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.