Rural versus Urban
September 2004; January, July 2005

You can split up and categorize the US voting public any number of ways. One way is to split them up into rural and urban groups. Rural states and congressional districts vote mostly Republican, and urban states and counties vote mostly Democrat. Here in Washington state, it looks like the November election will be close, with the urban Puget Sound area staunchly in Kerry's camp balanced against rural eastern Washington, staunchly backing Bush.

Here are some observations on the split between rural and urban US culture from a variety of angles.


Natural versus Artificial

Rural culture comes from an environment that is primarily natural, while urban culture comes from an environment that is primarily artificial.


In a natural environment, your choices are your own. It's up to you to decide which trees to cut, which mines to dig, which fish to catch, and which crops to plant. Your challenges are weather, wildlife, and the natural elements. So are your resources. The lifestyle fosters a sense of independence, epitomized in the image of the pioneer.


In an artificial environment, your choices are contributions to group choices. Urban careers depend on other people. Laborers need employers, lawyers need clients, retailers need buyers, and bankers needs borrowers. Your challenges are competition from other people. Your resources are also other people. The lifestyle fosters a sense of interdependence.


In a natural environment, the rules are God's rules. It's not up to you how long the seasons are, where lodes of minerals are located, or what wildlife lives where. Laws are nature's laws.


In an artificial environment, the rules are humans' rules. Zoning codes, labor laws, interest rates, and traffic laws are human inventions. Laws are human, relativist laws.


In a rural culture, citizens want to be left alone. Regulations, such as environmental laws, are intrusions. In an artificial culture, regulations are inevitable. Urban culture is impossible without regulations, so the urban issue is which regulations we should live under.


Government initiatives, such as universal health care, make sense in urban culture. In the urban culture, good government is about prudent interdependence. In rural culture, which values independence, these same initiatives are intrusions. Income tax makes sense in urban culture. Urban economy is an artificial construct. Paying to maintain that construct is reasonable. Income tax makes less sense to rural culture. Rural economy is natural, not an artificial construct. The natural environment doesn't need revenue to sustain it.


Jefferson and Hamilton

Early in the history of the US, Jefferson and Hamilton embodied the split between urban and rural. Jefferson, a Virginian slaveholder, idealized the culture of the yeoman farmer, the rural, independent soul. Hamilton successfully nurtured a growing urban culture of banking, wage labor, and corporate industry.


The Union and the Confederacy

The US Civil War was a conflict between rural and urban culture, the South and the North.


The South had consciously modeled itself after medieval feudalism. Wealth was land and the people to work it for you. Several southern states went so far as to make jousting their official sport. The view of the Old South as the heir of the Middle Ages is captured in the introduction to "Gone With the Wind," which reads:


There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.


The North embraced industry. Wealth was physical and intellectual capital: stocks and bonds, patents, business plans.


Urban and Rural Political Power in the 20th Century

In Reynolds v. Sims (1964) and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), the US Supreme Court ruled that state legislature districts and US congressional districts had to be proportionate to population. Previous to these rulings, rural districts had disproportionate representation at the state and federal levels. These groundbreaking "one man, one vote" rulings led to increased power of urban districts.


I'd like to say that liberal policies followed this political change, but so much liberalization was already underway that I can't say to what extent equalizing urban clout was the result of liberal ideas or the cause. Probably it was both, and equalizing the urban vote extended the ongoing campaign of liberalization.


Religion in Country and City

Conservative religious groups have preferred rural to urban life. The Pilgrims left their homes to create new communities in the untamed land of North America. Two hundred years later, the Mormons followed suit, striking off across the wilderness to build a new home for themselves far from the hostile cities of the east. The Mennonites and Amish remain markedly conservative and rural. The Jehovah's Witnesses are conservative but not rural. For their part, however, they avoid involvement in urban life, to the point of not voting.


One of the most liberal of religious groups in the US, Jews, are decidedly urban. With traditions that fostered learning and Christian laws that barred them from owning land, European Jews had long made their place in urban culture as lawyers, scholars, physicians, and moneylenders. Rural culture in the States, on the other hand, includes a strong strain of anti-Semitism.


America the Country Cousin

The US is more conservative than Europe. Lack of universal health care, limited gun control, and the death penalty, for example, are telling features of US culture. The US is also more rural than Europe. It's not clear that the urban segment of the US is that much more conservative than Europe. If US policy were set by only urban voters, it would look a lot more European.


Urban Republicans

What about city-living Republicans? They're more likely to lean Libertarian, to be economic rather than social conservatives. The rural-urban divide doesn't mean that all Republicans are rural. But it does mean that urban Republicans tend to be more liberal on social issues than rural Republicans.


Hillbillies on Children's Television

In the politically correct, urban world of children's television, the one ethnic group you can caricature and make fun of is rural whites. On Lizzie McGuire (Disney), the title character clowned around as a hillbilly to embody the opposite of style and fashion. The Amanda Show (Nickelodeon) has "Hillbilly Moment" as a regular feature. Equally insulting caricatures of Jews or blacks would not be remotely thinkable.


Country and Rock

Country and western music skews conservative. Exceptions, such as the Dixie Chicks, suffer. Rock skews liberal, with Bono as the poster child for liberal rock stars. It's rock and rap (even more urban that rock) that the conservatives want to censor.



United States of Texas: A tangent on conservatism and rural culture in the US.