The Urban-Rural Divide Deeper, More Nuanced Than Many Believe

A truck leave the now-shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant in Eastern Baltimore County. Like many places in the country that saw a decline in manufacturing jobs voters here have shifted towards the right and have begun voting with the Republican Party. Photo by Daniel W. Staples
A truck leave the now-shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant in Eastern Baltimore County. Like many places in the country that saw a decline in manufacturing jobs voters here have shifted towards the right and have begun voting with the Republican Party. Photo by Daniel W. Staples

By DANIEL W. STAPLES

BALTIMORE (CN)—Two years before Donald Trump was elected the next president of the United States, voters in Maryland bucked all the predictions and voted Lawrence Hogan, a Republican, to the governorship.

The similarities between the races are striking. Both businessmen faced heavily favored establishment candidates, promised tax cuts and change in government, and both Hogan – only the second Republican to win the Maryland governorship in 65 years – and Trump overcame huge voter deficits in urban centers by relying heavily on their rural constituents to garner their wins.

This year’s presidential election results were further evidence of the widening gap between urban and rural political ideals. Trump won 2,622 mostly rural counties, whereas former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won 490 mostly urban counties.

What’s more, fewer rural voters turned out for Clinton than for President Barack Obama in 2012.

Trump was also able to win at least 220 counties that voted for President Obama in 2012, while Clinton converted just 17 counties that voted for Mitt Romney.

In many ways, Maryland mirrors America as a whole with its staunchly blue urban center in Baltimore and its surrounding rural agricultural counties on the eastern shore and western counties, according to Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Towson.

The similarities don’t end there, as can be seen in the shuttering of Bethlehem Steel and General Motors assembly plant on the eastern edge of Baltimore County.

Kromer said that many of the factors that propelled Trump’s national victory could be seen in Maryland as many areas that formerly were considered a solid Democratic vote shifted to the right, allowing both Trump and Hogan to capitalize on that shift.

But never before has the gulf between rural and urban voters been so extreme.

According to the Pew Research Center, the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent.

The Pew research also shows that partisan animosity has grown substantially with ever-increasing numbers of voters having a “highly negative view of the opposing party,” and that most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

 

At the heart of the issue, political analysts say, is the belief among large segments of the nation’s rural population that they are seen as uneducated rubes by their urban counterparts, according to Katherine Cramer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, whose most recent book is entitled, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”

Cramer has called these intense, negative feelings against people in the cities “rural resentment.”

For example, Cramer said that rural people believe their children don’t have the same opportunities as children in suburban and city schools.

While Cramer acknowledges that some of what’s driven the divide between rural and urban voters is inextricably linked to the nation’s complicated, ongoing dialogue about race, the far bigger driver is economic and the belief among rural voters that they are being left behind and denied the chance to enjoy prosperity.

And it’s precisely because the issues driving rural discontent are so diffuse, that establishment politicians are losing traction in those communities.

“As the gap between city and country continues to grow politicians are losing the ability to communicate effectively about the various problems that rural communities are facing,” said Johnathan Hladik, Policy Program Director at the Nebraska nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs.

At the same time, Census data shows that rural America has been steadily losing population for decades, and that’s only served to make those left behind feel more marginalized.

“With their loss of political power, their loss of numbers, it’s hard for rural communities to make their case for their needs and often time they don’t have the votes they need to have their concerns heard,” Hladik said.

 

Hladik said Trump’s electoral success stemmed from his ability home in on a population that was all-too-ready to embrace a populist message that “fit easily onto a bumper sticker.”

Kromer espoused a more nuanced view.

“I think the natural inclination is to try to find a single reason for Trump’s win, but it was many factors including Clinton’s failure to turn out blocks of voters that were excited to vote for Obama, including Millennials and the African Americans,” Kromer said.

That said, Kromer pointed out that exit polls on Nov. 8 also showed “people voted with their pocketbooks,” and that Trump won a majority of votes from those with incomes more than $50,000.

“If you make between $50,000 and $100,000 and you start talking about free college, [voters] know that is going to raise their taxes,” Kromer said. “It doesn’t matter which party you side with people want lower taxes and more money in their pockets at the end of the each month.”

Both Hladik and Kromer agreed that despite well-articulated policies at the national level the Democratic party did not espouse policy propositions that reflected the needs and concerns of rural voters.

“There was a void created for rural communities where politicians are allowing rural people to be siloed,” Hladik said. “[Rural voters] have real concerns and there is such a lack of communication.”

“The Republican Party knows that there is a base of rural voters and talked about issues that they were concerned with, but I think there is a belief rural voters are going to be a block, and I think they are wrong. It’s more nuanced than that.”

As an example, Hladik pointed out that Republicans put immigration at the center of the campaign, but many farmers rely on migrant help, which is being filled by immigrants. So the message of “build the wall,” didn’t resonate with all rural voters equally.

“It is wrong to write rural or centrist voters off as a broad demographic block and not talk to [rural voters] as individuals,” Hladik said. “Rural people felt ignored and they wanted someone who is rational and understands their needs.”

In her book, Kramer found the same mentality in rural Wisconsin and recalled asking several people if they felt left out of the economic recovery following the most recent recession.

She said most of those she spoke with responded is some variant of, “What recession? We’ve been in a recession forever.”

Hladik said that having a vibrant rural community is essential to the health of America and that to achieve that kind of community requires engagement, a community voice for policy, and assures that someone is going to support their businesses.

“Too often we see community assets owned by outside interest. Too often we feel like the results of the political process is out of our control,” said Hladik. “Lack of engagement is more dangerous than we think it is.”