After I wrote yesterday’s post about White Rural Rage, I re-read my description of the Niskanen Center’s far more careful 2019 analysis, and decided that it bears re-posting. So here it is:

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. The answer to your closing question is clearly “No, they can’t.” Ideas, cultural practices, and political instincts of the rural MAGAte cohort are held with literally religious fervor that only grows more paranoid and tenacious under attack. The real open questions concern how the increasingly diverse (and not politically homogeneous, less well armed) urban polity responds. Is there a peaceful route to rebalancing power, achieving something closer to one person, one vote and assuring that a radically right wing movement cannot drag us into permanent opression and disenfranchisement of the cities? Put more clearly, will reform require the religious civil war many MAGAtes are begging for? The outcome of such a conflict could be dire. The lessons of pre WWII Germany must not be dismissed

    It is ironic that the money and organizational support of the far right GOP come from ultra-wealthy elites that see D. Trump and acolytes as useful fools in the quest for an unregulated and almost tax-free, low-wage Nirvana.

  2. Thank you, Sheila! I plan to read this in its entirety. I grew up in a very small Indiana town which once was very prosperous with lots of union jobs tied to the auto industry. The jobs vanished in the ‘70s and ‘80s, moved to non-union southern states and, ultimately, to Mexico and other countries. They’re gone forever.

  3. Interesting Sheila, thank you again for an “eye opening” offering.
    As our voting is based on place, living in an urban area dilutes the influence of an individual’s electorial choice. Those who live rural are able to elect office holders who have the same power to enact policies and laws, however represent far fewer citizens.
    Interesting, I had not thought about that before with the same perspective you shared today.

  4. Due to some of the policies coming out of Washington and the Red States, mainly vouchers or the money travels with the student, racists can live in the city and transport their kids to county schools. That’s indicative of my rural/city divide in Indiana. I wonder how many other counties in Indiana have that experience.

    One of the key factors exacerbating the divide is the heartbreaking plight of local farmers. These are individuals who have dedicated their lives to tilling the soil, often for generations, only to be forced to sell out to large corporate-owned farming entities. With the advent of technology like tractors running on GPS, which no longer require human drivers, small farms are finding it increasingly difficult to compete, leading to a significant loss of livelihood and identity.

    As we continue to see, the driving force behind much of the divide is the convenience of city life. Younger generations are moving to the city and using public transportation or bicycling to work. They aren’t big on long commutes. With remote work, you can choose smaller cities where the cost of living is much lower than megacities or tech hubs out West.

    The rural/city divide is not just a social issue, but a political and media challenge that demands immediate attention. Our political structure must progress to accommodate these changes, or we’ll continue getting poor outcomes. The media will have to change to drive this progress. They’ll have to become more intellectual rather than writing for 5th-grade education. Sociologists will have to become more critical than economists. The future of our state and its citizens depends on it.

    One last note: You would think that AI could draw up our political districts within a short period so they’ll be unbiased and fair for voters. Hopefully, this will transpire soon!

  5. “Country mouse, City mouse” is an excellent metaphor. This report supports my contention of yesterday, and makes much sense to me. There are, i expect, numerous reasons one may decide to stay in a rural area, but the self-selection still works against us as a whole.

  6. Thank you for this excellent article regarding The Density Divide by Will Wilkinson, Vice President for Research of the Niskanen Center. The fact that it represents information gathered nearly 5 years ago surely exhibits a prescience which provides us with an expanding picture of our political landscape that is undeniable.

    I have often wondered how much better off this country would be if we could only rid ourselves of a couple of tired things from our political system, gerrymandering, and even more importantly, the Electoral College. I believe it is time for the elimination of both of these outdated and politically harmful entities, and would go along way towards a more accurate political outcome.

