Rural America has become the Republican Party’s life preserver.
Less densely settled regions of the country, crucial to the creation of congressional and legislative districts favorable to conservatives, are a pillar of the party’s strength in the House and the Senate and a decisive factor in the rightward tilt of the Electoral College. Republican gains in such sparsely populated areas are compensating for setbacks in increasingly diverse suburbs where growing numbers of well-educated voters have renounced a party led by Donald Trump and his loyalists.
The anger and resentment felt by rural voters toward the Democratic Party is driving a regional realignment similar to the upheaval in the white South after Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson, won approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even so, Republicans are grasping at a weak reed. In a 2022 article, “Rural America Lost Population Over the Past Decade for the First Time in History,” Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, notes that “Between 2010 and 2020, rural America lost population for the first time in history as economic turbulence had a significant demographic impact. The rural population loss was due to fewer births, more deaths, and more people leaving than moving in.”
The shift to the right in rural counties is one side of a two-part geographic transformation of the electorate, according to “The Increase in Partisan Segregation in the United States,” a 2022 paper by Jacob R. Brown, of Princeton; Enrico Cantoni, of the University of Bologna; Ryan D. Enos, of Harvard; Vincent Pons, of Harvard Business School; and Emilie Sartre, of Brown.
In an email, Brown described one of the central findings of the study:
In terms of major factors driving the urban-rural split, our analysis shows that rural Republican areas are becoming more Republican predominantly due to voters in these places switching their partisanship to Republican. This is in contrast to urban areas becoming increasingly more Democratic largely due to the high levels of Democratic partisanship in these areas among new voters entering the electorate. These new voters include young voters registering once they become eligible, and other new voters registering for the first time.
There are few, if any, better case studies of rural realignment and the role it plays in elections than the 2022 Senate race in Wisconsin. The basic question, there, is how Ron Johnson — a Trump acolyte who derided climate change with an epithet, who described the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement” and who proposed turning Social Security and Medicare into discretionary programs subject to annual congressional budget cutting —- got re-elected in Wisconsin.
In 2016, Johnson rode Trump’s coattails and the Republican trail blazed by the former governor Scott Walker to a 3.4 point (50.2 to 46.8) victory, and swept into office, in large part by running up huge margins in Milwaukee’s predominately white suburbs. That changed in 2022.
Craig Gilbert, a fellow at Marquette Law School and a former Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, conducted a detailed analysis of Wisconsin voting patterns and found that Johnson
performed much worse in the red and blue suburbs of Milwaukee than he did six years earlier in 2016. Johnson lost Wauwatosa by 7 points in 2016, then by 37 points in 2022. He won Mequon in Ozaukee County by 28 points in 2016 but only by 6 in 2022. His victory margin in Menomonee Falls in Waukesha County declined from 32 points six years ago to 14 points.
So again, how did Johnson win? The simple answer: white rural Wisconsin.
As recently as 17 years ago, rural Wisconsin was a battleground. In 2006, Jim Doyle, the Democratic candidate for governor, won rural Wisconsin, about 30 percent of the electorate, by 5.5 points, “Then came the rural red wave,” Gilbert writes. “Walker carried Wisconsin’s towns by 23 points in 2010 and by 25 points in 2014.” In 2016, Johnson won the rural vote by 25 points, but in 2022, he pushed his margin there to 29 points.
In her groundbreaking study of Wisconsin voters, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, prompted a surge of interest in this declining segment of the electorate. She summed up the basis for the discontent among these voters in a single sentence: “First, a belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers, second, a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources, and third a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.”
David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, described how the urban-rural partisan divide was driven by a conflation of cultural and racial controversies starting in the late 1980s and accelerating into the 1990s in his book “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”
These controversies included two Supreme Court abortion decisions, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (in 1989) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (in 1992); the 1989 appointment of Ralph Reed as executive director of the Christian Coalition; the fire-breathing speeches of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican Convention (Buchanan: “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war for the soul of America”); and the 1993 “gays in the miliary” debate, to name just a few.
