One of the fundamental dichotomies separating America’s ideological halves was further reinforced last week, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released statistics revealing a continuing decline in the Nation’s rural population.
The USDA’s most recent assessment shows that America’s non-metropolitan population has fallen by some 100,000 since 2010, even though the overall population of the U.S. has continued to grow.
Recent year-by-year statistics may suggest a slowdown — USDA figures show a loss of 28,000 in 2012-2013, compared with 47,500 the previous year — but numbers in the tens of thousands are too small to form a basis for broader, long-term generalizations.
The USDA acknowledges how difficult it is to predict future population trends with confidence, observing greatly erratic patterns of growth and decline in America’s rural counties. As their map indicates, population growth and population loss in non-metropolitan areas is often a leapfrog phenomenon between neighboring counties.
The urban-rural split in the U.S. isn’t simply geographic. It has cultural and ideological implications that have provided an ongoing source of debate, among those who would define what it means to be American, since before the time of Jefferson. Here’s a fascinating map, taken from the Freedom’s Lighthouse blog, that illustrates how all counties in the lower 48 States and Hawaii voted in the 2012 Presidential election. The familiar red=Republican and blue=Democrat convention applies, with more intense color representing more lopsided party voting:
“The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside,” Josh Kron wrote for The Atlantic in late 2012:
Not just some cities and some rural areas, either — virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer about where people live, it’s about how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy — or amid rough-and-tumble, in-your-face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.
The voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.
That’s a weighty statement. Whether you agree, it’s hard to dismiss the idea that the health of America’s body politic is permanently contingent on how — or whether — the Nation continues to reconcile country and city values, country and city life.
Note: It’s always a good idea to take government data with a grain of salt. It’s often the only data out there, but the government’s methods and motives are always inscrutable. Here’s a tidbit from the Senate Republican Policy Committee concerning redundancy at the USDA:
The federal government uses 15 definitions of “rural,” including 11 at USDA alone. “These varying definitions have become a baroque example of redundancy and duplication in Washington,” according to a June 8, 2013 article in the Washington Post. “They mean extra costs for taxpayers — and extra hassle for small-town officials — as separate offices ask them the same question in up to 15 different ways.” While there is bipartisan support to reform the quagmire of competing definitions, one Obama administration agency — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — plans to create yet another one.