The Rural Challenge for Democrats
The Democratic Party’s decade-plus-long collapse in rural and micropolitan America stands as one of the great obstacles to strengthening the nation’s democracy. Owing to institutional constraints that limit simple majoritarian rule—the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate in particular—rural regions exert a disproportionate influence on elections, the geographic distribution of political power, and the strength of party coalitions. Gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state legislatures compounds this dynamic by either clustering liberal-leaning voters in a few districts or splitting them across boundaries that favor conservatives.
But rather than identify their weakness in nonmetro areas as a problem to be solved through traditional party-building efforts, too many of today’s Democrats regard rural America with a mixture of resignation, denial, and disdain. Beset with a rural reputation frequently described as “toxic,” the party’s inept approach is reflected in maps of partisan control. With the exception of a handful of seats, congressional Democrats draw power from the coasts and large cities (at 40 seats, the California delegation alone makes up nearly 20 percent of the 212-strong House Democratic caucus). Office-holding at the state level similarly tracks the party’s overreliance on the Northeastern seaboard and West coast in presidential elections. Were it not for concerted efforts by local Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan during the 2022 midterms, Illinois would be the only state legislature controlled by Democrats in the Midwest; unsurprisingly, they control none in the South. While newer organizations such as the States Project, a belated effort by Democrats to loosen the grip of rightwing groups like ALEC on state legislatures, have quietly invested millions of dollars in select races, Democrats continue to cede important offices to Republicans.
All this suggests that despite sounding a new alarm every week about the march of MAGA-style neofascism, a broad spectrum within the party refuses to come to terms with strategic errors that have worsened regional polarization since the Tea Party wave election of 2010. The party’s activist left and elite echelons remain, for all intents and purposes, united in outlook when it comes to the rural-urban divide. While there are many disagreements between these two main wings on policy and rhetoric, both progressives and establishmentarian liberals basically concur that Democratic prospects in more rural areas are bleak and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
This dynamic can be observed foremost in their respective electoral strategies and spending habits. For example, while there is occasional talk of channeling rural America’s own traditions of left-wing populism, progressive organizations such as Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America have primarily focused on challenging business-friendly incumbents in deep blue cities. The donor class, for its part, has quite predictably rebuffed plausible pro-labor candidates in the Midwest (see Tim Ryan and Lucas Kunce) and consequential down-ballot contests while exhibiting a strange addiction to pouring money into mediocre, pseudo-celebrity candidates who lose badly to entrenched Republicans.
Both tendencies reveal that neither faction is concerned with figuring out how restore a viable foothold in rural counties. As they both see it, the mix of cultural, demographic, and political-economic indicators in rural America is too potent for Democrats to overcome. The result is that rural America, along with less prosperous suburbs and small Rust Belt cities, has become increasingly equated with Trump country.
As various liberal-leaning outlets and authors have not-so-subtly suggested, rural America is the refuge of the white lumpenproletariat, a culturally barren landscape steeped in Christian nationalism, Second Amendment zealotry, and Trump-fueled conspiracy theories. On top of its anti-globalist and nativist reputation, a violent streak is thought to run through rural America. Already exacerbated by the opioid crisis, rural crime was on the rise before spiking during the pandemic. In contrast to this creeping sense of social breakdown in the hinterlands and places where trade shocks and automation had eliminated key employers, several major cities could boast of crime rates at or near thirty-year lows. (Although urban crime likewise surged from 2020 to 2022, a recent decline in violent crime across 37 cities has somewhat ameliorated deep unease among liberal constituencies.) Like a mirror image of right-wingers’ racialized notion of urban “no-go” zones, much of rural America is seen as actively hostile, not merely impervious, to the contemporary liberal worldview.
