Blue America is a nation with an ever-shrinking countryside. In 2008, Barack Obama won 875 U.S. counties; in 2020, Joe Biden won 527, thanks largely to the rightward drift of rural jurisdictions.
The fact that the Democratic coalition has grown increasingly urban is not inherently problematic; after all, the U.S. population is itself increasingly concentrated in cities. But America’s political geography has a significant rural bias. The middle of the country is home to a large number of low-density, low-population states, each of which boasts as many votes in the Senate as California.
Rural America’s overrepresentation lies behind the bulk of blue America’s present discontents. Due to the Senate map’s inequities, the Democrats managed to orchestrate a popular vote landslide in the 2018 midterms while still losing seats in Congress’s upper chamber. Thanks in part to the House map’s (less egregious) bias toward rural areas, Biden’s comfortable victory in 2020 coincided with a loss of House seats, while the party’s gains in the Senate were highly limited. As a result, Senate Democrats’ inability to achieve unanimity on climate and social policy has derailed Biden’s legislative agenda. Meanwhile, the party’s thin margin in the House all but guarantees a Republican takeover in November.
And the long-term outlook for Democrats in the Senate is even grimmer. The party owes its present majority to improbable luck: Many red-state Democrats happened to be on the ballot in 2018, a historically favorable year for blue America. And even then, Joe Manchin and Jon Tester won reelection only narrowly. Judging by their margins, had they faced voters in 2020 instead, Republicans would likely hold their seats. If urban-rural polarization continues to increase — while ticket-splitting continues to decline — Democrats will likely lose the Senate this November and fail to regain it for a decade or more.
All this has prompted much debate about how Democrats can stem their losses in rural areas. Some, like Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman, have criticized the party for ignoring “the forgotten, the marginalized and the left-behind places” and have called for greater investments in rural outreach. Others, like former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp, have implored the party to distance itself from “far left” political forces, such as the movement to “defund the police.”
It is plausible that Democrats could make marginal gains in rural America through adjustments in resource allocation, issue positioning, and/or ideological branding. Any clear-eyed analysis of the party’s geographic problem, however, must recognize its structural roots. Urban-rural polarization is not an American phenomenon but one present in polities throughout the Global North. Judging by the available evidence, it is rooted less in the contingent decisions of contemporary Democratic politicians than the cultural consequences of industrial development in liberal democracies.
You don’t need a degree in political science to discern a cultural divide between big cities and their rural hinterlands. Indeed, to believe that urban centers are more morally permissive and tolerant of nonconformity than small towns, one need only adhere to common sense or Hollywood clichés. But the cultural chasm between America’s cities and its countrysides does not reflect a timeless law of human nature. Rather, it has dramatically expanded over the past half-century, as America’s urban population has grown vastly more socially liberal.
What it means to have “progressive social values” is a question that can inspire controversy. But in political science, social liberalism generally denotes a tolerance for ethnic, cultural, and sexual diversity and “individual choice concerning the kind of life one wants to lead.” It is therefore a values orientation associated with support for immigration, gender equality, legal abortion, and LGBT rights. Public support for the progressive position on these and associated issues has increased significantly in the U.S. over the past two generations, and most other developed nations have witnessed a similar evolution in public opinion over the same period.
The political scientist Ronald Inglehart attributed this development to economic modernization: As human beings grow more prosperous and personally secure, they become more tolerant of ethnic diversity, sexual noncomformity, and social difference. By contrast, under conditions of scarcity, in which relations among groups appear to be zero-sum, humans tend to embrace in-group chauvinism and more socially authoritarian sentiments. A large body of public opinion research has buttressed this theory. In the World Values Survey, more economically developed nations consistently evince more support for progressive social values than less developed ones. Separately, the residents of wealthier countries — whether themselves socially liberal or socially conservative — are more likely than those of low-income countries to consider cultural issues more important than narrowly economic ones.
If economic development tends to render nations more socially liberal, however, this cultural evolution proceeds unevenly across national space. Like economic growth itself, progressive social values are disproportionately concentrated in urban areas. There are many plausible explanations for this. One follows from the premises of modernization theory: Urban residents are on average more prosperous than residents of low-density areas and would therefore be more inclined toward the post-scarcity values of social libertarianism and toleration.
Another explanation concerns the selection effects that determine whether individuals live in cities or rural areas. There is some evidence that attending college — and/or possessing the personal disposition associated with academic success — inclines one toward social liberalism. If this is the case, then cities might appear more socially progressive merely because job opportunities for college graduates are disproportionately concentrated in urban centers. Similarly, if immigrants are disproportionately likely to live in high-density areas, then urban areas might be more pro-immigration for mere demographic reasons.
