Urban/rural polarization is about racial attitudes
That doesn't mean it makes sense to give up on seeking rural votes
The split between urban and rural voters is central to American politics, and because the American political system grants extra voting power to rural places, it’s very important for Democrats to come up with ways to secure extra votes from rural areas.
In order to do that, you have to understand the underlying factors driving that urban/rural split.
And a great new piece from Zachary L. Hertz, Lucas B. Pyle, and Brian F. Schaffner sheds important light on this issue. To skip to the punchline, there’s a big urban/rural split in attitudes about race — a split that is evident across racial groups. Their piece not only diagnoses the problem, but it also exemplifies the spirit of paralysis that has plagued progressives ever since they discovered in 2016 that a lot of the people voting for them had not-so-progressive views on race.
“Our findings suggest that messaging isn’t the problem, as Carville asserted,” they write. “Rather, rural Americans prefer Trump’s racially charged politics and denial that racism exists. Fueled by a core disagreement over racism in the United States, the urban-rural divide is likely to continue in 2021 and beyond.”
I agree with their forecast, but recall that the way this works is that it just means Democrats will constantly lose elections. If you don’t want to see that happen, then you don’t want to accept this as inevitable. And I think it’s worth interrogating the notion that “messaging isn’t the problem” when maybe it is.
Breaking down the urban/rural divide
Urban and rural populations differ along a lot of overlapping dimensions, so it can be hard to identify the most important one. There are, for example, more evangelical Christians in rural areas. There are also more gun owners. And we know that evangelicals and gun owners are more likely to be Republicans, so you could see a GOP lean in rural areas just as a compositional effect.
But they point to another topic that features a big urban/rural split: the question of white privilege, which this Pew survey shows is much less accepted in rural communities.
The 2020 Cooperative Election Study asked a somewhat different version of this question: “Do you agree or disagree that white people in the United States have certain advantages because of the color of their skin?“ And according to the authors of the Post piece, “notably, more than 45 percent of rural Americans disagreed with this statement, while just 1 in 5 urban Americans denied that Whites have advantages.”
They then do a regression showing that if you control for evangelicalism or gun ownership, the urban/rural divide is still huge. But if you control for the divide on what they call “denial of racism,” the gap largely vanishes.
I think this jibes with what we know about history. In a survey of media coverage published earlier this year, David Rozado, Musa Al-Gharbi, and Jamin Halberstadt find a huge increase in the amount of coverage of racism, white supremacy, and similar concepts. They find that this starts around 2010 but really accelerates after 2015, which corresponds with a supercharging of urban/rural polarization.
Basically, racial attitudes became a much more salient aspect of politics, so rural areas where people are more likely to hold conservative views on racial topics have swung even further to the right, giving Democrats an unwinnable Senate map.
This is in fact a messaging issue
What I find odd about the Hertz, Pyle, and Schaffner piece is their pat conclusion that James Carville is wrong and this isn’t a messaging issue. It clearly is a messaging issue!
Biden, for example, has been very clear in his messaging that he believes rural voters are mistaken and there is a big problem of institutional racism in America that he is promising to combat.
Indeed, Biden says that “systemic racism pervades every part of our society.”
To be perfectly honest, I often struggle to parse the content in these debates. When Senator Tim Scott goes up on television to say “America is not a racist country,” what claim is he making? That there are no racist acts occurring in America ever? That racism hasn’t been a salient feature of our history? That seems crazy. Maybe he’s saying that compared to other countries around the world, America is on average fairly inclusive and tolerant. That seems plausible.
But most of all, I don’t really think there is any content to this disagreement at all. Scott and Biden have plenty of concrete disagreements about policy. But they are also just making different messaging choices. Barack Obama never talked about structural racism. It’s easy to forget how quickly things have changed, but in July 2016, Vox ran a piece headlined “Hillary Clinton Said ‘Systemic Racism’ In Tonight's Speech. That's Major.”
The reason it was “major” was that it was so unusual for a mainstream politician to adopt this academic/activist concept. As Victoria Massie wrote in that Vox piece, “though Obama (and other presidential candidates) has addressed racial divides in his speeches, the term ‘systemic racism,’ embraced in particular by younger activists, was not present in his addresses.”
Now I think if you were putting that speech together in an office where everyone had their “the median voter is a 50-something white person who didn't go to college” Post-Its, you might have concluded that it was a mistake to incorporate an unfamiliar idea beloved by young activists. Or else maybe Clinton’s team just felt sure they were going to win in a landslide so it didn’t matter. But it turns out it does matter.
It’s good to try to get more voters
Since 2016, I think an odd purity taboo has grown around the idea of trying to court the kind of voters Obama was careful not to alienate but who later flipped to Trump. Like if somebody doesn’t vote for you because they were disappointed by your handling of the bank bailout, that’s fine, and maybe you have to cater to their views next time. But if someone doesn’t vote for you because of a disagreement about racism, then we just need to accept that “fueled by a core disagreement over racism in the United States, the urban-rural divide is likely to continue in 2021 and beyond.”
But that’s not really how we think about other things. It’s very common for people working in progressive politics to be atheists, for example, but everyone has a shared understanding that it doesn’t make sense to do a lot of overt atheism messaging.
By the same token, I would say that one of the clearest cases of structural racism in the United States is the structure of the U.S. Senate. The Senate was not set up in order to systematically down-weight the votes of non-white people (I doubt anyone involved anticipated them voting much at all). But it has that effect. And I think the fact that this stark inequality is so readily accepted by mainstream society speaks not only to its deep historical roots, but to the socio-cultural marginalization of the people victimized by it.
But the more seriously you take that reality, the more seriously you should consider the objective political importance of pandering to rural white people’s views — including their skepticism of white privilege theory.
If you do that, you have a chance to win races, help people, and maybe reform some of these political structures. If you don’t, and if you just accept growing rural-urban polarization as inevitable, then you’re set up for doom.
I also wonder to what extent all these things correlate with wealth / income. Most of rural America is really struggling economically, and I think it’s hard for people who are seeing their communities die to believe that they somehow have a special advantage in life. It may be true in aggregate, but individuals aren’t statistics.
John McWhorter has advocated for changing affirmative action in universities to focus strictly on low income families, and I recall a while back that Texas A&M made a big program to recruit first generation college students. Those kinds of programs will still greatly benefit racial minority groups, but because they aren’t explicitly racial they don’t exclude the possibility of a very poor or low status white person from benefitting, which leads to less opposition and less resentment.
Lastly I strongly agree that there’s a messaging problem. Many on the left have become infected with this idea that America is an evil nation, some think irredeemably evil. That seeps into the messaging and drives away most of the country. If we’re all evil then what are you going to do if you’re elected, punish us for our sins? How is that going to help? To win in America it helps to believe that America is a fundamentally good nation that is always overcoming its flaws and moving toward the “more perfect Union,” and you have to cast a positive vision of how we can all win and make things better for everyone together.
I wonder what would happen if the same people who were asked, "Do you agree or disagree that white people in the United States have certain advantages because of the color of their skin?" had instead been asked, "Do you agree or disagree that black people in the United States have been treated worse because of the color of their skin?"
That difference in framing could be huge. Most white people, especially those who aren't at least upper middle class, don't think of themselves as having *extra* advantages, but may recognize that others are treated worse than they are.