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.