It’s true across many industrialized democracies that rural areas lean conservative while cities tend to be more liberal, a pattern partly rooted in the history of workers’ parties that grew up where urban factories did.
But urban-rural polarization has become particularly acute in America: particularly entrenched, particularly hostile, particularly lopsided in its consequences. Urban voters, and the party that has come to represent them, now routinely lose elections and power even when they win more votes.
Democrats have blamed the Senate, the Electoral College and gerrymandering for their disadvantage. But the problem runs deeper, according to Jonathan Rodden, a Stanford political scientist: The American form of government is uniquely structured to exacerbate the urban-rural divide — and to translate it into enduring bias against Democratic voters.
Yes, the Senate gives rural areas (and small states) disproportionate strength.
“That’s an obvious problem for Democrats,” Rodden said. “This other problem is a lot less obvious.”
In a new book, “Why Cities Lose,” he describes the problem as endemic, affecting Congress but also state legislatures; red states but blue ones, too. As the Democratic Party is tugged between its progressive and moderate wings heading into the next election, Rodden’s analysis also suggests that if Democrats move too far to the left, geography will punish them.
In the United States, where a party’s voters live matters immensely. That’s because most representatives are elected from single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes wins, as opposed to a system of proportional representation, as some democracies have.
Democrats tend to be concentrated in cities and Republicans to be more spread out across suburbs and rural areas. The distribution of all of the precincts in the 2016 election shows that while many tilt heavily Democratic, fewer lean as far in the other direction.
As a result, Democrats have overwhelming power to elect representatives in a relatively small number of districts — whether for state House seats, the state Senate or Congress — while Republicans have at least enough power to elect representatives in a larger number of districts.
Republicans, in short, are more efficiently distributed in a system that rewards spreading voters across space.
This helps explain why Republicans have controlled the Pennsylvania state Senate for nearly four decades, despite losing statewide votes about half that time. It explains why Republicans are routinely overrepresented in state legislatures, even in blue states like New York. It explains why Hillary Clinton carried only three of eight congressional districts in Minnesota — districts drawn by a panel of judges — even as she won the whole state.
In most European democracies, geography doesn’t matter in the same way. Legislators are elected from larger districts, each with multiple representatives, granting parties proportional power. If a party wins 50% of the votes, it doesn’t matter much if those votes are evenly spread around or tightly clustered.
Britain, Australia and Canada, unlike much of Europe, have the same majoritarian system the United States does, and urban-rural divides appear there, too. Underrepresentation of the left, Rodden argues, is a feature of any democracy that draws winner-take-all districts atop a map where the left is concentrated in cities.
In the United States, two features make this polarization even more powerful. Gerrymandering, a particularly American practice, allows Republicans to amplify their advantages in the political map. Democrats gerrymander, too, but often the most they can achieve is to neutralize their underlying disadvantage.
The U.S. also has an inflexible two-party system. That results in our political disagreements being drawn into the urban-rural divide. Today the urban party is also the party of same-sex marriage and gun control. The more rural party is also the party of stricter immigration and abortion restrictions.
We keep adding more reasons to double down on geography as our central fault line, and to view our policy disagreements as conflicts between fundamentally different ways of living.
Recent history has obscured the consequences of all this for the Democratic Party, which controlled the House for nearly all of the postwar period leading up to the Gingrich Revolution in 1994. Democrats were able to do that — and to retake the House in 2018 — by winning seats on what resembled Republican territory. Democrats need moderate “blue dogs,” Rodden argues, to overcome their geographic disadvantage.
Historically, split-ticket voting has been asymmetrical. Many districts that voted Republican in presidential elections supported moderate Democrats for Congress that year or in the following midterm. But the reverse has been more rare. Republicans have seldom picked off congressional districts that voted for the Democrat for president.
“They’ve not as a matter of survival needed to do that,” Rodden said. “Democrats need to do it even in a good year.”
In the wave election in 2018, Democrats eked out precisely such districts, many in suburbs that had long voted Republican, with candidates who were avowedly moderate.
However, split-ticket voting has become far less common, as the parties have more clearly staked out their differences, and as local elections have become nationalized. Both trends make it harder for individual Democratic candidates to separate themselves from the national party — to stand for both low taxes and abortion rights, say, or the Affordable Care Act and the Second Amendment.
Three red-state Democratic senators, Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly, lost in 2018 in such an environment.
“You have this great strategy available to you as a Republican: Just talk about AOC all the time,” Rodden said, referring to the progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York. “Talk about Nancy Pelosi. They say, ‘This is what it means to have a ‘D’ next to your name, you’re signing up for that team.’ That makes it so hard to be a suburban Salt Lake City, suburban Oklahoma City Democrat.”
The median congressional district in America looks ideologically more Republican, Rodden finds. And so Democrats have to find a way to win in those places, even as the progressive wing of the party is ascendant and lobbying for control of the party’s message.
If Democrats hold onto some suburbs they recently flipped — a possibility as suburbia diversifies and as college-educated whites move toward the Democrats — Republicans could one day be as concentrated in rural areas as Democrats have been in cities.
In that situation, one where Republicans pack their votes more tightly in rural America and the median suburban district becomes slightly Democratic, the urban party might actually start to benefit from geographic polarization. But there will still always be the Senate.