Back to the Land

Today the Pew Research Center released a gigantic and fascinating report on increasing levels of political polarization in America, and while many people will be picking over the data, there's one particular thing I want to point to. One of the questions they asked was this: "If you could live anywhere in the United States that you wanted to, would you prefer a city, a suburban area, a small town or a rural area?" The results were stark:

Everyone has their preferences, of course. But I find it remarkable that a full 76 percent of consistently conservative respondents say they'd rather live in a rural area or a small town, as do 66 percent of those who are mostly conservative. And only a tiny 4 percent of the consistently conservative said they'd like to live in a city. Among Republicans as a whole, 34 percent said they'd prefer to live in a rural area, and another 31 percent in small towns.

So my question is, what's stopping them? If you want to move to someplace in the middle of Kansas, they'd be happy to have you, and housing is cheap. But America has been growing steadily less rural since the country's founding; every census since 1800 has found a smaller percentage of Americans living in rural areas than the census before it (there's a nice chart here that shows the progression). In 2012, only 15 percent of Americans lived in rural counties.

The easiest answer to the question of why all these conservatives aren't moving to rural areas is that there just aren't enough opportunities there. Cities are expensive, but they're also a place where there are jobs to be had. But I also suspect that like the politicians who represent them, they pay lip service to the gentle lifestyle and all-American values of small towns, but their affection doesn't quite extend as far as actually going to live there.

Every time you hear a politician extoll the virtues of small towns, the first thing you should ask is: "Does that guy actually live in a small town?" Because chances are he grew up in one, then moved to the big city to make his way in the world. If he hadn't, you wouldn't have ever heard of him; he'd be the mayor of Smallville, not a candidate for president. If you have big ambitions, staying in a small town is going to be a big problem. So today, the politician tells you of his small town roots and all the valuable things he learned there to assure you that he's still connected to the common folk. But as for himself, he got the hell out a long time ago. 


Once you move to a small town, you're basically stuck there by low real estate prices. Example: it's say 1990, you've got a house or a condo reasonably close to LA, and you think you can make it as an independent author or software writer or whatever in a nice rural area. So you sell your house for 200,000 bucks or so and eventually settle in East Unknown, Idaho where you buy a 150,000 home -- nicer actually than what you had in LA, though you suspect winter heating bills will take up some of the difference.

A year goes by, and your independent career hasn't taken off. Maybe two years. Time to move back to LA you decide -- LA wasn't wonderful, it was filled with obnoxious liberals and other riffraff, but an engineering job in LA paid 70,000 per year, and the best work anything like that you can find in East Unknown is 30,000 per year.

But alas, the best offer you can get on your house in East Unknown is 155,000 -- less than you paid, taking inflation into account. And in LA, something like the house you used to have, in an area comparable to where you lived before, is now 250,000 or 275,000 dollars, or perhaps even more.

So moving back is going to be a pain. And if you had been listening, everybody who knew and liked you before you embarked on your great Idaho adventure had been trying to warn you about that. And maybe you should have done a better job of listening...

And that's one take on why rural-loving conservatives stay in the big city.

Got to tell you, I loved the year and a half I spent in rural Colorado, back in the lack 1980s. The views were gorgeous, I liked the people, I loved my house. But I wasn't making a living -- and when I came back to LA, the aerospace engineering business was in a nose dive and never recovered, and I haven't owned a house since. So I speak with some authority here.

This is a hugely complicated issue.

I live in one of the bluest (maybe the bluest) rural areas in the US, the Berkshires of MA. Many of us are happy here (compare areas in VT, ME sort of, parts of CT -- NH is, weirdly, almost completely out of this idyll) because we have access to the best of both worlds. Birds waking you up in the morning; 3 hours from NYC and Boston. (And you don't even have to drive to either place for all kinds of "culture.") Our children have great schools. There are jobs for professional-class types -- who can also commute. Need I mention water? You need to be near water, weather lakes, rivers, ocean. Thanks to modern transportation, we're near all three. Most of all, you know one another -- neighborhood (hardly limited to small towns, but for some reason, people tend to associate neighborhood with small towns only).

I'm pretty sure that most people, conservative or liberal, longs for everything that each imagined environment offers. ASSERTING this longing in the way the Pew survey picks up may be a conservative tick these days, that's all.

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