The Oldest Divide
With roots dating back to our Founding, America’s urban-rural split is wider than ever.
Of all the growing divides in America—red-blue, conservative-liberal, Republican-Democrat, white-nonwhite—none is sharper than that between city and country. The nation’s urbanites increasingly govern those living in the hinterlands, even as vanishing rural Americans still feed and fuel the nation. At the nation’s birth, it took nine farmers to feed one city dweller. Today, one farmer supports 99 urbanites—evidence, supposedly, that almost everyone has been freed from the drudgery of agricultural work.
City and country are not coequals by any demographic, political, or cultural measure. The urban is growing and ascendant; the rural shrinks and becomes increasingly culturally irrelevant. California is now the most urbanized state in the nation. Over 95 percent of the population lives in what the census classifies as urban clusters of 50,000 people or more—an underappreciated phenomenon, given the huge size and mostly open areas of the state. America’s most densely urbanized area is currently the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim basin, where almost 7,000 people crowd in per square mile. Second place goes to the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Area (6,266 people per square mile), and third to the Silicon Valley–San Jose corridor (5,820). Aside from these and the Sacramento and Fresno urban clusters, in terms of geography, California remains mostly an empty state. Housing is cheap in Sanger and is out of reach in Santa Cruz, three hours away, in part because people don’t wish any longer to live in small towns or on homesteads when they can enjoy a culture that puts a premium on going to concerts, the community beach, basketball games, or shopping malls—or, at least, being among people who do.
The urban draw seems counterintuitive, given the spread of high-speed Internet and smartphones that offer everyone the same access to global culture, whether sitting on a tractor in Mendota or finding a space in the Yahoo parking lot. But the attractions of urbanization are not always strictly logical. Having a zip code in Silicon Valley and living in a 600-square-foot studio apartment apparently are preferable to enjoying a 3,000-square-foot, spacious ranch home five miles outside Bakersfield. One cannot put a price on popular culture—sit-coms, hip-hop, blogging, nightclubbing—and its message of being and staying cool. Wanting to live out what’s dramatized hourly on computer and television screens is a powerful inducement.
The urbanization of California and the United States is part of a larger global trend where high-density populated areas extend beyond traditional cities to vast swaths of suburban sprawl. A uniformity of fashion, habit, and dress spreads as regionalism fades. Sameness becomes aspirational. Living in Atlanta resembles living in Boston more than it does life in rural Georgia. Small-town Porterville, California, has more in common with upstate New York towns than with Los Angeles, just two hours away. Compare a Western movie of the 1940s with a contemporary Western, and one can appreciate the difficulty facing a Hollywood director: the accents of today’s actors seem more San Fernando Valley or the Mall of America than old New Mexico or Montana, more Ben Affleck than Ben Johnson. Our newsreaders, too, look and talk the same, whether in Minneapolis or San Diego. The Southern or New England accent is increasingly replaced with the newsreader’s unaccented, urban-flat sound. The few in America who still speak with ossified regional accents are more likely identifiable as simply “rural” than as Floridian or Montanan.
California also reflects the political and cultural divides that are turning the United States into two asymmetrical societies. Except for a few razor-close Republican wins in Phoenix, Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth—and a bigger victory in Mormon Salt Lake City—no major American city voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In supposedly solid right-wing red states, urban areas still vote solidly Democratic—even in Texas, where Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio go blue. Twenty-seven out the nation’s major 30 cities voted Democratic in 2012.
This trend of an America becoming more urban, more uniform, and more liberal, at least in presidential races, can best be appreciated by looking at election maps broken down by county, rather than by state. At first glance, the United States appears as a sea of red, excepting the rather geographically small (but demographically huge) areas along the Eastern and Western coasts, a few big cities around the Great Lakes, the Southern and Mississippi River urban clusters, and a few others in Colorado and New Mexico. Yet when the maps are enhanced not just by county election results but also by population density, the resulting cartogram reflects blue balloons expanding over shrinking red space. What’s happening in California—a rather narrow but densely populated blue coastal corridor adjacent to a far larger but emptier red interior—is happening to the nation at large.
But what, exactly, causes city and country people to become so opposite politically, culturally, and socially?
Rural living historically has encouraged independence—and it still does, even in the globalized and wired twenty-first century. Other people aren’t always around to ensure that water gets delivered (and drained), sewage disappears, and snow is removed. For the vast majority of Americans, these and other concerns are the jobs of government bureaucracy and its unionized public workforce. Not so in rural areas, where autonomy and autarky—not narrow specialization—are necessary and fueled by an understanding that machines and tools must be mastered to keep nature in its proper place. Such constant preparedness nurtures skeptical views about the role and size of government, in which the good citizen is defined as someone who can take care of himself.
Note how the urban ideal tends to be just the opposite. Looking to cement his lead among urban unmarried women during his 2012 reelection campaign, Barack Obama ran an interactive web ad, “The Life of Julia.” Its dependency narrative defined the life of an everywoman character as one of cradle-to-grave government reliance—a desirable thing. Julia is proudly and perennially a ward of the state. She can get through school only thanks to Head Start and federally backed student loans. Only the Small Business Administration and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act enable her to find work. Though unmarried, Julia has one child—but no health-care worries, thanks to Obamacare. And in her retirement years, only Social Security and Medicare allow her security, comfort, and the time and wherewithal to volunteer for a communal urban garden, apparently a hobby rather than a critical food source. The subtext of Obama’s message was the assumption of a demographically shrinking, urbanized country, where liberated women find parity only through government dependence. The president was not appealing, as some of his predecessors did, to a confident young married woman who, along with her husband, was struggling to make a family business in farm equipment while raising four kids and saving to build a ranch house on three acres.
