America the Divided

A new Brookings Institution report shows that a substantial majority of Americans live in counties that did not vote for Donald Trump.

The contentious political back and forth seen daily in the media, cable TV, and polls should come as no surprise in a nation where Donald Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. Newly released Census population estimates for 2016 provide further evidence of just why the nation’s politics are split demographically. These data show that 31 million fewer Americans live in counties that voted for Trump than in those carried by Hillary Clinton…

While it is true that Clinton took less than one sixth of the nation’s 3,100+ counties, she won most of the largest ones, including 111 of the 137 counties with over 500,000 people. Trump won the Electoral College by successfully navigating rural-urban balances in key swing states, taking small areas by large vote margins.

The report–replete with multi-colored graphs– is well worth studying. It also describes the demographics of those Trump and Clinton counties, noting that when they are classified by income,  the least well-off households are over represented in Trump counties and the most well-off households are underrepresented.

Generally, Trump counties are least likely to be home to those with “urban” attributes. Only about one in five foreign-born residents live in these counties, compared with a much larger share of the United States’ native-born population (49 percent) that calls these places home. Fewer single than married persons are Trump county residents. Especially sharp divides are seen by race and ethnicity. Less than one fifth of all Asians and less than one third of all Hispanics and blacks live in counties carried by Trump.

I have written previously about the increasing urban/rural divide, and the Brookings research adds considerable data confirming that divide.

Still more confirmation is contained in an article from the Atlantic, titled “Red State, Blue City.”

The article begins by underscoring the decidedly progressive politics of cities, and the growing numbers of people choosing to live in them, but it also makes an often-overlooked point:

If liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city.

City folks in Indiana are painfully aware of that reality; Indianapolis is the economic generator in a state that barely  pretends to allow municipalities any self-determination. There’s no meaningful “home rule” in Indiana. The article also points out that most state-level policymaking is conservative:

That’s partly because Republicans enjoy unprecedented control in state capitals—they hold 33 governorships and majorities in 32 state legislatures. The trend also reflects a broader shift: Americans are in the midst of what’s been called “the Big Sort,” as they flock together with people who share similar socioeconomic profiles and politics. In general, that means rural areas are becoming more conservative, and cities more liberal. Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

There is no love lost between these progressive cities and the rural areas surrounding them.

In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities, from Austin to Atlanta, from Birmingham to Chicago….

By and large, though, cities hold the weaker hand. It makes sense that these areas, finding themselves economically vital, increasingly progressive, and politically disempowered, would want to use local ordinances as a bulwark against conservative state and federal policies. But this gambit is likely to backfire. Insofar as states have sometimes granted cities leeway to enact policy in the past, that forbearance has been the result of political norms, not legal structures. Once those norms crumble, and state legislatures decide to assert their authority, cities will have very little recourse.

An important lesson of last year’s presidential election is that American political norms are much weaker than they had appeared, allowing a scandal-plagued, unpopular candidate to triumph—in part because voters outside of cities objected to the pace of cultural change. Another lesson is that the United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban.

Only one of them, at present, appears entitled to self-determination.


  1. As always, your comments are so on target. In thinking about your article and the fractured groups within the Democratic and Republican Parties, it makes me wonder if we will see a realignment of parties into Conservative, Liberal and possibly Moderate.

  2. If we are to unite as a single country, we are past due for an end to name-calling, so prevalent on both ends of the spectrum. Liberal and conservative feelings are real. Both sides are protective of the best interests of the country. Both sides see those interests very differently, but neither side has evil intent. Dialogue ought to be the first step.

  3. “…allowing a scandal-plagued, unpopular candidate to triumph—in part because voters outside of cities objected to the pace of cultural change.”. I talk to my conservative friends about this often. Many aspects of the resistance to this fast cultural change In rural areas, is an exercise in futility. Most revolve around cultural diversity. Young people, even in rural areas will prevail in these battles either through confrontation or by outlasting the generations ahead.

  4. Although Clinton took less than one sixth of the nation’s 3,100+ counties, the counties which she won are responsible for nearly 2/3rds of GDP. But there is a problem when the rural counties have a disproportionate share of the national vote. That imbalance is not likely to be repaired as the electoral college is set up by the Constitution favoring the rural areas in the present time.