There are plenty of signs that Republican-trending regions are taking a radical, more overtly authoritarian turn, as evidenced by the number of election-deniers in local and national office. But the spread of far-right activism in rural parts only attests to the weakness of Democratic party infrastructure outside coastal cities. The habit, meanwhile, of characterizing significant swathes of the electorate as a threat to progressive identities and democratic norms reflects the extent to which affective polarization clouds liberal thinking about how to build more robust coalitions. By assuming rural counties are headed irreversibly toward extreme illiberalism, Democratic power brokers and urban activists are condemned to perpetuate the very conditions that have facilitated the rise of far-right Republican officials in the first place. They conveniently ignore that accepting the GOP’s lock on rural counties is itself a concession to gerrymandering and the steady corruption of local democracy.
Such pessimism reveals there are underlying conceptual limits to the economic populism Democrats have rediscovered in recent years. Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson, modern liberals are reluctant to look past sociocultural cleavages in order to remedy the plight of rural and micropolitan regions—in this case, the steady erosion of past gains in areas like life expectancy, disease rates, and poverty reduction. Instead, small town America’s antipathies and resentments have fueled liberal anxiety over how much the Biden administration’s national industrial strategy favors regions controlled by Republicans over solid blue enclaves. As President Biden noted in August:
A lot of Democrats are getting mad at me because we’re investing actually more in red states than blue states right now. But they’re all Americans. I made a promise no matter where, and folks, red states, blue states, urban, suburban or rural—all of that will benefit from what we do.
It would be one thing, of course, if liberal frustration focused on issues like Republicans’ hypocritical approach to climate investments and local tax and welfare policies that make red states so-called moocher states. Increasingly, however, it appears that skepticism about the ways regional economic development might attenuate polarization stems from the idea that America’s multiracial working-class is itself divided over the direction the economy should take. When it’s not wallowing in economic backwardness—since 2016, Democratic counties have been identified as mostly synonymous with the nation’s GDP growth—the economic goals of rural and Rust Belt communities are thought to clash with the progressive vision of sustainable development. In addition to overly protectionist views on trade, these constituencies are seen as simply too wedded to extractive industries and too close-minded about whatever opportunities that might come their way via the energy transition and green manufacturing.
The supposed pervasiveness of “climate denialism,” in particular, has helped justify the Democrats’ disengagement. Whereas liberals concerned with small town America’s deepening loyalty to the GOP used to ask the question, “Why do blue-collar whites vote against their economic interests?” they are increasingly resigned to the idea that most of these interests are, in fact, fundamentally at odds with the climate goals of the Democratic coalition. From this standpoint, even targeted investments in more rural regions furnished by the Inflation Reduction Act and other place-based industrial policies will yield little in the way of political advantage. Some rural voters might come around to renewables, but economic diversification and opportunity stimulated by federal policies won’t translate into partisan shifts.
Each foreboding dimension of rural America reinforces the Democrats’ commitment to a seductive narrative about the country’s inexorable demographic change and urban future. On the surface this would appear to be rational: outreach should prioritize places where electorates are swelling, not stagnant. In line with the party’s steadfast courtship of knowledge workers, population growth in college towns since the turn-of-the-century has buttressed Democratic hegemony in nearly every major city. Provided they can dominate the diminishing spread of suburban swing districts, Democrats hope to swamp the deficit in rural counties with ever larger margins in diverse blue metros, including those in the Southeast and Southwest. Notwithstanding the widespread fear that a Trump victory in 2024 will prove a mortal blow to American democracy, the expectation is that the Democrats are just two or three election cycles away from a popular vote majority that permanently tilts the Electoral College in their favor.
That bet rests on a few tenuous assumptions, however. First, it assumes the party can prevent defections from its working-class base while making further inroads with well-off professionals—but recent GOP gains among Latinos and blacks suggest otherwise. As moderates and the left alike recognize, the Democrats have, on balance, been gaining the upper hand in affluent suburbs—a trend that seems likely to continue in the near-term and which some progressives have embraced, in contrast to those leftists concerned by the conservative drift of industrial workers. In fact, House Democrats now represent a majority of districts that are whiter and wealthier.