“The 1992 election represented a milestone,” Hopkins writes:
For the first time in the history of the Democratic Party, its strongest electoral territory was located exclusively outside the South, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Maryland in the Northeast; Illinois in the metropolitan Midwest; and the Pacific Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California — all of which have supported the Democratic candidate in every subsequent presidential election.
In retrospect it is clear, Hopkins goes on to say, that “the 1992 presidential election began to signal the emerging configuration of ‘red’ and ‘blue’ geographic coalitions that came to define contemporary partisan competition.”
Hopkins compares voter trends in large metro areas, small metro areas and rural areas. Through the three elections from 1980 to 1988, the urban, suburban and rural regions differed in their vote by a relatively modest five points. That begins to change in 1992, when the urban-rural difference grows to roughly 8 percentage points, and then keeps growing to reach nearly 24 points in 2016.
“For the first time in American history, the Democratic Party now draws most of its popular support from the suburbs,” Hopkins writes, in a separate 2019 paper, “The Suburbanization of the Democratic Party, 1992—2018,” Democratic suburban growth, he continues, “has been especially concentrated in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, reflecting the combined presence of both relatively liberal whites (across education levels) and substantial minority populations, but suburbs elsewhere remain decidedly, even increasingly, Republican in their collective partisan alignment.”
The same process took place in House elections, Hopkins observes:
The proportion of House Democrats representing suburban districts rose from 41 percent after the 1992 election to 60 percent after 2018, while the share of Democratic-held seats located in urban areas remained fairly stable over time (varying between 33 percent and 41 percent of all party seats) and the share of rural districts declined from 24 percent to 5 percent of all Democratic seats.
Hopkins pointedly notes that “The expanded presence of suburban voters and representatives in the Democratic Party since the 1980s was accompanied by a dramatic contraction of Democratic strength in rural areas.”
Justin Gest, a political scientist at George Mason University whose research — presented in “The White Working Class” and “Majority Minority” — focuses on cultural and class tensions, has a different but complementary take, writing by email that the rising salience of cultural conflicts “was accelerated when the Clinton Administration embraced corporate neoliberalism, free trade, and moved Democrats toward the economic center. Many differences persisted, but the so-called ‘Third Way’ made it harder to distinguish between the economic approaches of Democrats and Republicans.”
The diminution of partisan economic differences resulted in the accentuation of
the very cultural differences that Gingrich-era Republicans sought to emphasize — on issues like homosexuality, immigration, public religion, gun rights, and minority politics. These issues are more galvanizing to the Upper Midwest regions adjacent to the South (West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana) — which are trending more conservative.
The Upper Midwest, Gest continued, is
a region unto itself — defined by manufacturing, unions, and social conservatism. As the manufacturing industry has moved offshore, union power declined and one of the richest, most stable parts of America became uniquely precarious inside a single generation. It is now subject to severe depopulation and aging, as younger people who have upskilled are more likely to move to cities like Chicago or New York. They have total whiplash. And Trump’s nostalgic populism has resonated with the white population that remains.
Gest is outspoken in his criticism of the Democratic Party’s dealings with rural communities:
Democrats have effectively redlined rural America. In some corners of the Democratic Party, activists don’t even want rural and white working class people in their coalition; they may even deride them. Rural and white working class Americans sense this.
One of the dangers for Democrats, Gest continued, is that “Republicans are now beginning to attract socioeconomically ascendant and ‘white-adjacent’ members of ethnic minorities who find their nostalgic, populist, nationalist politics appealing (or think Democrats are growing too extreme).”
Nicholas Jacobs and Kal Munis, political scientists at Colby College and Utah Valley University, argue that mounting rural resentment over marginalization from the mainstream and urban disparagement is a driving force in the growing strength of the Republican Party in sparsely populated regions of America.
In their 2022 paper, “Place-Based Resentment in Contemporary U.S. Elections: The Individual Sources of America’s Urban-Rural Divide,” Jacobs and Munis contend that an analysis of voting in 2018 and 2020 shows that while “place-based resentment” can be found in cities, suburbs and rural communities, it “was only consistently predictive of vote choice for rural voters.”
