I have previously posted about Will Wilkinson’s Density Divide. That paper was firmly grounded in research; Wilkinson reserved his more speculative observations for venues like Substack.Those observations may be–as he readily acknowledges–more speculative, but they certainly accord with what I see when I travel around the country and/or read news reports.
The linked article begins with a description of the growing uniformity of a rural America that once reflected the cultures of the immigrants who originally settled in them. Now, however, most of those differences have disappeared.
One of the puzzles of the 2016 election, and the catastrophe of the Trump presidency, is how populist white nationalism finally prevailed at a time when Americans, taken altogether, were less racist than ever. This is one of the questions I take up in the “Density Divide.” But I left out one of my favorite answers to this question largely because it’s too speculative and I didn’t have the data to prove it. My hunch is that rural white culture, which was once regionally varied and distinctive, became more uniform by becoming increasingly Southern. I call this the Southernification thesis.
The Density Divide provided convincing evidence that white ethno-nationalism worked to elect Trump, although it had failed to elect Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, and explained that new success on the growth of residential self-selection, which had made lower density parts of the country more homogenous, ethnocentric and socially conservative. But Wilkinson says that even though he is convinced that the density analysis is correct as far as it goes, it provides an incomplete explanation without something like the Southernification thesis. “Before it could be successfully organized politically, America’s increasingly ethnocentric non-urban white population needed to be consolidated first through the adoption of a relatively uniform ethnocentric white culture.”
What I’m still groping for is solid empirical confirmation that the Southernification of white rural America did happen and, if so, how it happened. Now, I have few doubts that it did happen and is still happening. Indeed, it’s hard to think of better impressionistic evidence than the spread of Confederate flags far from the South into all parts of white rural America.
It’s hard to dispute Wilkinson’s observation that the Civil War, and the battle between North and South, lives on both culturally and geographically. Only the geography has changed: the North, as he says, “has drifted out of the countryside and concentrated itself into our cities. At the same time, America’s rural and exurban counties have slowly become more and more homogenously Southern. The South has risen again … in rural Maine?”
I’ve seen the Stars and Bars flying from Iowa barns. You can see them at Minnesota county fairs. They pop up everywhere. In rural Idaho, Colorado, Oregon — places that weren’t even states during the civil war. [Correction: actually, Oregon became a state in 1859. I regret the error. Still…]
Wilkinson quotes David A. Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist, on the figures emerging from the recent census :
Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation’s ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation’s counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010.
The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of “red states” and “blue states” caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the reality of the current urban/rural divide, and the extent to which it has replaced the North/South divisions that led to the Civil War. The question, as always, is “what do we do?” The answer to that question is made much more difficult by an electoral system that privileges the rural residents of the “new South”–a system that gives vastly disproportionate power to rural Americans who are adamantly resisting the consequences of “one person, one vote.”
We are beginning to see what Civil War between rural and urban America looks like. It is being carried out by the growing domestic terror attacks by groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and various Neo-Nazi organizations.
Who knew the South would rise again in places like rural Iowa and Minnesota…?