An illustration on a green background depicting a cityscape on the left and a rural community on the right, divided by a deep chasm.

Exploring the Widening Chasm Between Urban and Rural Voters

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A team led by government professor Suzanne Mettler, PhD ’94, seeks to understand the factors at play in this red-blue divide

By Beth Saulnier

A photo of Professor Suzanne Mettler
Last semester, Mettler taught a course on the politics of inequality in the U.S.; this spring, she's teaching one on democracy. (Photo provided)

For nearly two years, government professor Suzanne Mettler, PhD ’94, and colleagues have been researching an increasingly worrisome factor in U.S. politics: the stark divide between how urban and rural residents vote, and the ways in which that may impact the democratic process

Mettler and her five-person team—comprising her co-author, PhD student Trevor Brown, and undergraduate researchers—have presented some initial findings at conferences, and in December the journal The Forum published their article, “When Rural and Urban Become ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’: How a Growing Divide is Reshaping American Politics.” They ultimately aim to synthesize their results in a book.

The John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, Mettler has authored or co-authored several books, including 2020’s Four Threats, which warns that factors like racism and economic inequality, which have imperiled American democracy in past eras, are currently converging. In November, Cambridge University Press published Democratic Resilience, a collection of essays Mettler co-edited, which explores whether the nation can withstand rising polarization.

Has the U.S. always had an urban/rural divide in politics?

That's what's so striking. Traditionally, we’ve had two major parties, and they’ve incorporated both rural and urban people; in presidential elections, both groups voted for Ronald Reagan and for Bill Clinton. But since the 1990s, we've developed this big divide, and it has grown dramatically.

Are social media or stratified news outlets playing a role?

We’re curious about that, but we haven’t explored it yet. One thing I'm very interested in is the decline of local newspapers, which has been an important trend in the last couple of decades. And to the extent that has happened in rural areas, it might leave people more reliant on national news outlets and social media.

Traditionally, we’ve had two major parties, and they’ve incorporated both rural and urban people. But since the 1990s, we've developed this big divide.

Are there regions of the U.S. that experience this divide more acutely?

It has grown in all parts of the country. In presidential elections, as of 2020, there’s about an 18-percentage-point difference between how rural and urban Southerners vote; it’s about 22 points in the Midwest and 20 in the West. It's smaller in the Northeast, but still a 15-point gap. Journalists focus on things like the gender gap, but that’s very small by comparison.

Have you gotten a sense of why this is happening?

We’re still gravitating toward that big causal question—but with that caveat, I can describe some things that are associated with it. For example, for decades the U.S. has experienced deindustrialization and various other changes in jobs and the economy, and rural areas have really suffered. Urban areas have adapted more effectively and created new jobs in technology, the service sector, and the knowledge economy. We think that economic deterioration has perhaps led to more resentment and grievance-style politics, but we're still trying to understand that.

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What’s another potential cause?

One fascinating change is the role of higher education. In the 1980s, counties that had more college graduates tended to vote Republican, and that has totally flipped; those places now tend to vote for Democrats. And increasingly, there are more highly educated people in urban areas, where as in the 1970s, rural and urban areas were barely different in their percentages of college grads.

Is an urban/rural political divide inherently bad?

It should not be—but we think it’s leading to more tribalism, and damage to democracy.

How so?

In the middle of the 20th century, people tended to have all sorts of what we call “cross-cutting affiliations”; there might be both Democrats and Republicans in your neighborhood, your workplace, your church, or the organizations you belong to. That strengthened the social and political fabric—people had a sense that we're all in this together; we're all citizens of this country with a common project, even if we differ on policy issues. But increasingly, Americans have been sorting out into groups where we affiliate only with people of the same party, and that's really problematic. In the rural/urban divide, those difficulties are compounded by a spatial divide between where people are physically living. It can create a sense of “us” versus “them”—of intense animosity toward those in the other party—and that’s very detrimental to democracy.

Increasingly, Americans have been sorting out into groups where we affiliate only with people of the same party, and that's really problematic.

Does this divide impact political power?

American political institutions have always given extra leverage to people in less populated areas. They do that through the structure of the U.S. Senate, and the Electoral College for presidential voting. Also—and a lot of people are unaware of this—in voting for members of Congress and state legislatures, the fact that each district is represented by a single member gives a bias to rural areas, because if one party is concentrated in urban areas and the other has people widely distributed across lots of other districts, the latter group will benefit.

Hasn’t that always been the case?

Yes, but what's unique in the contemporary period is that one party is dominating rural areas—which allows it to have more power than it would otherwise, exploiting all of these institutional biases. And that's problematic for democracy.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published January 27, 2022


Comments

  1. Tod Eberle, Class of 1979

    Adams v. Monroe? Jefferson v. Adams? Jefferson and South Carolina v. Hamilton? Ranchers v. Bureau of Land Management? Ranchers v. Dept. of the Interior? Has it not always been thus? Not just race. Rural economics v. Urban economics have always mattered. Federalists v. States Rightists has existed from the founding.

  2. Ken Finch, Class of 1970

    This authorities work is fascinating but reaching across geographic divides is hard except by journalism , blogs, and social media. Do you have plans to look more into these areas?

  3. robert reed, Class of 1968

    Usually there is no need to be liberal in a rural area. Rural means fewer racial groups, less income disparities, similar religions, one or two languages, many large extended families, and plenty of work if you are willing to work. Maybe rural areas will ask Putin’s help to break away from the coastal regions.

  4. Robert Irvine, Class of 1975

    The research by Dr. Mettler and her team is highly relevant to other countries such as my own, Canada. There are major forces currently at play at the intersection between rural and urban. Professor Mettler and PhD student Trevor Brown are to be commended for seeking to discern the causes of this growing gap in many societies.

  5. Rebecca Potter, Class of 1982

    This is very compelling research, and appropriately frightening. I hope that your book will have ideas for possible solutions. Perhaps fact checking all news; teaching civics ( and “CRT” with another name- such as “American History”)in schools; tuition free college? Do you think any hope of eliminating the electoral college system? Thank you for this important work!

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