  5. Do the math. The Statelines are as staked as is each household Title holder’s lot or parcel in 92 Indiana Counties. As more “Hoosiers” take temporary residence (no lifetime Titles to Go) in Marion County, the greater the density and actual weight of the whole surveyed portion. That is a higher proportion of mobile Humans, fertile couples, live in a smaller and smaller area of Marion County. Likewise, the “collar counties” grow into pull away statistical units (Vital). Others commute from those “rural counties” as delegates to the Capitol and their workers, all the graduate students, all the artists, scientists, role models for the temporary housing tenants.
    As we read, the concentration of citizens with labor to sell ($$$) and each person’s share of the city “wealth” as papers vaulted or banked, stored as Licenses, Certificates, Forms, Records…and THE land to the bedrock, air to Geospace is parceled more and more.
    This is called the Farm Problem since 1905. Or, How you gonna keep ’em home in the State after they graduate? The commuters quite often act as do those convention delegates at D.C. spending all their accounts as budgeted on one part of a whole land and risk those out-right grabs. The more affluent simply do as heirs and heiresses do, live in places they rent to their neighbors and encourage ‘rehabilitation’ enterprises in the old settlers sections.
    More electricity costs? At work, who cares? Marion County property owners ARE the city owners. Radioactive and toxic waste products are now the fighting tools for annexation of Hoosiers’ test plots and investment lands’ parking facilities for the long-haul engineer-truckers.

  6. This is all the more reason to fight Gerrymandering and yet another reason to pray that there is no Constitutional Convention on the horizon.

  7. So; now we have the explanation as to how we ended up fighting the Russians off in a cyber-war with Putin supported by the governing body of the United States by slowing the investigation to a crawl but…are there any solutions to be found in time to save rural and urban Americans from self-destructing? “America the Divided”, as one entity, appears to have ignored the frequent references by our current leader to Russia’s advanced ability to lead while ignoring reported computer hacking by them into various computer systems. If the Trump/Flynn/Putin, et al connections are not fully investigated, how can Americans possibly reunite?

    “An important lesson of last year’s presidential election is that American political norms are much weaker than they had appeared,….”

    IMO the “American political norms” were not in evidence on either side or shown by the two additional party candidates; one who made numerous gaffs and showed his ignorance of basic political knowledge and the other was arrested for painting a bulldozer. America seemed to disappear under the full return of racism and all forms of bigotry by one party and years of repeated empty investigations, aided by a last-minute illegal public intrusion by our own FBI Director, destroyed the political career of the the opposition. All the while the Russians were making inroads into and taking control of the Executive branch with full cooperation of GOP ruled Congress. The GOP and Russia are the dividing factors now.

    All the while the world looks on; our allies in confusion, distrust and fear and our enemies laughing and finger-pointing as they test ballistics missiles and nuclear power. Trust of American media is waning due to Trump’s accusations and denying access to information to those he accuses of reporting “fake news” as they show his own speeches, rants and multiple daily Tweets. One man has managed to divide this country when a Civil War and two World Wars plus the additional wars around the world and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, could not accomplish that feat.

    Are we really that ignorant and that weak?

  8. So, there’s no hope.
    Things like this happen when you have ‘written constitutions’.
    And, an 18th century constitution in a 21st century nation which has been entirely changed by such things as the Industrial Revolution, capitalism of the worst kind, and the electronics and communications revolutions cannot continue to have the kind of government it had when the quickest way between the corners of a county and the county seat was by a horse and wagon.
    We need to re-visit this idea of representation based on geography (the original large state–small state divide) and consider maybe going to a system of representation based, if not exactly on the individual, at least the use of % of party within the overall state.
    Because Indiana’s situation is this: 54% of the population regularly get 70 to 75% of the seats in the Gen. Ass. I’m sure the great empty states further west have it even worse. It has suddenly dawned on me that the reform of gerrymandering will not really solve anything, but rather it will actually further divide the cities and counties so that minorities will have no representation at all.
    As we worship at the altar of the god called “Local Control”, we need to remember these things.

