How the 'Empty Quarter' Became America’s Great Success Story
In 1981, Washington Post journalist Joel Garreau attempted to understand the many subcultures of America by examining in detail the differences between different states. He came away unsatisfied, and the ultimate result of this dissatisfaction was an influential book, The Nine Nations of North America. In it, he ignored these often-arbitrary state boundaries and divided America into nine regional “nations” that he argued corresponded more with cultural, socio-economic and demographic realities.
One of his nine “nations” of American he named The Empty Quarter.
Centered around the Rocky Mountains it extended out into adjacent and culturally and demographically similar territory. Garreau’s book was a minor sensation and, directly or indirectly, it launched several similar efforts over the ensuing decades — most recently Colin Woodard’s 2020 book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Woodard’s “Far West” nation in his book encompassed the core states of Garreau’s Empty Quarter while tweaking it with some of his own additions.
Surprisingly, as we begin to analyze the results of the 2020 Census, amidst an America rapidly dividing between struggling and thriving communities, The Empty Quarter emerges at the great American success story. Despite the sneers of the elite for whom it constitutes “flyover country,” the Empty Quarter represents the epitome of the inclusive growth the left claims to value.
For the purposes of this essay, I’ll define the modern Empty Quarter as a combination of the two nations outlined by Garreau and Woodard: Centered around the Rocky Mountains, the core Empty Quarter consists of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Northern Nevada, Utah, Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington, and Northern Arizona. It also includes the entirety of the Dakotas, which politically, culturally, recreationally and demographically, particularly in their western regions, are far more similar to their Western neighbors in Montana and Wyoming than their Eastern counterparts in Minnesota and Iowa.
The new Empty Quarter region has four principal characteristics.
- It has been partially or completely governed by Republicans over the last decade. In states with mixed-party governance like Oregon and Washington, “Empty Quarter” areas in the East tend to be strongly right-leaning.
- It is far whiter than the country as a whole. Even the most diverse of these states, Colorado, is almost 20% whiter than the national average of 57.8%.
- It has substantial high-quality outdoor recreational activities in close proximity to population centers.
- It provides plenty of room to roam (Colorado, by some margin the densest of the areas studied, still has just 1/24th the population density of New Jersey).
The Balance of Growth
For most regions of the country, between 2010 and 2020 growth was anchored by cities and their suburbs. Yet the Empty Quarter has few superstar cities. Nonetheless, this region was the fastest-growing area of the country between 2010 and 2020. Still thinly populated, it is not primarily being driven by major urban agglomerations: (Denver (3.0 million) and Salt Lake City (1.26 million) are by far the largest metro areas in the region, yet they are modest by the standards of U.S metros. And they are the only metros of 1+ Million Metro areas in the entire region. No other metro in the entire region is within the America’s seventy-five largest.
Instead, regional growth has been steady from steady growth from small and mid-sized metros almost every part of the region. While some cities and towns stand out as growth leaders, there are very few laggards — in stark contrast to the rest of America. The Empty Quarter has an increasing supply of places that provide what my friend John Baden, a long-time Montana rancher and academic, has identified as the holy trinity of attractive community values: liberty, ecology, and modest prosperity.
We can see this promise in the growth of the Empty Quarter’s forty-four metro areas. While 20% of metro areas nationwide lost population (including not just “rust belt” metros but Metros in such booming states as Florida, Georgia and Texas) every single one of the metro areas in the Empty Quarter gained population between 2010 and 2020. And it wasn’t just slow and steady growth — there were plenty of growth superstars as well. Four of the eight fastest-growing Metro areas in America were in the Empty Quarter.
But the positive outlier performance of the Empty Quarter is even more evident in the Micropolitan areas (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as population centers anchored by a city of more than 10,000 less than 50,000) — what might be termed- small town America, in which the robust growth in Empty Quarter stands in stark contrast to the struggles of small towns in the rest of the country. Of the 62 Micropolitan Areas in the empty quarter, just six (9.6% total) lost population and of these even the population decline was very modest. Nationwide, outside the Empty Quarter, 55% of micropolitan areas lost population.
But it wasn’t just about arresting decline: The Empty Quarter’s small-town growth story is even more dramatic. Though comprising just 62 of the nation’s 547 Micropolitan areas, five metropolitans in the Empty Quarter ranked first through fifth in America in growth. My own family, which relocated to the Bozeman, Montana area, is part of that growth story.
Overall, 28% of Empty Quarter micropolitan areas had double digit population growth from 2010-2020. Outside of the Empty Quarter, just 3.5% did.
Why the Empty Quarter Works
What has driven such broad-based growth in the Empty Quarter? With their greater cultural uniformity in an increasingly culturally fragmented America, a smaller-town and city life and increasing access to amenities such as professional music, theater, art galleries, and varied cuisines, the wealth of space, and most importantly, access to world-class outdoor recreation and natural amenities, the comparative advantage of most of the larger metros, with the exception of a few true “superstar” cities, has eroded. Better air transport links have also helped.
The news was not all spectacular for the Empty Quarter. Truly rural areas, 2+ hours away from even small cities, especially those untethered to recreational amenities, did struggle to some degree. But even in these areas, the rural Empty Quarter dramatically outshined rural areas in the South, East and Midwest. According to recent estimates from Pew, rural growth in empty quarter states was far higher than in any other region in the country, with states in the region taking the top four positions and nine of the top ten.
And rural areas too thinly populated to even qualify as micropolitan but surrounded by natural beauty and within an hour or so of small nature-heavy cities and their amenities, mimicked, to a lesser degree, the impressive growth of their micropolitan and Metropolitan counterparts. In Montana, for example, the only state in the lower 48 where rural growth outpaced urban growth it was the rural counties within an hour or so drive of Montana’s small urban areas that grew faster than the national average.
And despite the recreation emphasis, the Empty Quarter is not just bringing in retires and empty-nesters. It’s increasingly a burgeoning home for young families. According to Brookings Institution estimates, The top five states for percentage growth of the under 18 population were all in the “Empty Quarter” as were three more of the next six.
The strong performance of the Empty Quarter over the last decade is easy to overlook. The states that make it up still have relatively low population and largely exist far from major centers of media, entertainment, and finance. But the Zoomtown revolution figures to turbocharge their growth by enhancing the value of all of the aspects that make Empty Quarter cities and towns appealing (outdoor lifestyles, plenty of space, less expensive housing and living costs) while reducing the importance of the one thing they largely lack (physical proximity to major job markets). Little wonder that major surveys have identified several Empty Quarter states as the hottest housing markets during the pandemic.
And their momentum, at some point, becomes self-generating. As more people move to these areas, local markets increase in size and local job opportunities blossom. We may be at the beginning of a long and accelerating boom in the Empty Quarter — one that may leave it increasingly filled in, turning a long-neglected area of the country into America’s most dynamic region.
Jeremy Carl is a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lives with his family in the foothills of the Bridger Mountains, near Bozeman, MT.