Rural Red, Urban Blue

Talk about living in bubbles….

It isn’t just the Internet, or our very human tendency to consult information sources compatible with our biases and beliefs. I’ve written before about The Big Sort, the 2008 book by Bill Bishop which tracked the “sorting” of Americans into residential tribes–especially urban and rural–a phenomenon Bishop warned was “tearing us apart.”

Since the publication of that book, the divisions between city and rural dwellers have only deepened–with suburbs appearing to move toward the urban side of the scale. Given the other long-term trends that I’ve been noting (and about which I’ve been posting) the ability of Republicans–at least, in their current iteration– to retain control of the national government over the long term looks decidedly grim.

Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the urban/rural divide, noting that the GOP is simply out of touch with diverse urban areas.

The Times interviewed Jerry Sanders, a Republican who had served two terms as mayor of San Diego. The story noted that in 2012, Sanders was the most prominent Republican city executive in the country. A former police chief who was close to the business community, in a rational world, Sanders would seem to be a a political role model for other urban  Republican mayors–he was a political moderate who worked with the Obama administration on urban policy and endorsed gay marriage.

Sanders left the GOP on January 7th.

The report noted that Sanders’ sour evaluation of the GOP’s urban appeal was borne out in off-year elections.

From Mr. Sanders’s California to New York City and New Jersey and the increasingly blue state of Virginia with its crucial suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Republican Party’s feeble appeal to the country’s big cities and dense suburbs is on vivid display.

Where the G.O.P. once consistently mounted robust campaigns in many of these areas, the party is now all but locked out of all the major contests of 2021.

The realignment of national politics around urban-versus-rural divisions has seemingly doomed Republicans in these areas as surely as it has all but eradicated the Democratic Party as a force across the Plains and the Upper Mountain West. At the national level, Republicans have largely accepted that trade-off as advantageous, since the structure of the federal government gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated rural states.

Indeed, as the article makes clear,  the only metro areas where the G.O.P. maintains influence are in red states (like Indiana) where Republican governors and state legislators can impose their policy preferences on local leaders.

The consequences of this urban/rural “big sort” are mostly negative. From a governance perspective, the ability of  significantly fewer rural voters to thwart the electoral choices and policy preferences of popular majorities is dangerously anti-democratic . If the structural influences that give undue power to those “sparsely populated” rural areas aren’t countered, that situation will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government. (It has already facilitated a gridlock that has gone a long way toward destroying its stability.)

But it isn’t just political structures that are damaged by the dominance of liberals in cities and conservatives in rural areas. The divide damages our ability as citizens to participate in reasoned debates with neighbors who have different perspectives. Conservatives living in urban areas feel politically powerless, as do liberals who reside in rural precincts of the country. The media’s tendency to lump voters into categories of “red” or “blue” also blurs the very real differences within those categories. 

Most concerning of all is the ability of “sorted” populations to inhabit wildly different realities. As a long-ago student from a small town in Indiana reminded me during a class discussion of the Filter Bubble, bubbles can be geographic as well as informational. 

If we fixed the structural glitches that allow today’s Republicans to ignore urban constituencies, perhaps the GOP would once again embrace contemporary versions of Jerry Sanders, Bill Hudnut and  Richard Lugar, in order to become competitive in the nation’s cities. And perhaps Democrats would come out of their rural closets.

Yeah, I know. Perhaps pigs will fly…..


  1. And now we get to see how the illness and death from the next wave of Covid will track the red / blue divide. Rural Red is already getting sick and dying at a great rate than Urban Blue. Bad information and belief in lies is killing these people. They seem to be choosing to get sick and die. The payoff for them is ????

  2. Yesterday I watched the annual countdown on CNBC of the top 10 states in which to do business. Interestingly Virginia, a Southern and formerly red state came out number #1 largely because of the massive growth of its highly educated/skilled population in the Southern suburbs and exurbs of Washington D.C. and also Richmond and the coastal areas.

    Interesting thing about this years list is that they’ve included a measure called “inclusion” in the life and health factor, which accounts for 20% of the scoring. This means that states that are passing laws to curtail voting in ways that discriminate against people of color and limited means, or prevent LGBTQ people from exercising their constitutional right to pursue happiness are now being dinged. This wholly accounted for Texas falling from #2 to #4 in one year (it should count for far more against them).

    And Indiana? Same old story. Does very well in the area of cost to do business with its basement-level taxes and regulations, and infrastructure, where our location as the “Crossroads of America” gives us a natural advantage (plus $billions spent by the state over the years on projects that support the trucking industry – a fact largely ignored by our Senator Braun).