  9. Thank you again, Sheila. Food for thought. And when I think about this topic in terms of the long history of cities, back to the birth of what we know as civilization in the Mideast where cities first came into being and through the Middle Ages with the guilds and the powerful cities that the royalty and nobility could not effectively control or resist because the cities and guilds were where the wealth was generated, and not by the royalty or nobility. In history, the cities have always “won.” I am oh-so-familiar with the frustrating and damaging limits of Indiana’s lack of home rule for its cities, though, and I know our cities do not have the autonomy of their Medieval predecessors. The Founding Fathers, certainly state and perhaps federal though I am not as well informed on that level, treated cities with the same distrust as corporations. Sadly, corporations have improved their lot, thanks to some key court decisions. Cities have not. So I am left to search for what tools and resources today’s cities (for me, specifically Indiana cities) have to use to rise above the forces that seek to control if not harm them, socially, economically, politically, you name it. I do fear that the controls will get tighter as cities stand out more, either on purpose or simply by inevitable contrast. That’s the Mike Pence way, which we are now stuck with in Washington as well as Indianapolis. I’d appreciate ideas from my fellow followers of this excellent blog, and perhaps this is a topic worthy of a future post, Sheila. Maybe I’ll call the Bloomington city attorney’s office. that’s a city that’s certainly has tohave thought about this question!

  10. “I have written previously about the increasing urban/rural divide, and the Brookings research adds considerable data confirming that divide”.

    I’m a little troubled with the author’s conflating an “urban/rural divide” with the more recent phenomenon known as the “Trump Counties/Not Trump Counties” divide. They are not the same thing. The ever-expanding suburban concrete jungle known collectively as Zionsville-Westfield-Carmel-Fishers-Noblesville can’t really be described as either urban or rural but they CAN certainly be described as being located in Trump counties. And they share many of the same political characteristics as their rural county counterparts except education and income. Clearly, the “core” of the state economic engine known as greater Indianapolis are the surrounding doughnut-counties and the more highly-skilled and highly-compensated people who live in them. While it is fair to say that many of the millennial set (and some retiring boomers) have appetites for living, working and playing in a more diverse urban setting, we are still a long long way off from reversing the last 70+ years of white-flight to the burbs. The news is not the urban/rural stratification of voters around Trump/Not Trump. The real story is around the former majority of suburban Republican moderates who have either moved decisively to the right or, if not, have swallowed so much of the kool-aid first served up during the Reagan-era that compels them to firmly believe that government, and especially the federal government, cannot solve problems, and views the existing national power structure and its institutions with great distrust and even scorn. And one such institution they scorn the most are large-diverse-complex urban centers.

  11. I have heard and read it argued that the cause of the Great Depression was not the unregulated evils of Wall Street but rather the explosion in the evolution of farm machinery in the 1920s which chased unneeded and surplus farm workers into the cities where there was no work (other than those relatively few who made gang plows, reapers etc.). Cotton pickers were also named. As we saw then and are seeing now, innovation comes at a price during transition. Some agricultural economists came up with a 27-1 ratio in this connection, that is, 27 farmworkers with their horses and single plows were displaced by one tractor-pulling gang plow, which left a lot of displaced farm workers who to go to town. From this point of view, humans labor was displaced by automation of its day, much as the current wave of automation (and not jobs sent to China per Trump) is displacing human labor in our transition from the industrial to the information age. (The actual count in lost labor is China 13% and automation 87% per a study of an economics panel – and even if the 13% were repatriated many if not most of such jobs would be automated, thus giving the lie to Trump’s pretentious claims.)

    That there is a sharp rural-urban divide which has wended its way into our political culture as Sheila points out is a fact; what is causing it is, in my opinion, still up for grabs. Farm dwellers have the reputation of being independent and conservative divorced, as they are, from the distractions and noise of everday city-dwelling, whereas city-dwellers who live in congested areas are more likely to seek public amenities with a “we’re all in this together” attitude. However, with the advent of television and social media and frequent visits to cities, I cannot explain why rural and city attitudes have not converged. Perhaps there is a socioeconomic expert among my fellow commentators who can enlighten me, because as of now I attribute the Great Depression to Wall Street greed and not to innovation as I try to distinguish between cause and effect, correlation and cause.

    So what are the political and economic implications of this rural exodus to the cities?

  12. I forgot to mention in my already-way-too-long comment that I’ve always found it amusing (actually disgusting) that any Indiana Republican politician occupying or seeking state office will tell you under no uncertain terms that Washington cannot solve our problems. But for some reason once they are elected there is no problem too small that cannot be solved by the Indiana General Assembly. Try buying a six-pack of cold beer at a gas-station convenience store if you don’t believe me.

  13. People who do social research will be analyzing these tea leaves forever and that’s good but here’s a (over?) simplified approach.

