The Density Divide

The Density Divide is the title of a very important paper issued in June by Will Wilkinson, Vice President for Research of the Niskanen Center. It looks in depth at the phenomenon that I usually refer to as the “urban/rural divide”–delving into the attributes that make individuals more or less likely to move into cities, and examining the consequences of those differences and the steady urbanization of the American polity.

The paper is lengthy–some 70 pages–but well worth the time to read in its entirety. it is meticulously sourced, and replete with graphs and other supporting data.

Wilkinson confirms what others have reported: a substantial majority of Americans now dwell in the nation’s cities and generate the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth. But he goes beneath those numbers, referencing a body of research demonstrating that people who are drawn to urban environments differ in significant ways from those who prefer to remain in rural precincts. He focuses especially on ethnicity, personality and education as attributes that make individuals more or less responsive to the lure of city life.

He goes on to describe how this “self-selected” migration has segregated Americans. It has not only concentrated economic production in a handful of “megacities”–it has driven a “polarizing wedge” between America’s dense and diverse urban populations and the sparse White populations remaining in rural areas. That “wedge” is what he dubs the “Density Divide.” (Wilkinson is careful to define “urban” to include dense areas of small towns–the divisions he traces aren’t a function of jurisdictional city limits. They are a function of residential density.)

Wilkinson finds that the “sorting mechanism of urbanization” has produced a rural America that is lower-density, predominantly White, and “increasingly uniform in socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, relative disinclination to migrate and seek higher education, and Republican Party loyalty.”

That sorting has also left much of rural America in economic distress, which has activated a “zero-sum, ethnocentric mindset.” (That mindset is reflected in the angry rhetoric spouted by rural MAGA hat wearers about “un-American” immigrants and minorities, and disdain for “liberal elites”–all groups that are thought to reside in those multi-cultural cities.)

The density divide–together with America’s outdated electoral structures– explains the 2016 election. The “low-density bias” of our electoral system allowed Trump to win the Presidency by prevailing in areas that produce 1/3 of GDP and contain fewer than half of the population. That low-density bias continues to empower Republicans far out of proportion to their numbers.

Wilkinson reminds us that there are currently no Republican cities. None.

As he points out, the increase in return to human capital and density has acted to amplify the polarizing nature of selective urbanization. Temperamentally liberal people self-select into higher education and big cities, where the people they encounter exert a further influence on their political attitudes. They  leave behind a lower-density population that is “relatively uniform in white ethnicity, conservative disposition and lower economic productivity.” Economic growth has been shown to liberalize culture; stagnant or declining economic prospects generate a sense of anxiety and threat.( In that sense, the political scientists who attributed Trump votes to economic distress were correct, but the distress wasn’t a function of individual financial straits–it was a reaction to the steadily declining prospects of rural environments.)

Wilkinson argues that there are no red states or blue states–not even red or blue counties. Rather, there is compact blue urban density (even in small cities in rural states) and sprawling red sparseness.

This spatial segregation of people with very different values and world-views is radicalizing; Wilkinson reminds us that a lack of exposure to intellectual diversity and broadly different points of view breeds extremism. Because urban populations are far more intellectually diverse, more homogeneous rural populations have shifted much farther to the right than urban Americans have shifted left.

The United States population is projected to be 90% urbanized by 2050–not too many years after we are projected to become “majority-minority.” Those projections suggest we will see increasing radicalization of already-resentful rural inhabitants.

The prospects for returning to rational politics and a truly representative governance will depend entirely upon reforming an outdated and pernicious electoral framework that dramatically favors rural Americans. Whether those reforms can pass our very unrepresentative Senate is an open question.


  1. Another difference between urban and rural areas involves climate change. Urban areas, in which the population density is high emit less carbon monoxide per person than rural area, because they are heavy users of mass transit, and they walk to many destinations rather than drive. In fact, many of those in high-rise apartments don’t have cars. If the country consisted mostly of small to moderately populated towns, we would be pumping out much more carbon than now. That does not mean that “the future” lies in large cities, but it is an interesting correlational relationship.

  2. We are seeing people making choices for themselves and their families on where they want to live and what schools they want their kids to attend.

    Then, we have the people using this data for power and control using targeted propaganda to manipulate both groups.

    Over here in Middletown, USA, the divide is mostly due to racism with some economic factors like lower tax rates outside of the city because they don’t need police departments or larger bureaucratic governments to manage the commons.

    It’s a choice.

    I’ve got younger family members bailing on Indiana; I bailed on Indiana too when I was young. If my current circumstances allowed, I’d be gone from Indiana again.

    Our government was Founded as an oligarchy that didn’t want to lose power or its wealth. Democracy was to be feared. But they also created a system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, they’ve really never worked as laid out. Many claim the Constitution was just a framework or ideal to work toward, but there is no responsibility or accountability without proper functioning checks and balances. Without acknowledging what’s wrong, there is no change.

    Quite honestly, more and more people realize the systems we created are very broken and must change, but they also realize that because the systems are broken, and there is no method changing the systems, we might actually be screwed.

    Until the current oligarchy comes out of the dark and the politicians acknowledge they are manipulated by these oligarchs, and the press grows a spine and becomes truth-telling sources for the people, we have little or no chance of changing. None.

