The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our urban/rural political divide is both new — and decades in the making

Policies dating back to the 1930s have helped shape the conflict defining today’s politics.

(Chris Howell for The Washington Post)

The 2020 election revealed a stark divide between rural and small-town voters — who overwhelmingly supported Republicans — and those in cities and suburbs, who favored Democrats. In 2020, this growing pattern enabled Joe Biden to capture formerly safe Republican states like Georgia and Arizona, while President Donald Trump targeted longtime Democratic-bastion Minnesota.

This “geographic sort” between metro and non-metro areas has also played out across issues including variations in coronavirus vaccination rates, ongoing legislative redistricting fights and people’s very identities, with many extolling the virtues of hailing from a city or the country, and feeling alien from those living in the opposite circumstance.

Today’s blue/red divide then plays out not between regions — as we saw in the famous 2000 electoral map, which introduced the concept of such divisions and pitted red states vs. blue ones — but between metropolitan and rural areas within states.

Although this shift has become apparent in the last 10 years, its origins lie in policy choices by both parties that can be traced back to the 1930s.

Nearly 90 years ago, the New Deal laid the foundation for modern metropolitan regions. At the time, manufacturing industries based in the Northeast and Upper Midwest dominated the U.S. economy. Rural areas were highly agricultural or remained mostly undeveloped.

The vast public works projects implemented under President Franklin D. Roosevelt built roads, water projects, schools, airports and other important infrastructure. Such efforts shaped cities and rural areas alike, and the latter benefited in particular from electrification efforts like the Tennessee Valley Authority. But together, New Deal projects in previously poor, underdeveloped sections of the country like the South and Mountain West ignited more advanced forms of economic growth.

After World War II, the Eisenhower administration brought interstate highways to the United States, further solidifying these once isolated regions’ connection to the national economy. The highways allowed trucking to emerge as a primary means of shipping goods. This facilitated the growth of factories and distribution centers in areas that had been largely beyond the reach of rail. The Atlanta metropolitan region, for example, is now ranked by one industry assessment as the country’s top location for distribution centers.

The federal government also facilitated the postwar construction of airports through federal-local matching grants, and, beginning in 1970, an airport development trust fund financed through taxes on tickets and fuel, along with other fees and surcharges. Easy access to airports like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International made it possible to move people and commercial goods rapidly around the country, decreasing place-based dependence on the old financial and business centers of the Northeast.

The result: the South and Mountain West could suddenly compete on a national and even a global economic stage.

Their newfound competitiveness drove business activity and people southward and westward, turning the older manufacturing regions in the North into what became known as the “Rust Belt.”

Highways had another important effect. In combination with federal mortgage subsidies (implemented on a racially discriminatory basis through the 1960s), they facilitated the growth of new suburbs that could be easily reached by automobile. Developers built millions of new homes, along with shopping centers, in the outlying areas of cities large and small.

Within the new suburbs, Sun Belt governors in the 1960s and 1970s such as Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford in North Carolina, Carl Sanders and Jimmy Carter in Georgia and, somewhat later, Bill Clinton in Arkansas all deployed federal research and regional development programs to build research and industrial parks that attracted national corporations. Defense spending, especially in research and development, further spurred such growth.

These advanced, technologically oriented activities required an educated workforce, and universities in the South and West took advantage of Cold War and Great Society funding to transform themselves from provincial colleges to world-class research institutions.

The students they educated, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, filled the well-paying jobs in these research parks and purchased homes in the suburbs where they were located.

This confluence of federal dollars, highways, easier shipping, new suburbs and less reliance on the economic might of the Northeast enabled cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina to grow into major metropolitan regions capable of influencing the national economy — and politics.

At first, the rural hinterlands of these newly booming metro areas grew alongside them. Their relatively low wages compared to the national economy lured manufacturing from Northern and Western cities, which provided more opportunities for less-educated residents than the workers ever had in the past.

As a result, the rise of a pro-market, business-friendly metro conservatism meshed well enough with a socially conservative, often Christian, rural or small-town conservatism. Along with a shared backlash against Civil Rights, this conservatism allowed Republican dominance of the Sun Belt as rural and metro areas voted together through the final decades of the 20th century.

The 2000 election captured these regional divides: George W. Bush captured a solid swath of red states extending across the old Confederacy and through the Mountain West, skipping only New Mexico and Florida, sort of (Florida was complicated that year). Vice President Al Gore swept the West Coast, the Upper Midwest and the Northeast other than New Hampshire (which, along with Iowa and New Mexico, were the only states to flip in 2004, completing the regional “color” consolidation).

Over the first two decades of the 21st century, however, something changed.

The growing diversity of metropolitan areas meant that the most hard-edge social conservatism slowly lost its grip. Same-sex marriage flipped from an election-determining hot button issue to a matter of basic fairness affecting people whom many voters knew personally. Immigration and the reverse migration of Blacks to the metropolitan South both shifted the voting base and — for at least some younger White voters who grew comfortable with the resulting diversity — lessened the pull of race-based appeals.

Massive voter mobilization efforts by activists such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia helped Democrats take advantage of such trends by getting these voters to the polls.

Former red states like Virginia turned purple by the late aughts and then solid blue (this year’s governor’s race in the state still pending) by the century’s second decade.

But Democratic gains in the metro South and West came at a cost, as rural areas with lower levels of college education turned more solidly Republican. Strikingly, their political behavior began to align with that of both rural areas and former manufacturing towns in northern states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Minnesota.

What these areas had in common was the experience of economic decline as the more vibrant metro areas in all regions grew to dominance and attracted concentrations of both capital and people.

States like West Virginia — which had been a Democratic bastion before 2000, but is now staunchly Republican — lost both jobs and population. Similarly, small and midsized counties (with predominantly White populations) in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa hemorrhaged unionized manufacturing jobs in recent decades. Whether by choice or out of necessity, young people in such communities increasingly left the communities where they had grown up.

All this created a sense of vulnerability even among the nominally secure. Such feelings fed anger at immigration, among other issues — anger that played out in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Cultural gaps spread as well, over issues including school textbooks, LGBTQ rights, religiosity, guns and abortion. Metro-based knowledge and “creative class” workers might not have been able to win every election, but they increasingly shaped the norms and assumptions prevailing at major media, corporate and educational institutions. Unequal access to competitive colleges and universities — and even the hoarding of advantage by educated families — only deepened such chasms.

These divisions — stoked by everything from cable news channels to divergent education levels — crushed any shared sense of national identity and fueled resentments.

Correctly or not, residents of both rural areas and declining manufacturing towns felt looked down-on by educated elites whom they perceived as dominating the nation’s political, economic and cultural life, thereby threatening their values and their well-being. The appeals that help Democrats in urban and suburban areas fall flat in these communities.

The “geographic sort” and its consequences now define our politics: people living almost entirely among their co-partisans, and rarely interacting personally with those with whom they disagree. Such a politics, unfortunately, seems almost natural when enmeshed within it. There is no easy path to a better politics, but finding one is impossible without understanding the roots of the divisions and how government policy shaped them.

If policy helped create our problems, better policy might help resolve them.