An Urban's Rural View

What to do About the Widening Urban-Rural Gap

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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With every national election the urban-rural divide seems to widen, and this latest one was no exception.

Of the 34 purely "urban" House districts in the country, only one -- Staten Island, a borough of New York City -- was represented by a Republican before the election. Now none of them are. Meanwhile, Republicans picked up seats in the 70 purely "rural" districts. Democrats now represent only one-eighth of those, down from one-seventh. (…)

"One theme in these results is the reassertion of the urban-rural divide," a Wall Street Journal editorial observed. (…) "Republicans held their own for the most part in rural districts and Trump states from 2016, while Democrats romped in the cities. Republicans lost the House because they also lost significant ground in the suburbs, especially relatively affluent areas with college-educated voters."

The underlying reality, said an analyst at CityLab, an Atlantic magazine website, is this: "The closer together people in a congressional district live, the more likely that district is to support Democrats, while districts where people live farther apart tend to be represented by Republicans." (…) This election underscored the truth of CityLab's analysis.

Yes, Democrats captured the House of Representatives because they won the suburbs. But according to CityLab, their gains came mostly in the most densely populated suburbs. Republicans still represent more than 75% of the House districts CityLab classifies as "rural-suburban mix," but they've fallen below 50% of the "sparse suburban" districts and below 25% of the "dense suburban" districts. They represent only one "urban-suburban mix" district.

Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate in large part thanks to rural voters. As The Hill put it, "Rural voters stormed to the polls in virtually unprecedented numbers, delivering once again for the president they voted for in 2016 in a handful of critical Senate and gubernatorial elections in ruby red states." (…) Tom Cole, a Republican congressman who won re-election in Oklahoma, told the Hill, "Rural America's much more Republican than ever before."

It's reached the point where red stands for rural almost as much as it does for Republican, just as blue means urban as much as Democratic. Purple is the suburbs. Alluding to those definitions, Republican strategist Karl Rove summed up the election in a Wall Street Journal column this way: "Red went redder and blue went bluer. And purple? Well, it generally became more blue." (…)

Does it matter, you may wonder, that the divide is widening? Hasn't America always been divided? It has, to some extent, but today's division is particularly dangerous because, as the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written, Americans on both sides have gone beyond mere intellectual disagreement to genuine fear of what will happen if the other side prevails. (…)

"In a culture this diverse and divided," Douthat wrote, "we trust our fellow citizens less, we share less with them, and we fear that any political defeat will leave our communities at their mercy, that if we lose power we will be routed and destroyed."(…)

This election did nothing to alleviate this fear on either side. If anything, as Time put it, "America remains, as Trump revealed it to be two years ago, an angry and divided country whose citizens blame one another for its ills." (…)

Can anything pull the country back together? In times past, wars have sometimes served that function but if both sides agreed on anything, it would probably be that war is too high a price to pay for unity.

The Democrats and Republicans could try harder to appeal to voters on the other side. It's not impossible to imagine the Democrats, for example, proposing programs aimed at solving such rural problems as health care and infrastructure.

Institutional changes might help, too. For example, our current primary-election system has thinned the ranks of centrist politicians by rewarding candidates who woo their parties' most extreme voters. To counter that trend, a few states have embraced non-partisan primaries in which the top two candidates make the general-election ballot even if they're from the same party. Though there can be unintended consequences in these systems, one benefit is they boost more centrist candidates.

What would help most is more human interaction. As someone who divides his time between city and country and has friends on both sides of the divide, I know there are good people on both sides who would like each other despite their disagreements if they only knew each other.

Exchange programs in which people in one country host people from another, often but not always students, in their homes for short or even extended stays have a long history of promoting international understanding. Maybe the U.S. could use an urban-rural exchange program. The better we know each other, the less we will fear each other, the more we will see ourselves as fellow Americans with different views rather than enemies to be demonized.

An exchange program wouldn't end the divide, certainly. But I have to think it would make the divide matter less. And that would certainly be an improvement over where we are now.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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