As I watched last week as protesters took to the streets in big cities, what struck me was the vast and growing divide between America’s rural and urban populations and their politics and sensibilities.
One look at county maps of this year’s election results and you see what looks like a handful of blueberries sprinkled on an endless spread of red sauce (between the blue coasts). And yet, it is likely that the final result will be that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, although Donald Trump won the electoral vote and therefore the election.
Part of the reason for this is that, as a census report noted last year: “U.S. cities are home to 62.7 percent of the U.S. population but comprise just 3.5 percent of land area.”
Indeed, a 2013 analysis by Business Insider found that “half of the United States population is clustered in just the 146 biggest counties out of over 3000,” according to census data.
Fourteen states – a few in the Plains, a few in the Deep South and a few in New England – contained none of those “biggest counties” and another 19 contained only one or two of those counties.
Furthermore we are seeing a corrosive decline in faith in our institutions.
There are many reasons that people lose faith in institutions. They cluster and perpetuate money and power among the few, often at the expense of the many. Their very weight in the cluster and the tremendous influence they wield makes them ripe for corruption and malfeasance.
Another likely reason is that, for many of the white working-class voters, particularly in the “rural countryside of the North” as The New York Times put it, these institutions are increasingly foreign.
Institutions are largely urban. The federal government is in Washington. The financial center is in New York. New York is also the publishing capital and home to cable and broadcast news. Hollywood is in California. Our Ivy League schools are in a handful of Northeastern states. Our most influential cultural institutions – museums, performance companies and spaces, music studios – are in big cities. The same can be said for our most influential newspapers.
Furthermore, there are two complimentary and compounding internal migratory patterns that exacerbate the divide: At the same time that young people are moving out of rural areas and into urban ones, a 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture report pointed out that “members of the baby boom cohort, now 45-63 years old, are approaching a period in their lives when moves to rural and small-town destinations increase.”
This makes the places these people are leaving and the places they’re going both more homogeneous. Young people tend to be more liberal as well as more educated. Baby boomers are more conservative. In fact, a 2015 Gallup report found that “older generations have twice as many conservatives as liberals.”
Add to this brain drain the diversity factor in cities. As the International Business Times pointed out in 2011:
“Non-Hispanic whites are now minority in 22 of the country’s 100-biggest urban areas, including those surrounding Washington, New York, San Diego, Las Vegas and Memphis. The reversal is being fueled by a growth in Hispanic and Asian populations – they grew by 41 and 43 percent, respectively – and the fact that white populations have grown by less than 1 percent.”
Furthermore, urban areas, rather than rural ones, are magnets for new immigrants and, as a 2014 Pew Research report found, this immigrant population is exploding, providing fertile ground for appeals to rural whites experiencing or worried about economic distress and looking for easy scapegoats for their anxieties:
“In 1990, the U.S. had 19.8 million immigrants. That number rose to a record 40.7 million immigrants in 2012, among them 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants.”
So, rural whites are suspicious of big institutions and big government, located in big cities with big populations of people who don’t look like them.
People in big cities, living cosmopolitan lives among diverse populations that resemble a tub of rainbow-colored ice cream, may be weary of institutions for other reasons, but they are less likely to blame diversity and inclusion for their problems, and are therefore less amenable to the destructive message of Donald Trump.
This year a working paper published by the Gallup senior economist Jonathan Rothwell found: “This analysis provides clear evidence that those who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated ZIP codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors, constant support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out within the commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”
We are living in two diverging Americas at odds and at battle. Trump’s America won this round.