Urban-Rural Divide Isn't What It Seems

Urban-Rural Divide Isn't What It Seems

As America’s culture wars continue to rage, a common narrative reports widening ideological and political gaps between urban and rural Americans and a middle America in deep economic decline. Many argue that big-city dwellers simply have different priorities, and different views about the world and their role in it, than those living in small, rural communities. 

In “The Left Behind,” Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow makes the case that rural Americans, when they think of problems facing the nation, focus more on issues of morality and governance in Washington than on economic considerations. But, despite media perceptions and Wuthnow’s thousands of interviews of rural Americans, the argument that urban and rural areas have diverged in terms of their priorities does not hold up when we look at decades of survey work.

I compiled national samples of New York Times survey data from 2006 through 2016 — the same time frame used by Wuthnow. These surveys regularly asked thousands of Americans: “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” I then broke down the data by urban areas, with suburbs included, and found no geographic differences whatsoever. Rural Americans and city dwellers exhibited practically the same priorities over time.

More specifically, I coded the responses into a number of distinct groups, including: 1) economic considerations, 2) education, 3) values and morals including religious values and questions of community and family, 4) concerns related to leadership and governmental dysfunction, and 5) cultural considerations — that is, items that tend to be hot button culture war items such as immigration, gun control, race relations, global warming, and poverty. This list is not exhaustive and excludes defense, national security, terrorism, and international relations. However, these five groupings accounted for about two-thirds to a half of the total responses examined over the decade. 

While the relative importance of the five categories changes as priorities fluctuate, at no point does the survey data show that economic concerns are any less important to rural Americans than to urban dwellers — or that moral, family, or religious values are more important to the people living in small towns than they are to those living in big cities.

From June 2015 through the start of 2016 — the period of Trump’s rise and of a notable increase in partisan incivility — 25 percent of urban and suburban residents cited economic concerns as the most important issue facing the nation compared to 22 percent of rural dwellers. Eleven percent of city dwellers cited concerns about leadership in the government compared to 16 percent of rural Americans. Cultural questions, including on immigration, gun control, race relations, and poverty, were more salient in urban areas at 21 percent compared to 16 percent in rural areas. Not a significant difference. Finally, while moral considerations were highest in rural areas at 7 percent compared to 4 percent in urban areas including the suburbs, this is, again, a minor difference.

In fact, moral considerations hovered collectively around 5 percent and remained flat between 2006 and 2010 for suburban, urban, and rural residents. Issues of education — long-standing drivers of engagement in American communities — barely moved above the 3 percent range for all areas. In contrast, concerns about the economy and jobs were as high as 70 percent in the beginning of 2010 but dropped down to the mid-20 percent range by the start of 2016. During the Obama administration, cultural considerations jumped from the single digits to the mid-20 percent range across all geographic areas, with urban areas being a few points higher than rural areas. 

These data tell a different story than the “culture wars” narrative suggests. The differences in reaction to the issues between urban and rural Americans are slight. While hot button culture war items such as immigration, gun control, race relations, global warming, and poverty have become more salient over time and are now regularly cited as being as important as economic considerations, concerns about community, values, and morality have been in the single digits for the past decade. They may surface in lengthy interviews, but they aren’t of concern in relatively quick surveys where Americans offer an immediate response about what they take to be the most significant problem facing the nation. 

Wuthnow is absolutely correct both that there are urban and rural differences such as stated ideological leanings and that the political system is polarized. But he is wrong about priorities. Questions of morality are low priority issues for almost all Americans. Economic considerations ebb and flow, and urban and rural Americans do not diverge. We cannot ignore thousands of Americans who offer survey responses which reveal consistent patterns of unity over a decade.

As we head into the July 4th holiday, we might take solace in the empirical record, which shows that Americans may not be as divided as many studies and articles suggest. 

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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