What is an “urban” area?  The U.S. Census Bureau defines an “urban” area as either “Urban” (with a population of at least 50,000 people) or as an “Urban-Cluster” (with a population of 2,000—49,999).  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) labels anything between 10,000 and 49,999 people as Micro-Urban, but categorizes it as rural.  What then is a “rural” area?  Any place with fewer than 2,000 to 10,000 people, depending on the definition used.[1]  So, not just wheat fields as far as the eye can see.  Small towns and small cities as well. 

As late as the 1990s, rural and urban voting patterns in presidential elections were pretty close.  No more.  More and more, rural areas have been voting Republican and many urban areas have been voting Democratic.  In 2020, the urban-Democratic versus rural Republican gap reached 15 percent in the Northeast, 18 percent in the South, 20 percent in the West, and 22 percent in the Midwest.[2]    

Why did this divergence occur?  According to one interpretation, the decline in industry hit big cities first.  They adapted as best they could, often shifting their economic base to newly-developing sectors of the economy.  From 2000 on, the manufacturing decline hit small towns and small cities.  Very often, these places were in some sense “company towns.”  The decline of Bethlehem Steel devastated the whole Lehigh Valley.  They had a very difficult time adapting to rapid change.  The contrast is highlighted by the different rates of job creation since 2000 in urban versus rural areas.  Virtually all (94 percent) of the new jobs created have been in urban areas; virtually none (6 percent) has been in rural areas.  With no jobs in home towns, many kids got BAs and moved to big cities.  As a result, some forty-one percent of rural counties have suffered population declines. 

Rural areas became cultural “backwaters” as well as economic ones.  That is, the people often clung to traditional values and political positions.  They didn’t have all sorts of new opportunities popping up before their very eyes.  Nothing to encourage changing their thinking.  Meanwhile, urban areas often moved on to new positions.  Those new positions held no appeal for those left behind.  Many of them seem to have responded by wanting to be left alone as well. 

That hasn’t happened.  Instead, urban Democrats have sought to nationalize their policy preferences.  Climate-change, education, immigration, guns, crime policy, religion, abortion, gender identity, and racial policies all seemed—and seem today–like they are being crammed down the throats of rural voters.  

Those voters are rebelling against what they see as an attack on themselves.  In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency on a platform of enraging liberal elites as much as anything else.  In 2020, Trump won 43 percent of the urban vote and 63 percent of the rural vote.  This rebellion isn’t just ignorance, racism and resentment, much as Democrats want to believe.  There is an element of Psychology that deals with “Self-Determination Theory” (SDT).  According to one proponent of SDT, “people need to experience themselves as the causal source and origin of their behavior rather than feeling controlled and determined by external forces.”[3] 

[1] Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) Data Files | HRSA    

[2] William Galston, “What Drives Political Polarization?” WSJ, 19 April 2023. 

[3] Kenneth M. Sheldon, Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live (2022), quoted by Julian Baggini, WSJ, 5 December 2022.  This is a welcome insight, although not a new one. 

The economic mess and policy.

Median income, adjusted for inflation, is about $3,600 less than when President George W. Bush entered the White House and about $2,100 less than when President Obama entered the White House. America has not recovered from the “Great Recession.” We are rolling up on fifteen years of falling incomes after a long period of rising incomes. In contrast, upper income groups are seeing their wealth and incomes rise. Something is wrong.

What do economists suggest about reviving economic growth? They suggest improving education because America has lost its one-time enormous lead over other nations in terms of human capital. They suggest improving our crumbling infrastructure because roads, bridges, airports, and telecommunications are all falling behind needs. They suggest sorting out the messy tax code to reduce distortions in economic activity. They suggest cutting the cost of health care, which drags on the economy and cuts down money wages.[1]

The problem with these sorts of policies is that they will take a long time to play out, have an uncertain effect, and are complicated to understand. Hence, both side look for nostrums that look good on a bumper sticker. For Republicans, the solution tends to be cuts in taxes on high income-earners and corporations. These are the “job creators.”

What do the Democrats want to do to raise stagnant incomes among middle-class “workers”?[2] Well, they haven’t done much for quite a stretch so far as voters can tell. It should surprise no one if lots of them sit out an election. To counteract this trend, Democrats have adopted the cause of a higher minimum wage. In the near future they may turn to a “middle-class tax cut.” It seems most likely that this “cut” would actually take the form of “tax-credits.” These could be presented as tax incentives to save for retirement or for college education. Democrats favor paying for these cuts through higher taxes on upper-incomes. This would be popular with most Americans, who want more money for themselves and resent wealthy people.

How likely is this to happen? On one sense, very likely. The anti-tax frenzy that has gripped America for several decades has led to all Americans paying lower taxes than the historical trend since the Second World War. President Obama was happy to make most of the Bush-era tax cuts permanent.

In another sense, very unlikely. Such policies would have to pass through the House of Representatives. According to one analysis, the House is almost certain to remain in the hands of Republicans for the next decade. Only 28 of the Republicans’ 244 House seats are in districts that voted for President Obama in 2012. The Democrats now hold 188 seats. If all of those seats were moved from Republican to Democrat candidates, then the two parties would tie in the House. Such a shift is very unlikely, given the advantages of incumbents and the unreliable turn-out among Democratic voters. For the last decade American politics has see-sawed between Republicans and Democrats, but what Americans seem to like is a divided government that can’t accomplish anything.

David Leonhardt, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” NYT, 11 November 20014.

Nate Cohn, “The Enduring Republican Grip on the House,” NYT, 11 November 2014.

[1] In fact, health care costs have stopped rising and in some cases have fallen. The reasons for this are subject to debate. It seems unlikely that the Affordable Care Act has anything to do with this—yet.

[2] OK, I’ll leave aside the whole issue of how “workers” used to mean “blue-collar.” Don’t want to suggest that America is really confused about the whole issue of social class.