Alternatively, once cities have acquired a reputation for social liberalism, they might start attracting rural dwellers who possess such values while repelling those who don’t. Will Wilkinson proposed this thesis in his paper “The Density Divide.” And last year, the social scientist Markus Jokela produced empirical evidence to support it: Tracking a sample of Americans over a four-to-six-year period, Jokela found that rural dwellers who identified as Democrats were more likely to migrate to cities than those who identified as Republicans.
Finally, some political scientists argue that the city itself serves as an agent of progressive value change. For one thing, by bringing diverse groups into close proximity, cities facilitate the rapid dispersion of new ideas and values across diverse subpopulations. For another, population density helps members of sexual minorities find one another and organize, while also providing women stuck in traditional gender roles access to alternative role models, information, and public spaces with which to contest patriarchal values.
Precisely why industrial development and urbanization in the Global North has led to an increase in both the prevalence of progressive values and the urban-rural cultural gap cannot be settled here. But a new study fortifies the notion that this has in fact happened.
In “Progressive Cities: Urban-rural polarisation of social values and economic development around the world,” researchers affiliated with the International Inequalities Institute examined public opinion data from urban and rural regions in 66 different countries. To test Inglehart’s modernization theory, they chose nations with divergent levels of prosperity and economic development. They then constructed a gauge for “progressive values” comprising questions concerning tolerance for nontraditional sexual morality, support for gender equality, and attitudes toward immigration.
The paper finds that there is indeed a large gap in progressive values between urban and rural areas. Crucially, though, this gap scarcely exists for low-income countries; in fact, in some less-developed nations, rural areas are actually more progressive than urban ones. Generally speaking, the wealthier a country in the study was, the more likely it was to have a large values divide between progressive urban centers and conservative rural areas.
This is consistent with the notion that, under liberal-democratic conditions, the late stages of industrial development tend to promote a proliferation of progressive social values in cities, which is not accompanied by a similarly profound liberalization in rural social attitudes (arguably because, as nations urbanize, the most socially liberal elements in rural areas disproportionately relocate to major cities).
The paper’s other main finding is that the urban-rural values divide remains even when one controls for age, gender, income, employment status, immigration status, and life satisfaction. A native-born, 40-year-old middle-class man in the city is liable to be more socially progressive than one in the country. This result does not tell us whether selection effects (who chooses to move to cities) or socialization effects (how cities influence their inhabitants) make city slickers more socially liberal than country folk. But it does suggest that the divide isn’t wholly reducible to demographics.
All of which is to say: A hefty portion of the Democrats’ troubles in rural America seem structurally determined. For its entire modern history, the Democratic Party’s stronghold has been major cities. As the population of those cities grew more socially progressive, the Democrats were bound to follow suit. And in becoming the party of progressive social values — in a context of deepening urban-rural culture war — Democrats were always likely to suffer an erosion of support in rural areas.
As David Shor has argued, the Democrats’ urban-rural polarization problem has likely been compounded by the nationalization of media and politics. In an era when the median voter got her news primarily from local newspapers and network television stations, it was easier for individual Democratic candidates to win votes in culturally conservative areas on the strength of their personal brands. Now that voters increasingly get their news from national cable-news stations and ideologically-oriented websites, they’re more inclined to vote their cultural values up and down the ballot.
In this context, Democrats can only make dramatic gains in rural America by reducing the salience of the urban-rural culture war. One approach to that task would be to increase the political relevance of issues that link the material interests of rural areas to the policy commitments of the center-left. Another approach would be to moderate on cultural issues in a highly visible way.
Neither of these paths looks especially promising. As I’ve previously noted, cultural commitments have become so central to Americans’ politics that high-income Democratic areas routinely vote for redistributive fiscal policies in ballot referenda, while low-income Republican ones vote against them. Triangulating on social issues in an attention-grabbing way, meanwhile, would likely entail betraying marginalized groups with morally compelling demands and strong levels of sympathy among Democratic voters in general and party professionals in particular. To be sure, socially marginal populations have a strong interest in electoral expediency; acquiescing to perpetual GOP domination of the Senate means acquiescing to perpetual conservative domination of the Supreme Court, a state of affairs that will undermine a wide range of minority interests. But the failure of past (and present) compromises with social conservatism to reliably produce large electoral payoffs renders the case for triangulation difficult to make within the Democratic coalition.
None of this means that the party should resign itself to losing federal power. Politicizing economic issues that unite most urban and rural Americans, and finding low-harm ways to project a more socially moderate image, could plausibly mitigate the party’s Senate problem. But urban-rural polarization is a problem that extends well beyond America’s borders, and adequately answering it may be beyond the Democrats’ capacity.