  7. starting life in the NYC/NewarkNJ area and moving to L.A.Calif say during the Vietnam years, my city life was everyday. then reaching out in 1980s to become rural. at this point the wages dropped and the living was cheaper. but the work i found was plentiful and hands on. during that time feast I noticed a halfway margin in right/left politics. the small talk was face to face and respectful. Moving to the upper plains was rewarding,at that time,mid 80s. local radio was the farm report and non stereo whatever music to plow a field with. The farm bill and the PIK program was still the talk, along with crp land. The gentleman in the Senate in DC were Byron Dorgan and Tom Daschle.NoDak/SoDak. when they were due To rerun for office,1992, then came the change. prior to cell stuff and internet, AM radio still made the call. clear channel, cumilus etc started buying up all the rural AM radio stations, KNX Yankton S.d. and Kfyr Fargo. N.D. they were in a run to see who can provide the republicans for office to replece the very Senators who basically saved the family farm across America. thune was the darling,some asswipe named limbaugh came on the airwaves thru these stations, the rest is where we are at today. seems easy to forget by driving wedges between what the locals wanted to hear over what they needed to hear. listening to attitudes change and watching the so called conservitive class become agitated over those who have been kicked to the curb by society where i came from. This was the start of the class warfare bougt on by those who bought up communication and used it to crush the midfull thinking that at least,was. there isnt a day up in this flatland i dont have to remind those here, how they got their (farm)welfare check to stay alive. today the banks/PCU etc,here delibertly devert families who lost the lead person of farming to sell,the land to those chosen by the banks. otherwise they dont get the premium. many who moved away,dont want a damn thing to do with farming after being raised in it. the main issue ive heard,seen and talked with is how those local media stations have since been owned by three other enities since 1987. drop in some internet facination,(the endless window)endless hype from whoever,BOTs,so called news medias, designed to influence and alot of money from those who have it to spend. we have what we have today. we seem to only look at present whatevers and accept it as what we see. lets face it, we didnt get this change by just ignorance, we got it delibertly by those who designed this system since reagan and lewis powell. i watched it change in a way i didnt see it coming until the change in how one accuses the other of getting goverment welfare. the joke “was”(we dont want ya to know that today)
    here,dont hit that rural mailbox, it may have someones welfare (farm subsidy check) check. they dont like competion for handouts. and they especially dont have a clue or care anymore, why people are poor and hungry. they lost sight of any reasoning because they are pressured too. that cell phone has made it clear, it controlls your life and everyone elses..now ask, who is paying to make sure it does?

  8. The population density divide correlates well with other factors that trouble democracy. Not the least is looking forward to the future, which will come regardless of personal preference, versus looking nostalgically at the past, which is forever gone.

    The future is created among the denser population areas of a country where collaboration must rule to make the progress that brings on the future. In contrast, every man for himself rules the less dense population areas.

    However, the Reds have become almost cult-like followers of their savior, Donald Trump. What makes this unusual behavior?

    In some ways, it’s a repeat of our Civil War when the industrial North saw the end of slavery as inevitable, and the less densely populated South did not. Those were also hotly contested times over a single issue.

    Is today a repeat, and do the less densely populated regions regard Trump as a necessary break from our laws necessary to protect their narrow-minded view of a homogeneous society?

    There are quite a few PhD theses that need to be written to research that question.

  9. Density Divide is a sound theory that offers an explanation for the cultural face of today’s US. It rests on the fact that cities offer resources, convenience, educational opportunity, diversity and other advantages that rural areas cannot match. What would happen if communication, industrial and agricultural technology, government policy, distance learning, remote work and other aspects of life and work reduced the barriers to making those advantages available everywhere? I don’t know whether Wilkinson explored how cities came to be such centralized sources of the enjoyment and advancement of modern life, but a prediction of 90 percent urbanization in the future presupposes that little will be done to change the trend.

  10. My dad was a career Marine, and after his retirement, the family moved to a farm near his little home town. Those circumstances suggest that my brother and I should be conservative Republicans, but we left town for college, settled in Indianapolis, and are liberal Democrats. So did the move to urban density change us? Or were we already the sort of people who wanted to leave the confines of rural/small town life? Causation is not always easy to determine.

  11. What Gil wrote along with another thing we should consign to the political garbage dump > the constitutional provision that each state is to have two senators. Thus we have two senators each from Vermont, Alaska, and others who have under one million in population while, for instance, California has nearly 50 million people, and two senators. The one-man one-vote idea envisioned by Baker v. Carr in 1962 is done great violence by such an archaic provision, which will require an Amendment to the Constitution, and which if ever proposed will doubtless be opposed by (you guessed it!) senators from such relatively underpopulated states.

  12. Rather than reinvent the wheel, so to speak, I am SURE that there have been/are proposals out there to address these systematic issues (proportional representation and/or VOICE) In each of our houses of Congress. I’m not savvy enough to come up with a proposal. But CERTAINLY, one must be out there.

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