In this respect, conditions in rural areas have worsened, with an exodus of jobs and educated young people, which in turn increases the vulnerability of the communities to adverse, negative resentment. Jacobs and Munis write:
“Rural America,” Jacobs and Munis write,
continues to grow older, poorer, and sicker — urban America wealthier and more diverse. These stark material divisions have contributed to partisan schisms, as individuals increasingly live in places that are politically homogeneous. A consequence of this is that, as Bill Bishop concludes, Americans “have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”
In their 2022 paper “Symbolic versus material concerns of rural consciousness in the United States,” Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Zack Crowley, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, sought to determine the key factor driving rural voters to the Republican Party: anger at perceived unfair distribution of resources by government, a sense of being ignored by decision makers or the belief that rural communities have a distinct set of values that are denigrated by urban dwellers.
Trujillo and Crowley conclude that “culture differences play a far stronger role in determining the vote than discontent over the distribution of economic resources.” Stands on what Trujillo and Crowley call “symbolic” issues “positively predict Trump support and ideology while the more material subdimension negatively predicts these outcomes, if at all.”
While rural America has moved to the right, Trujillo and Crowley point out that there is considerable variation: “poorer and/or farming-dependent communities voted more conservative, while amenity- or recreation-based rural economies voted more liberal in 2012 and 2016” and the “local economies of Republican-leaning districts are declining in terms of income and gross domestic product, while Democratic-leaning districts are improving.”
The Trujillo-Crowley analysis suggests that Democratic efforts to regain support in rural communities face the task of somehow ameliorating conflicts over values, religion and family structure, which is far more difficult than lessening economic tensions that can be addressed though legislation.
The hurdle facing Democrats is reflected in a comment James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, emailed to me, describing the roots of rural discontent with Democratic urban America:
The disrespect is felt most acutely by the fact that dominant cultural institutions, including mass media, are predominantly urban in location and orientation. Smaller towns and outlying areas see themselves as misunderstood and mischaracterized by these media, as well as dismissed as out-of-touch and retrograde by urban populations. There is a considerable amount of truth in their perceptions.
A May 2018 Pew Research Center report, “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities,” found large differences in the views and partisanship in these three constituencies. Urban voters, according to Pew, were, for example, 62 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican, the opposite of rural voters 54 percent Republican, 38 percent Democratic. 53 percent of those living in urban areas say rural residents have “different values,” while 58 percent of those living in rural communities say urban residents do not share their values. 61 percent of those living in rural communities say they have “a neighbor they would trust with a set of keys to their home” compared with 48 percent in urban areas.
I asked Maria Kefalas, a sociologist at Saint Joseph’s University who wrote “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America” with her husband Patrick J. Carr, who died in 2020, to describe the state of mind in rural America. She wrote back by email:
My best guess would be that it comes down to brain drain and college-educated voters. It has always been about the mobility of the college educated and the folks getting left behind without that college diploma. Not one high school dropout we encountered back when we wrote about Iowa managed to leave the county (unless they got sent to prison), and the kids with degrees were leaving in droves.
Those whom Kefalas and Carr defined as “stayers” shaped “the political landscape in Ohio, Iowa etc. (states where the public university is just exporting their professional class).” The result: “You see a striking concentration/segregation of folks on both sides who are just immersed in MAGA world or not,” Kefalas wrote, noting that “people who live in rural America are surrounded by folks who play along with a particular worldview, yet my friends from Brooklyn and Boston will tell you they don’t know anyone who supports Trump or won’t get vaccinated. It’s not open warfare, it’s more like apartheid.”
Urban rural “apartheid” further reinforces ideological and affective polarization. The geographic separation of Republicans and Democrats makes partisan crosscutting experiences at work, in friendships, in community gatherings, at school or in local government — all key to reducing polarization — increasingly unlikely to occur.
Geographic barriers between Republicans and Democrats — of those holding traditional values and those choosing to reject or reinterpret those values — reinforce what scholars now call the “calcification” of difference. As conflict and hostility become embedded into the structure of where people live, the likelihood increases of seeing adversaries as less than fully human.
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