Friday, November 1, 2013

Politics, Cities, and the Rural Population Decline

A recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that data from the Census Bureau indicated that for the first time rural counties suffered a population drop over the 2010-2012 interval. This is a demographic development that could have important political ramifications. 

These charts were provided.

The US population, as a whole, and that of urban areas have experienced a rather steady growth rate over the years. The growth rate of rural areas has been greatly affected by migration in and out as economic conditions varied. Nevertheless, there has been a long-term decrease over time. The most recent time interval indicates a negative value.

The following chart indicates the importance of migration in rural areas.

Note that while migration provides the volatility, the natural growth rate, the number of births minus the number of deaths, has been steadily falling since the 1980s.

The final chart indicates that compared to the years 2004-2006, the growth rate of suburban, exurban, and rural areas have all diminished significantly in the 2010-2012 period. Meanwhile, urban areas showed an increase in growth rate.

The severity of the rural population decline may be masked somewhat by using nationwide numbers such as these. Another indicator is suggested in an article in the Wall Street Journal by Mark Peters.

"An analysis by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire found 1,135 U.S. counties had more deaths than births last year, a nearly 30% increase from 2009. The number was the highest on record, with deaths outpacing births in nearly half of all nonmetropolitan counties."

Half the rural counties have negative natural growth rates in addition to the contributions from migration.

When politically significant population trends are discussed, most of the focus is on racial/ethnic changes such as the growing fraction of the population that is Hispanic. Minorities tend to vote Democratic while whites tend to vote Republican. There is another politically significant demographic trend that receives less attention: the increasing urbanization of our population that is indicated by the USDA study.

Most urban areas have begun to lean heavily Democratic, while rural areas vote strongly for Republicans. Consider this chart of 2012 presidential election data produced by Mark Newmen of the University of Michigan. The color of the county varies between red and blue according to a scale in which a Republican vote of 70% or more is pure red, and a Democratic vote of 70% or more is pure blue.

The number of regions where the winner garnered around 70% of the vote is rather astonishing. Note how the Democratic votes are tightly contained in small areas. Except for a few cases where minority populations are dominant, most represent highly urbanized areas.

This tendency for people with similar political viewpoints to collect in the same geographic area has been evaluated by Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart. Bishop discusses the social and cultural values of city dwellers and divides cities into two categories: high-tech and low-tech. The term low-tech refers to cities that have been strong in traditional areas of the economy such as manufacturing. High-tech cities are characterized by innovation and the development of new economic thrusts in what might be referred to as the knowledge-based economy.

"Bob Cushing and I divided U.S. metro areas into five groups with descending levels of high-tech and patent production and then compared how these groups of cities voted in the six presidential elections from 1980 to 2000. In the early election all the city groups voted much the same….in 1980, the vote in all these areas approximated how the nation voted as a whole."

"As time passed, voting patterns in the city groups diverged. The high-tech groups tilted increasingly Democratic, so that by 2000, these twenty-one cities were voting Democratic at a rate 17 percent above the national average….The low-tech cities and rural America grew increasingly Republican."

What might it be about cities that makes their residents think like a Democrat? Or rather, what is it about Republicans that seems foreign to city dwellers?

As Bill Bishop pointed out, back in 1980 rural and city dwellers tended to vote in a similar though not identical manner. Back then the Republicans could still be considered economically and politically conservative. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that Nixon and Reagan sent out the message that racists were welcome in the Republican Party and invited the Southern Democratic fox into their hen house. Since then the party has gradually changed in nature. Let us be as kind as humanly possible to the current Republicans and assign them the attributes indicated by the media. Let us call them small-government libertarians.

Cities, particularly those Bishop refers to as high-tech, are multicultural almost by necessity. Immigrants now come in a highly-educated form. Many cities have significant gay communities within them. Segregation by race and ethnicity is finally breaking down. Globalization has increased the flux of visitors and new residents from all over the world. For a person, particularly a young person enmeshed in this stew of different cultures and attitudes the unabashed "whiteness" and intolerance of the Republican Party must be incomprehensible.

Living in a large city carries with it an important lesson. Cities cannot function without an effective and reliable government presence. Try living in a city where the trash doesn’t get picked up on time; where the public transit system is unreliable; where the police can’t be depended upon; where a single malfunctioning traffic light can be a disaster. How can a small government message connect with people who live in and appreciate a big government presence?

Cities also cannot function unless everyone, or nearly everyone, plays by the same rules. Cities breed a communitarian spirit, not a libertarian one.

One could go on into education and belief systems in discussing how urban and rural citizens might have different political views. The examples above should suffice to explain the observed tendencies.

Cities have changed in character since the 1980s, but the Republican Party has changed even more. The shrinking of the rural population and the increase of the urban population is a development the Republicans might find fatal.

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