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The density divide–together with America’s outdated electoral structures– explains the 2016 election.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.