When I was born in 1931, more than 40% of Americans still lived in rural areas. Today, that number has shrunk enormously. These rural areas, which make up the vast majority of the landmass of the United States, have fewer than one-thousand people per square mile (about 1.5 per acre). In contrast, New York City has over 24 thousand inhabitants per square mile (and Manhattan boasts a whopping 66 thousand per square mile).
I will leave it to others to more deeply unpack how and why this shift occurred, but at least one aspect seems obvious: cities concentrate job opportunity and entertainment, almost by definition. But while it is important to understand why people have chosen to live in cities, it is absolutely vital that we understand the resulting effects on our nation’s attitudes, culture, and politics.
I am far from the first person to ask these questions. In 2008, Bill Bishop published The Big Sort, an account of Americans’ movement not just into cities, but into clusters of like-minded people. The result has been an increase in the number of “landslide counties”, counties in which one candidate wins at least 60% of the vote. In the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reports, 2,474 counties were won by a landslide, while as recently as 1992, only 1,125 were.
An even closer look at the numbers suggests that the rise in landslide counties is closely tied to the exodus of Americans from rural counties to urban counties. For example, there were 242 Democratic landslide counties in 2016 and 2,232 Republican landslide counties, but Democratic landslide counties contained a total of 99 million people while Republican landslide counties only contained 94 million. Meanwhile, Democratic landslide counties encompassed 235,485 square miles (7% of the United States) while Republican landslide counties encompassed an astounding 2,069,967 square miles (59% of the United States). That means that a square mile of a Democratic landslide county contained on average 420 people, and a square mile of Republican landslide county contained a mere 45. And as FiveThirtyEight.com notes, even in America’s reddest states, cities are reliably blue.
Trump succeeded in the election largely by pitting the inhabitants of rural America, who feel increasingly marginalized, against the big-city types, who are seen as smug and overbearing. And as the tension between city and country increase, so too does the cultural and political warfare that has come to dominate our politics (and occasionally has erupted into literal violence).
One possible counter measure would be to confront our Big Sort with a Great Scramble, to find some way to ‘move’ some apartment-dwellers into the country, and some country-folks into the city. That way, everyone could be reminded that we all put our blue jeans on one leg at a time. The result would likely be some reversal of the distrust that has soured our national conversation and made a mess of our politics.
If my “Great Scramble” sounds a bit too “Cultural Revolution” for your tastes, modern technology offers us a possible ingenious solution. It would be easy enough to create an app to pair city-dwellers with rural counterparts and give them an opportunity to have non-controversial and productive conversations via Skype with strangers, and political opposites, and learn about one another without the disruptions of leaving their own homes.
But whatever the solution turns out to be, something must be done to get more Americans back on the same page and map! That can only happen if more of those people get to know each other, even a bit, and talk about LIFE!