Second and relatedly, Democratic strategists and advocacy groups anticipate that a kind of “popular front” of the Sunbelt’s upwardly mobile—a combination of the new black, Latino, and Asian middle classes and those suburban white moderates who have gradually transformed from Never Trump Republicans into regular Democrats—will consolidate, fatally weakening GOP power in the South. In turn, this bloc will serve as a counterpart to (and maybe even become more important than) the Democrats’ eroded but enduring “blue wall” in the upper Midwest.
As with Democratic tallies elsewhere, this regional realignment is entirely contingent on deeper mobilizations in core cities and the affluent, liberal-leaning commuter enclaves that ring them. Never mind that Democrats’ chronic underperformance in Florida and majority-minority Texas—and their precarious standing in Arizona—does not appear to weigh on these heady forecasts.
In sum, all these judgments have gradually reframed overtures to rural and lower-density Rust Belt areas as not simply futile but undesirable. If it was once conceivable that the Democrats could have stanched the loss of rural voters a decade or two ago, attempting to do so now would be a misuse of resources when compared to other vote-getting strategies.
More importantly, the electoral architects of modern progressivism believe, such an appeal would conflict with a culturally progressive party brand that is instrumental to modulating class and foreign policy-based tensions within the current coalition. Since college-educated urbanites, aka the “Brahmin left,” increasingly favor higher taxes on the wealthy, and since party elites have become more versed in contemporary “social justice” jargon, it is assumed that “equity”-based intentions and shared values obviate the need for an alternative strategy. At this point, of course, any serious proposal to rethread the Democrats’ past coalition of urban and rural voters would contradict the very strategies the consultant class has honed since the ascent of Barack Obama.
There are signs, however, that Democrats continue to withdraw from rural and peri-urban regions at their peril. Contrary to media narratives last decade that juxtaposed booming, “inclusive” cities with a homogenous, backward-looking interior, the white population has declined in 96 percent of U.S. counties since 2010, demonstrating that the country’s leap in diversity is by no means limited to major metros with established immigrant hubs. Significantly, these shifts have extended to rural America and the Midwest. In 2020, 24 percent of rural Americans were people of color, up by 3.5 percent over 2010, and nearly a third of rural children had a minority background. In the Midwest, where the population is generally whiter and older, smaller cities and towns have seen some of the highest rates of diversification in the country. Although still concentrated in large and mid-sized metros, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast, the growth rate of Latino and Asian populations from 2010 to 2020 similarly points to rising diversity in micropolitan and rural areas in the next decade.
Some strategists, of course, might contend that these developments don’t change the calculus that Democrats should focus on driving up margins in the urban Sunbelt. They might also insist that any rise in pluralism in more rural counties is overshadowed by the rural depopulation that unfolded last decade (a phenomenon that seemed to only heighten liberals’ fears and assumptions about who stayed behind). It is true that rural America’s subsequent growth since 2020 has been driven, in part, by the migration of wealthier Americans to picturesque towns based on recreation and tourism. Many rural and small-town areas must still grapple with the lowly status of being places where deaths outnumber births. Simply put, young people who want to start families are attracted to places where the tax base for public schools and other amenities is healthy and growing—not shrinking.
While there remain infrastructural and other economic factors inhibiting faster diversification and population growth outside metro areas, the post-pandemic landscape nevertheless points toward more rural, outer suburban, and micropolitan growth. And the reasons should trouble Democrats. For starters, large blue cities have become victims of the economic success they’ve enjoyed since the mid-1990s. As they pulled in new streams of low-income immigrants, college-educated ones, and aspiring professionals with suburban backgrounds, blue cities touted their economic turnaround and unparalleled multiculturalism. Yet they mismanaged their growth and were slow to respond to rising inequality as well as persistent pockets of high unemployment and underemployment among nonwhites. Gentrification and labor-market stratification transformed neighborhoods, forcing many working-class residents out. The affordability crisis roiling coastal cities is now so bad that even salaried degree-holders are departing for less expensive cities and the suburbs.