    But in the area of Life, Health and Inclusion Indiana ranked 41 and in Workforce it ranked only 43 and in both cases ranked LOWER than Mississippi. Just think about that. So, good scores on taxes and infrastructure offset by dismal scores in Life-Health-Inclusion and Workforce will get you a middling score on Economy of 21 and an overall ranking of 19, which tells you that taxes and infrastructure is weighted higher than the human-capital factors and should not be.

    Indiana’s priorities over the last 70 years are responsible for this, under both Dem and Republicans but Hoosiers went ALL IN on the dogma of “hyperindividualistic, exclusive, trickle-down economics” starting in 2007 and has never looked back.

    But while the 2020 election results didn’t show it, even Indiana shows signs of the same trend that caused Virginia to turn blue and Texas purple in that its truly rural counties continue to shrink while the suburbs and exurbs of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Evansville, South-Bend-Mishawaka-Elkhart, Louisville, Chicago, and even Cincinnati, where nearby Ohio County enjoys a 100% vaccination rate among people over 65.

    80% of the voters in LaGrange County, where I live on one of the most beautiful glacial lakes in Indiana (we all say that), voted for the re-election of the former guy and currently has the lowest vaccination rate of any county in the state (18% – all ages). All though the Amish population and the booming RV industry keep the population growing and wages higher than the state average, it will continue to slide as the great majority of its non-Amish (or former Amish) young people leave its 3 small high schools and never come back.

    And I’m fine with that. We didn’t move here for the people. We moved here to get away from them.

  3. “Most concerning of all is the ability of “sorted” populations to inhabit wildly different realities.”

    Remember the old story of “City Mouse and Country Mouse”? We do not need to “inhabit” the realities of others any more than we have to agree with their differences or demand they agree with ours. Whether “Rural Red” or “Urban Blue”, we should work together as AMERICANS by sharing our differences to reach solutions to the problems separating us. It takes the ability listen to and actually HEAR what others have to say by both sides and to make concessions; give a little, get a little. Neither side needs or deserves the “whole hog”.

    I keep returning to President Barack Obama’s book, written before his presidency, “The Audacity Of Hope”; that hope of both parties sitting at the bargaining table to find solutions to our many problems.

  4. Patrick; your reference to Indiana’s infrastructure brought a question to my mind. How many millions of our tax dollars have been spent on refilling the same potholes on the east side area of 16th Street and other heavily traveled streets every spring for decades? More than enough to have resurfaced the areas years ago and moved on to other areas of the city. Last year my neighbor had one tire and wheel destroyed when he hit one of those potholes which was covered by the never plowed snow on that heavily traveled street. The pothole had not been reported so he couldn’t apply for reimbursement of his financial loss. Those who have had damage in reported potholes get reimbursed…add those amounts to the cost of not resurfacing the heavily traveled street to the wasted tax dollars used for infrastructure.

  5. And maybe, once you all can get the differences resolved between rural and urban centers you can look abroad for inspiration. The problem about America is that your sights stop at the shoreline. Never imagining the advances in other countries, for example, infrastructure, non-profit healthcare to name a couple, to consider, learn and see how the rest of the world lives. I don’t think there is a paradise on this planet but getting along seems to be where it should start. Then maybe we can build that paradise.

  6. JoAnn, excellent point. My guess is that the evaluators place more emphasis on how MUCH of the state’s revenues are spent on infrastructure and not how EFFECTIVELY it is spent. Interestingly I was driving my new car with low profile tires and aluminum rims East on 82nd or 86th street one night in March about 20 years ago and came upon a SEA of potholes. I avoided most of them with deft driving but hit ONE that flattened both tires and bent both rims on the left side, requiring a two and about $2,500 in repairs. The city never reimbursed me and it wasn’t worth suing them as my insurance company paid all but $500 of the repair bill.

  7. Patrick; OUCH! That was a major loss. The trip to my son’s home in a development in the 2600 South Franklin Road is through brief “nicer” residential area, few businesses, mostly widespread homes, a few entrances to developments like my son’s and acres of mostly unused farm land. Beautifully all resurfaced in recent months. Doesn’t our City-County (how appropriate today) Council make these decisions?

  8. What Pat Mcc said. Darwinism is hard at work in rural America. Believing lies and resisting progress in lifestyle, health and infrastructure is a COUNTER-adaptation that, in the natural world, guarantees extinction. The mis-representation from the Senate exacerbates all of those failings by trying to take the rest of us with them.

  9. The problem is actually in the labelling. Take the Democratic legislative priorities in Congress. If you just poll on the issues, urban and rural both approve of the voting rights bill, the infrastructure bill, and even the immigration (almost) reform bill. Only when you add the label Dem or GOP do they disagree.

