Why Is There Such a Deep Political Divide Between Rural and Urban Areas?

As I watched the US midterm election results role in yesterday and today, one observation struck me more than anything. I’ve noticed it before, but I’ve always thought, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” This time was different–it occurred to me that such an answer isn’t enough. I want to understand.

Why is there such a deep political divide between rural and urban areas?

A few notes before I continue:

  • I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments, but this is NOT a political debate.
  • In the discussion, I would invite you to avoid generalizations. If you want to make a statement that requires data, provide a link to that data. Racist comments will be removed.
  • On that note, I fully understand that just because many rural areas voted Republican and many urban areas voted Democratic, it does not mean that everyone in those areas has the same political views.
  • “Rural” and “urban” are generalized terms, as the population can vary quite a bit in different types of rural and urban areas.

Okay, onward! Here’s the image that really got me thinking about this topic:

The core question in my mind is: What is the nature about rural versus urban areas that leads to such a distinct political divide? There are so many different types of people in both areas. I know that in itself is a bit of a generalization, but there are pockets of civilization everywhere in various shapes and sizes.

Here’s some data I found in this article that might help:

  • The poverty rate is higher in urban areas.
  • There are more young people in cities and more old people in rural areas.
  • 20% of people in rural areas have a bachelor’s degree (compared to 29% in urban areas).

The key differences appear to be economics, age, and education.

So what in the world do those two factors have to do with stances on core political issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, and climate change? That’s what I really can’t wrap my mind around.

I don’t know–I must be missing something obvious here. Is it just tradition? If so, the tradition must have started somewhere. It seems odd that it would be so distinct–there are so many different counties in Missouri alone, yet they all voted Republican. Why do all of them have the same political views while both major cities in the state voted for the Democrats?

16 thoughts on “Why Is There Such a Deep Political Divide Between Rural and Urban Areas?”

  1. One piece is likely that the physical presence of others has substantial effects. Cities tend to be diverse, so they act as inescapable exposure therapy, reducing one’s fears about the many kinds of people unlike yourself by whom you’re surrounded daily. Another is that interconnectedness is much more salient in cities. What your neighbors do so obviously affects your experience that individualism poorly reflects the lived experience of a city-dweller, and so many city problems require collective action that collectivism seems more reasonable. With so much easier access to a wide variety of people, it’s more natural to seek and rely on similar peers in cities; in rural areas, it’s more likely that the most similar people among those easily accessible will be family. Strong family ties mean that abandonment of or hostility to tradition not only challenges your own way of life, it acts as an indictment of the society those closest to you have maintained their whole lives. I suspect that liberals like myself tend to underestimate the extent to which our policy proposals sound a lot like “your family are jerks and you should betray them” to people who choose to live in rural areas and value tradition. Plus, there’s self-selection of those who are satisfied with their rural lives, vs. those who are more interested in changing things (and tend to move to cities). Cities also tend to harbor those who felt driven away by intolerance among the rural and small-town folks they grew up with, who presumably feel betrayed and abandoned, so there’s some personal animosity in many cases which exacerbates the political divisions.

    Those are a bunch of ill-founded speculations, and doubtless nothing like exhaustive. But those are a few of the ways I try to conceptualize the difference.

  2. I think there’s a fundamental differences between the needs of rural or urban communities that creates the divide. This is exasperated as politics has continually gotten less local and more and more to the federal level. If politics were more localized it wouldn’t matter what someone in rural county X wanted and dense city county Y wanted because there would be little overlap and both could be left to their own devices. Instead 300 million people feel they have to vote for someone in DC to make all their decisions for them.

    There’s also preferences of the types of people who choose those lives. I don’t think it’s too surprising someone who chooses several acres with neighbors you rarely have to see and amenities dozens of miles away is going to have a different personality than someone okay dense apartment living and preference to walk to everything they could desire within five minutes.

    • Those are good points, and I agree with your statement about personalities. I guess I’m just surprised that it goes well beyond personality to the core political issue. Like, if I enjoy living on several acres of land or if I enjoy living in an apartment, what does that have to do with my views on same-sex marriage?

      • I actually wonder how much the topics you listed (abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, and climate change) are still what defines the Republican-Democrat divide (with the possible exception of immigration). When I looked for feedback on statewide candidates to make an informed decision, what I heard was that healthcare costs and economic decisions/taxes seemed to be all anyone was talking about. Why is this important? It seems to underscore the key rural vs urban divides you listed, particularly disparities in poverty rates and the age gap between urban & rural areas. If same-sex marriage had been the #1 topic on candidates agenda, for example, I hypothesize that the divide between urban & rural on that Missouri map would be less drastic.

        I don’t think this explains the longstanding urban-rural alignment to Democrat-Republican; I just found it interesting that the issues the election focused on (at least in Missouri) seemed to be starkly aligned to the greatest data points of difference between urban & rural areas.