It is important to consider whether the combination of persistent economic discontent in major blue cities with these emerging migration patterns could splinter the Democratic coalition. Rent inflation, exacerbated by the housing shortage, has eroded the purchasing power of the Democrats’ urban working-class base, dampening inclusive growth in prosperous metros. The first two years of the pandemic also had a disproportionate impact: while many professionals who were granted work-from-home arrangements elected to decamp to less densely populated areas, others faced a much starker choice. Pushed to the brink by extended school closures and disrupted employment (not all were able to successfully navigate state unemployment insurance systems), working and middle-class families weighed whether to soldier on or seek opportunity elsewhere.
The decisions fueling outmigration have often been fraught. Inflation, though tempered, remains ubiquitous. More urgently, the spread of the acute housing crisis to the suburbs has, for many, dashed expectations of more space at significantly lower cost. Higher interest rates have undoubtedly deferred the plans of many would-be first-time homebuyers in search of a starter home. Still, something is happening in blue cities that is inverting the calculations of immigrant families, African-Americans, and white progressives who once believed living in a major city was central to their economic future.
The pandemic-era exodus from blue cities has amplified two trends that became pronounced last decade: the migration of black Americans from Northern cities toward Southern regions with a lower cost-of-living as well as the migration of minorities, particularly Latinos and Asians, to the suburbs. In the latter case, increasing diversity has resulted in a new socioeconomic complexity in places where Clinton Democrats and Bush Republicans once competed over the proverbial white soccer mom. But while Democrats may assume these changes in the suburbs automatically play to their advantage, their aforementioned surge in whiter, wealthier suburbs—several of which are former bastions of the old GOP establishment—should give them pause. It could be the case that partisan loyalties among liberal-leaning minorities who relocate to the suburbs and small-towns will remain unchanged and that the migration of voters from the coasts to Sunbelt cities and suburbs will only increase Democratic competitiveness. But it is also possible loyalties will fray, particularly if Democrats appear unresponsive to their housing needs and the cost-of-living.
The great risk is that the vast middle in search of upward mobility, good public schools, and decent housing may sense they’ve been taken for granted if Democratic promises to “restore the middle class” appear to go unfulfilled. On this score, the simultaneous “suburbanization” of poverty over the last twenty years is likewise an issue that bodes ill for Democrats. The party’s success has always depended on broadening opportunity, on meshing growth and inclusive development with social security and a competent public sector.
The lessons from rural America should make it emphatically clear that the party cannot afford to be seen as indifferent to the spread of globalization’s discontents to the suburbs. Nor can it afford to be seen as a political agent of population churn in “superstar cities” that spit out struggling denizens to outlying towns. The risk, underestimated by the party’s well-off politicians as well as its identitarian left flank, is that the party’s image becomes Janus-faced, an incongruous mix of affluence and academia-certified victimhood that leaves more and more voters worried about their life chances cold.
After a decade of dithering, the Democrats under Biden have finally begun to implement policies that could reverse the bifurcation of the economy between privileged, asset-holding knowledge workers and the rest. On this score, Biden’s instincts about the ways green domestic manufacturing, energy infrastructure, and the skilled trades could revive rural America’s relevance to the national economy are right. But national Democrats must commit to this vision and put forth an explicit rural and micropolitan redevelopment strategy. Against the glib advice of some pundits, this means an even stronger emphasis on manufacturing and technical education, building affordable homes, revitalizing “main street” commercial districts, and other policies that ensure both the equitable spread of fixed investment and conditions that promote stable families and family formation among the working-class.
Otherwise, the vaunted coalition of the ascendant will continue to fragment, diversifying redder regions not on the basis of hope but diminished expectations. The outcome will be a very different realignment than the one dreamed of by pragmatic progressives.
Justin Vassallo is a freelance writer who specializes in American political development and comparative/international political economy, with an additional focus on social democratic and progressive policymaking.