suburban whites. For 20 years, Democrats have been looking at demographic projections of fast-growing minorities and younger voters tipping red states blue. Yet that never quite seems to happen, as Democrat Beto O’Rourke found in losing his Senate race in Texas to the GOP’s Ted Cruz in November.

“What Democrats have failed to take into account fully is just how much geography is privileged over population in our political system,” says Steven Conn, a professor of history at Miami University of Ohio and author of “Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century.”

Divide widened in 2016

The political choices of rural and urban Americans have moved farther apart than ever in the age of President Trump.

As a candidate Donald Trump appeared to make little effort to win city voters. Instead, he painted a bleak picture of burnt-out cities dominated by poverty and crime. In response, urban counties from Austin to Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles produced record-low numbers for a Republican candidate in 2016. Trump’s childhood county of Queens gave him 22 percent. Washington, D.C., one of the most Democratic cities in the country, gave him 4 percent.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s decline among rural whites in the Midwest might well have been the deciding factor in her Electoral College loss, as Trump turned Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania red. Overall, the least-dense counties in America voted at a significantly lower rate for Mrs. Clinton than they did for Obama in 2012.

The rural-urban trend continued in the 2018 midterms. Some Democratic candidates faced huge rural vote deficits. In 2012, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri won rural Saline County by 22 points. In 2018, she lost it by 21.

Democrats rolled up a 40-seat gain in the House, not by winning back rural whites, but largely by winning big in suburbs with large percentages of educated voters. Add the 2016 and 2018 results together and they begin to suggest that the real divide in US politics is between geographic areas based on population density, not on states sorted between red and blue.

The Wisconsin power struggle brought this divide into the open. Having lost a governor’s seat held by Mr. Walker for eight years, the GOP legislature decided to use a lame duck session to try and trim some power from incoming Democrat Tony Evers, the state school superintendent.

To critics, this seemed overreach, a norm-breaking use of power to the utmost. But state GOP legislative leaders argued that they were the more representative branch of government, given that their members represented voters from all areas of the state, and were thus closer to the will of the people.

They emphasized that Mr. Evers’s support was more geographically circumscribed, since much of it came from cities. Scott Fitzgerald, Wisconsin Senate majority leader, said that legislators should stand “on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison.”

Thus breadth of land was turned into something equal, and perhaps superior, to number of votes.

Backlashes follow a shift in power

“What’s happening in Wisconsin is what has already happened in a lot of other places. The whole center of gravity of the state is shifting towards these urban corridors,” says Dr. Conn of Miami University of Ohio.

As that happens, social and political trends follow. White rural voters may feel threatened by that, he says. They begin to worry that their way of life is slipping away. They want to make their state great again. So they and their representatives flex the power they have.

“How do you respond? Right now we have backlash,” Conn says, pointing to Wisconsin, and other states such as Michigan and North Carolina, where Republicans have moved to strip power from positions right after they were won by the other party.

Walker signed bills on Dec. 14, limiting his successor in Madison. The legislative package will, among other things, curb the governor’s authority in the rule-making process and transfer the authority to appoint members of an economic development authority to lawmakers. It will also limit early voting and allow lawmakers to intervene in lawsuits filed by the incoming state attorney general, Democrat Josh Kaul.

Walker said the controversy surrounding the action was all “hype and hysteria.” He noted that the legislature had left untouched the governor’s powers in other important areas, such as the ability to veto bills.

A fight over who ‘real’ voters are

What is the foundation for the estrangement between rural and urban America? Perhaps it is the belief on both sides that the other does not care about them.

This is a feeling well-documented among rural voters, at least. In her book, Professor Cramer in Wisconsin recounted her years of fieldwork traveling outside urban areas to get the political pulse of her state. Rural voters felt disrespected by Madison politicians and city elites, she concluded. They felt like outsiders, their world grounded in a rural consciousness others did not understand.

Though they themselves often stood to benefit from government services, they vehemently opposed big government. They felt like they were standing still while others – minorities, outsiders – cut in front of them to get undeserved help.

And both sides of this divide feel resented.

Among urban residents, 65 percent said other communities don’t understand their problems, in a Pew Research poll this year. Sixty-three percent said others see them in a negative light. Those numbers were similar to those posted by rural residents – with 70 percent and 57 percent answering the same way, respectively, on those questions.

By way of contrast, people living in the suburbs scored substantially more positively on both these measures.

Much of today’s polarization is rooted in social identity, argues University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason in her book “Uncivil Agreement.”

This overlay results in a powerful political group attachment, according to Professor Mason. Politics becomes more than a means to govern ourselves and handle disputes about proper actions. It becomes tribal: “us” versus “them.”

In that context the divide between Republican rural America and urban Democratic America is indeed a fight over who the “real” voters are.

A real rift, but also blurry lines

But Nathan Connolly, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and co-host of the “BackStory” history podcast, has a different take on the divide’s foundations. He says it is important to remember that this spatial divide is real in some important ways, but it is also a narrative we tell ourselves to try to understand any number of other divides and problems, from racial prejudice and slavery to economic injustice. He calls it a “hard box” we put people in to explain election cycles, culture wars, and so forth.

For one thing, there has always been extensive migration between urban and rural areas, from the Great Migration of southern African-Americans to northern factory jobs, to retirees returning to their roots.

For another, there are Democrats in every rural space and Republicans in every city. Only the mix is different. Some of the nation’s most famous radicals came from the farm. Some of the strongest voices for “fly-over country” and the heartland on conservative media have lived in Manhattan all their lives.

There are transsexual police officers in San Francisco who grew up in Nebraska and rural homesteaders in Maine who went to Harvard. Who, Dr. Connolly asks, is more connected to the world than a soybean farmer following the global markets for his crop from his tractor?

“There are broad examples of the diversity of America around the country,” he says.

Provo, Utah, is by any measure a small place with conservative values. But the language training available there is on par with any in New York City, says Connolly. That is because it is predominantly Mormon, and young Mormons serve as missionaries, and thus benefit from immersion training in Mandarin or Portuguese.

“I think our sense of this bifurcated country, it doesn’t really hold up once you start to bear down and ask basic questions,” Connolly says.

Other parts of the "Democracy Under Strain" series:

Part 1: A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks?

Part 2: Neutral no more: Can Supreme Court survive an era of extreme partisanship?

Part 3: Amid complaints of a rigged system, one woman’s effort to end gerrymandering.

Part 4: Risk of a new civil war? Today ‘us’ and ‘them’ differs from the 1850s.

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