  3. “Wilkinson finds that the “sorting mechanism of urbanization” has produced a rural America that is lower-density, predominantly White, and “increasingly uniform in socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, relative disinclination to migrate and seek higher education, and Republican Party loyalty.”

    Wilkinson’s comments above provide a description of those rural housing divisions I recently referred to on an earlier blog. They appear to be upper-middle income and above economically; while technically inside Indianapolis city limits, they are not part of urban population due to their “migration” away from the crowded, polluted confines of the “city” proper.

    We need to backtrack to 1970 when Unigov became the reality of Indianapolis/Marion County government…but in name only. That change, termed a consolidation of Indianapolis and Marion County and, at that time, turned Indianapolis into this nation’s 11th largest city. Unigov has never become a comprehensive merger, the City-County Council is the single legislative body but law enforcement, fire department, school systems and tax assessments have never been combined and remain primarily under the continued control of the Republican party. It is not the once thriving farm communities, small towns or “country folks” who make up our rural political control, it is those urban migrants breathing cleaner air who have separated themselves from all city blight. Thus, “The Density Divide” is a controlling factor.

  4. What we seem to have now, on the local level at least, is government by bullying. It doesn’t really seem to matter if you’re rural or urban, in a city outside of the top ten, the bullies are firmly in charge. They get their way by threatening the life, health, and safety of anyone who opposes them. They show up at local meetings to yell at the public servants and those who are speaking against their favorite issue du jour. Some even find the time to assault others at these meetings. They should be hauled to the local jail and charged with assault, but they rarely are. Can you say “disparate treatment?” We could really use Mr. Rogers right now.

  5. While I certainly find the attitudes and behavior of the “rural white” demographic appalling, I believe we need to do more than out vote them. They have every reason to be anxious about their future and right-wing ideologues have deflected their resentments away from the real causes to blame race and immigration, it is true that corporate America and public policy has radically disinvested in them. What rankles even more is that they are losing their own children to education and the cities, where they absorb disdain for rural and small town life and their own parents. Everything in the media tells them they are losers. Is it any wonder they respond to a right-wing message that tells them they shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are and that they are right to be resentful and very very afraid and angry? We need to beware of falling for the same misdirection of resentments they do, only reversed – and ending up also not focusing on the real causes and instead indulging in resenting rural victims of the very system we’ve been able to benefit from, as long as we don’t look closely at what it does to our health, our families, our communities, and the environment, not to mention the systematic destruction of rural environments and peoples across the world.

  6. This makes me recall a trip I made across country when I retired, from California to Maine, where I grew up. I was astonished when driving across Wyoming, the Dakotas, Wisconsin to see there were no people, only corporate farming and oil and gas industry. There was road repair in every state ( we didn’t take the highways, but local roads). It was June and July, the sweet spot to repair the roads before the next winter storm. My husband commented that the roads were being repaired for industry, as literally no one lived there. It was the first time I truly understood the power of oil and gas in Wyoming. And I thought, they have two more senators than Washington, DC, and the same as the entire state of California. It made me keenly aware of who is paying the bills.

  7. Covid has started to reverse the trend of young couples/families flocking to cities. More, with remote work increasing, are opting to suburbs/exurbs.

  8. Given what appears to be the rural”reality,” the folks there do have reason to be anxious, and, is so happens, I believe, that anxiety drives some of conservatism, at the best of times. Anxiety drives one to hold onto some envisioned “golden” past, to fear change, to love a Goldwater perspective.
    The Urban/Rural dichotomy would dovetail with the racist history of the country, especially after the Great Migration North, so it seems to be over-determined.
    And, as long a gerrymandering is alive and well, and run by the Republican party, for the most part, on top of still existing, the outlook is not good for Democracy.

  9. Maybe someone will write/research soon about the hidden divide – socio-economic. Increasingly, poor folks (white and people of color) are either rural or inner city. Middle class and better (whites and people of color) are in gentrified city, suburbs and exurbs.

  10. It really is tragic for small communities that agribusiness has undermined family farms. (Agribusiness is not much interested in sustainable farming. They don’t take the long view. ) This, along with the loss of manufacturing, has created the decline of rural populations. Their dream for their children is that they will have a better life, more job security than their own communities can offer them. And so, their children migrate to the cities.

    We need to be careful when looking at rural communities. They are not a monolith.

    They, like us, deserve to have their concerns heard in government at all levels. And I wonder what will happen as people in California migrate to avoid drought and forest fires. I wonder if many of the people in coastal cities will eventually move to the heartland of our country as hurricanes continue to rise. I am aware that many are moving from California to Montana.

    I have heard that in some small communities it is immigrants who are also people of color who revitalize these small communities. Perhaps as we approach 2050, we will see more diversity in rural communities. Perhaps some of them will be from Afghanistan which is sufferinga brain drain because so many educated Afghani’s seek to escape the Taliban.

    In the future, I see an increase in diversity over time due to climate change, the pandemic, and an increase in the number of people working remotely from home. Some of the people in those rural communities will welcome the revitalization of their communities through their increased diversity. Others will sit on their front porch and talk about the good old days when everyone spoke English and their towns were steeped in the long held values of “the American way.”

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