        • Trev: You make a good point–perhaps those hotbutton issues are no longer the defining characteristics between the political parties.

          • One of the things that I noticed when I lived in rural Wisconsin for 8 years was that the hot-button issues semed to change quickly for my big-city friends, but the people in my rural community chose to live there because they didn’t want change (among other reasons obviously).

            It makes me wonder if people who think change is good move to cities, and people who think of change as bad move away from them…

  3. Great topic. I agree with what’s been shared and there’s a ton of research on this topic. I don’t feel particularly well-informed but just to add some ideas to the discussion:
    – Chicken or egg? Does where you live determine your values or do you move somewhere because of your values? Or both?
    – This seems to be happening in other countries as well, which is fascinating: (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/08/09/growing-urban-rural-divide-global-politics)
    – To build upon the point below, not only are folks in rural areas not getting the forced exposure in real life, but they often have limited options for news, tv and even internet speeds, making any kind of access less possible. Humans who live in rural areas are absolutely just as smart or capable as city dwellers but often lack access to information, new ideas and different ways of thinking.
    – This is probably not a new idea but generally speaking, folks who live in rural areas have less civic infrastructure to their towns, counties, etc in the forms of nonprofits, government programs, etc. People are absolutely still utilizing and benefitting from those services, but they are often quieter and possibly less top-down organized. I think people help each other out directly quite a bit more than make giant financial donations to causes that can distribute those resources for them. So it makes sense that folks in those areas would tend to lean toward small government and people in cities see the need for a system because the volume is just so much greater. (Nobody agrees on the right way to do the system, but people in cities realize that just individual giving won’t cut it.)

    • Thanks for sharing, Emma. These are some great points. I hadn’t thought about the impact of civic infrastructure on how people might view small versus big government.

  4. There’s some truth to both of those comments. But it still doesn’t totally explain it, because it’s a new phenomenon. Not so long ago, Missouri was a Democratic state. Both sides of my family have deep roots in rural MO, and my late grandparents were lifelong, yellow dog Democrats. My maternal grandmother, in particular, who was born in 1919, spoke often of the Great Depression and how difficult life was. To her, I think, the Democratic leadership was responsible for pulling the country from that abyss, and she never forgot it.

    None of this is an answer. I’m just noting that all of comparisons between an urban vs. rural lifestyle could also have been noted 100 years ago. And yet, rural counties are now solid GOP territory.

    When in doubt, I blame the internet. And I’m only half joking.

  5. There are a great many governmental interventions that sound great and can be made to work in large cities but cannot be scaled down in a way that functions for small towns and rural homesteads. With more things being addressed at higher
    levels of government, it seems like cities attempt to force solutions that don’t work for problems the hinterlands don’t even have (see $15 minimum wage push in California). So the hinterlands turn to the party they think will be less interventionist (or they have influenced it in that direction).

  6. Rural people trust themselves and their immediate friend and family network over institutions and vote for smaller government especially when thinking about taxation. They value independence from institutions the most.

    Urban people value family and friends for services but also see huge benefits from taxation especially in emergency services and education availability. They see institutions as a means to a better future.

    Suburbanites utilize the service industry and those employed by it the most. They see value in a better educated populace and value a financially well equipped government. They have the best understanding of complex global issues. They see institutions as the fabric of society.

  7. Nice topic and discussion. I don’t have anything particularly enlightening to add but the topic reminded of one of my favorite “game show” moments. I hope you”ll forgive me for adding a bit of laughter to this sensitive topic.

  8. So many good comment here, I would like to add that the needs and concerns for each of the demographics is probably a huge factor. While living in a rural area you are more likely to own a business or work directly for the owner. You see the impact that government and regulations can have on that business and mostly they tend to be overhead that is hard to justify or afford. When you deal with the lock government employee you see the ridiculous hoops they have to jump through so that a simple task can be completed. And you also can easily see the abuses of government programs from those around you that are not contributing. Mostly you want the government out of your way of doing an honest job in your small community that you care very much about.
    While living in an urban environment you are more likely working for a company or an institution. The job may of required you to get a higher education and you likely do not personally know who is in charge. You tend to see the necessity of government to protect you and those around you from the quite complex hierarchy of people and authorities. And to especially look out for those who are at the mercy of others. You see many people suffering and can’t help but empathize with them, but also realize the problem is to big for one person or charity to handle. And it is easy to see when people go bad especially the powerful they can have a huge impact on thousands of lives. So stopping or preventing that suffering using government institutions is the only solution.

    I have seen both of these views in the many diverse places I’ve lived, and have held them both to some level. I have found that the answer is very complex and personal. But also reasonable for anyone to fall on either side of the political divide. I do however believe that many solutions from the urban areas really don’t work and can cause harm in the rural economies, and the simple solutions for a small rural problem is woefully inadequate and naive in an urban area.


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