  10. Patrick, my N.J. born youngest son, and his wife, are richmond residents now, have been for some 2-3 years, and they are liberal millennials.
    Yes, what Patmcc said, and some, elsewhere have said about Faux News killing off its fans.
    And what Peggy said, too.

  11. Wishin’ that this were as simple as waitin’ for those rural folks to die out…Only problem is, in the meantime, with the GOP controlling a majority of states, most levels of the Federal judiciary and (about to come) betwixt now and ’24 (just round the corner) the US Senate, House and (gasp) the Presidency…it may not matter…

  12. One of the traits that, in my experience, helps define the current political parties here is past orientation versus future orientation. That’s why being called a “progressive” was always an honor to me. My life has been one of rapid technological change both professionally and as a matter of my leisure interests. I see not even the slightest clue that the pace of change will wane anytime soon. We are called on to adapt to new worlds at a pace that keeps getting faster. I fully understand how some of my peers who were in much different professions and have much different interests might seem unendingly overwhelmed trying to keep up. Their frustration versus the adaptability of the younger generation who go with the flow of change rather than get frustrated by it is a standard joke.

    That’s the unbeatable enemy of Republican conservative authoritarians. They are just obsolete personalities trying to swim back against the current of time.

    The Republican Party is doomed by who they are not who we are but that doesn’t make for good entertainment media fodder. It’s much more entertaining to blame those who are not them for their troubles. Victimization sells.

  13. This idea that the GOP of today is “Conservative” is bogus. When I think of a Conservative my thoughts turn to a William F. Buckley. I may not have agreed with Buckley – I respected his calm cool intellect.

    This all changed, the Buckley’s lost the microphone to Rush and others, including the bible thumper’s, who saw politics as a part of the social-cultural war. Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger were portrayed as “respectable suits” within the GOP.

    Concurrently with Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger was the rise of the Tea Party faction and the empowering of the bible thumper’s and their social-cultural warriors.

    The code words of retrograde White-Macho-Man Authoritarianism were cast aside when The Trumpet shouted out in so many words it is OK to be a bigot. Fear is now at the core of the GOP base.

    However, now the lows of the GOP can be seen in Tennessee. From the Guardian the war on science continues:

    Tennessee to halt vaccine outreach to teens amid conservative backlash – report.
    The reporting comes a day after Tennessee’s top vaccine official claimed she was fired to appease conservative lawmakers pushing back against efforts to vaccinate teenagers.

    Dr Michelle Fiscus, medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the state health department, issued a scathing statement to local news, alleging she was fired because “some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation” and stating she was “afraid for my state”.

    “It was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against Covid-19,” Fiscus told the Tennessean. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.”

    It is stunning in a way to think the anti-vaxers can have so much power to influence public heath and safety. I suppose in a way it is part of the ideology of current form of the GOP to question science along with the bogus claims of massive voter fraud. The idea seems to be is to reinforce the idea the government cannot be trusted.

  14. The loss of manufacturing and family farms has further led to desperation in rural areas. They are not very open to change. They want their jobs back.They want corporations that practice social welfare(taking care of their employees.) They want job security. I hate the way agribusiness destroys the soil with its large acres of tilling. Studies now indicate that no till farming is better for the land and creates sustainability. My grandfathers knew you had to take care of the land. Wal-mart and other franchises have undermined small businesses in rural communities. Too bad they did not have antitrust laws protecting them that progressives failed to get passed. What rural citizens don’t understand is that the GOP really does not have their back. However, I can’t say that the Democrats have helped them much.

    It would seem that trade skills(carpentry, plumbing, auto mechanics) do not have much prestige. I think they should because it requires mechanical skills I don’t have .People with these skills are essential to our economy, our infrastructure and yes, our food supply.

    It is no wonder to me that people in rural communities see people living in cities etc. as elitist. They see us as arrogant, indifferent, and disrespectful of their way of life. It is a way of life where people really know one another and value a close community. Granted they are not perfect as is evidenced by their identity politics and bigotries.

    If we had created the right kind of narrative for the vaccine that truly made it a patriotic act with ads on TV much like we might have seen in the 50’s, rural people might get vaccinated (i.e. showing soldiers getting the vaccine, leaders of local communities). If we wish to bring rural people into the conversation, we need to learn their language, their concerns. We need to treat them with respect even when we disagree. And we need to share what we know and bring them into the 21st century. We need to restore their belief in science by showing them how they can benefit.

    If we wish to end the rural/urban divide, than we urbanites need to eat some humble pie.

  15. You think you’ve got troubles. In Tennessee, the Volunteer State, we have put the brakes on vaccines for those who need them the most. Watch our numbers soar! Just let ‘er rip and let the devil take the hindmost. And all we can offer to the world is Marsha Blackburn (R). Holy Moley! Yeah, We got trouble / Right here in River City….

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