    We had two campaigns (well, 3 if you count the Trump vs GOP primary). One was largely truthful the other(s) largely fake news (I’m trying to be charitable here or I would label it deceptive). Fake news won.

    Does then that now define future American politics?

    I’m afraid that once the bar is lowered it can(will) never be restored. Of course that same concept includes our standards for the Presidency and Congress and SCOTUS and America’s global word.

    That makes this situation the decline in America’s fortunes long term.

    That makes what Sheila teaches also in need of change to reflect what works rather than what’s good.

    It’s a real worry of mine.

  14. Pete-Maybe that is what DT voters see as the future, not what’s good but what works for them on the short term.
    As an added note to Gerald, Gabriel Rosenberg has written a book about the evolution of rural life. “The 4-H Harvest” details that history, part of which explores the tensions between rural and urban areas of the country, especially in the early 20th century and how the state and federal governments responded to the demographic, social/sexual, political, religious, racial and economics changes of the time.

  15. Gerald: I can offer anecdotal experience toward answering one of your questions. The truly rural and truly small town people do not, in my experience, go frequently to the urban centers. The furthest they go is to the nearest suburban edge retail area to shop or maybe see a movie. Those places are appalling and the traffic congestion is overwhelming to people not accustomed to having to pay attention to what lane they are in, so the experience is off-putting to say the least. They experience next to nothing of the good things of our city centers. I was delighted to discover myself sitting next to an outlying small town resident from a neighboring county when our downtown ballpark opened several years ago and to learn of his delight to discover how “doable” and “nice” downtown Fort Wayne was, once you got there. And the people from the rural areas of our own county and the suburbs of our own county don’t come downtown, either. They do not live in our cities.

  16. The sooner the baby boomers die off, the better. If the study had included the effects of generational differences as correlated to geographical differences, it would have been even more revealing.

  17. Many baby boomers who came of age in the 60’s were very progressive – pro-civil rights, pro-women’s rights, pro-environment, and supportive of diplomatic over warring solutions in Vietnam and elsewhere. Many of us still are.

  18. Another great post.

    The divide, I think, has been around for a long time. Growing up, I was quite aware that New York City in New York, Chicago in Illinois and Detroit in Michigan were all hated by the state legislatures. Also, there has been animosity between the cities and suburbs – PJ is right on that. I do remember as recently as the 2008 presidential campaign when some Hamilton County Democrats told me that some of their members were reluctant to go south of 96th Street for a proposed volunteers picnic.

    I don’t think all hope is lost, I just think that there is a lot of work ahead.

    Over it – thanks for wishing me dead 8)>
    Nancy Papas is right (thanks Nancy) – my first foray into the political world, at 16, was with this radical organization, the 17th Congressional District Young Democrats of Michigan. Our sitting, Democratic Congresswoman called us a bunch of communists for backing an anti-war candidate in the primary instead of her. My politics haven’t really changed much since then.

  19. well, isn’t this the traditional debate topic? Are we a Republic or a Democracy? The Founding Fathers, IMHO, were deeply concerned about mass / mob rule, and also control by cities, where the rich would accommodate the mob at the expense of the rural population. That’s one reason for the Electoral College, and the older way of choosing Senators. It’s also the reason Indianapolis and D.C. have the weird streets that all converge, so troops can control the mobs. And, its also the reason that mobs burned cars outside the Washington Post expressing their disgust and anger about election results. Just days after ONE election those people were demonstrating the mob mentality that the Founding Fathers were concerned about – clearly prescient. BTW the sturdy yeomen so admired historically were probably Trump voters of their day (or, hopefully, Libertarian) and the lynch mobs of the cities (esp. in the south) were more representative of the city voters voting “democratically”.

  20. Obama carried the state of Indiana in the 2008 election. Obama lost the state of Indiana in the 2012 election. Clinton lost the state of Indiana in the 2016 election. This undoubtedly makes sense to a lot of people, but I don’t happen to be one of them.

    There were no large population changes in Indiana between 2008 and 2016. So why did Obama lose in 2012? Many dyed-in-the-wool Hoosiers guessed it was because voters discovered Obama was African American. Why did Clinton lose in 2016 when so many voters made negative comments about Trump? Again … dyed-in-the-wool Hoosiers guessed it was because voters discovered Clinton was a woman.

    Is it possible that Indiana’s voters are overwhelmed by bias? Don’t ask me.

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