On the campaign trail in July 2012, Obama sharpened this notion of the governmentally dependent American: “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Conservatives were aghast; the president had all but denied the history of American individualism, of the rags-to-riches entrepreneur who found success through his singular genius, work ethic, risk-taking, even luck. But Republicans failed to appreciate that “You didn’t build that” resonated with many urban Americans in the same fashion as “The Life of Julia” or upscale law student Sandra Fluke’s whine that she couldn’t afford birth control pills without government help.
When Obamacare supporters wanted to ram the law through Congress, they created the notorious “Pajama Boy” ad—featuring an urban hipster in retro glasses, clad in plaid onesie pajamas. In childlike fashion, Pajama Boy held a cup of hot chocolate and wore a smug expression. “Wear pajamas,” the ad read. “Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” Critics speculated whether the image was a deliberate liberal caricature of a needy metrosexual designed to get the goat of conservatives. But Pajama Boy’s smirk and his message of arrested development and dependence, even if a con, offered a damning portrayal of what millions of urbanites now see as cool: getting up late, staying undressed, and sipping childhood drinks. America’s Marlboro Man he wasn’t.
Most current hot-button social and political issues—deficit spending, defense, gay marriage, transgendered restrooms, amnesty, sanctuary cities, affirmative action, gun control, and abortion—break along rural or urban lines. For rural residents, existential issues on the national level are seen in the same way as personal, physical considerations: Will the country go broke? Is its currency any good? Does it have enough food, fuel, and minerals? Can America defend itself, protect its friends, and punish its enemies?
These concerns differ markedly from the urbanite’s worry about whether the government will provide services to take care of apartment dwellers or whether those of different races, tribes, and religions can get along in such a crowded environment. For the farmer who is not convinced that his almonds will set or for the logger worried that his bulldozed road might get washed out, tradition and rote learning are preferable to change and experimentation. Home is a self-reliant universe; muscle is as important for success as talk; and there is little of the city’s anonymity in which to retreat amid failure and scandal. Rural folk count on shame among intimates, not private guilt, to enforce morality.
The urban-rural divide can be experienced within hours, as one leaves one world and enters a completely antithetical cosmos. I live half the week in a 140-year-old farmhouse in the rural Central Valley of California, the other half in a studio apartment in Palo Alto near the Stanford campus. At my house, I worry constantly about whether the well will go dry. I lock the driveway gate at night, and if someone knocks after 10 PM, I go to the door armed. My neighbors and I know that without water under the ground, we’re finished. So farmers neither pollute the water nor worship it as a sacred deity.
Are the septic tank and leach lines still working? Each night, I check the security lights in the barnyard and watch to ensure that coyotes aren’t creeping too close from the vineyard. I wage a constant battle against the squirrels, woodpeckers, and gophers that undermine the foundation, poke holes in the sheds, and destroy irrigation ditches. We farmers shoot, gas, or poison these destructive pests. If we don’t, they ruin our property and cost us money. I have no idea whether the ground squirrel population is endangered or what exact woodpecker species I blasted apart as he drilled through the barn. Nature is not, as in the urbanist vision, the local well-manicured park flora or the evening weather forecast, but a brutal, uncaring world kept at bay with tractors, chainsaws, and sump pumps. It is omnipresent, omnipotent, and beautiful—but also deadly when it defeats our ability to control it. I have seen a lovely, blooming plum orchard lose its entire crop—and $50,000 of borrowed money—from a spectacular three-minute hailstorm amid a rainbow at sunset.
By contrast, city dwellers own few machines. Even “man caves” are not necessarily garages stuffed with tools. Urbanites thus have fewer worries about maintenance and upkeep and more time to read, brood, and mix with others. Urbanites may work long hours at the office amid thousands of people, but they often remain in a cocooned existence shielded from the physical world. Essential to the neurotic buzz of 24/7 cable news, Twitter, and Facebook is the assumption that millions of Americans are not busy logging, hauling in a net on a fishing boat, or picking peaches. We have forgotten the Roman urban-hipster poet Catullus’s warning to himself: otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:/ otio exsultas nimiumque gestis/ otium et reges prius et beatas perdidit urbes. (“Idleness is a troublesome thing for you, Catullus: In idleness you revel and delight too much: idleness has destroyed both kings and blessed cities before.”) Note how Catullus did not reference the countryside in his worries about idleness and its wages of destruction.
Simply put, too many urban Americans have lots of time on their hands—and in this regard, the deterioration in race relations is largely a city phenomenon. The rural dweller looks at the nocturnal marching and chanting of Black Lives Matter and wonders, “Do the protesters have to be up at 5 AM to get things going?” Nothing is stranger than watching or listening to elite urban white journalists and academics confessing their white privilege to fellow black elites and equally privileged intellectuals—while both groups seem oblivious to class distinctions or to rural white poverty. Does a Cornel West or Chris Rock go to Appalachia or Bakersfield to lecture the white mechanic on why he has it made because of his white skin?
The cursus honorum of the elite that runs the country in politics, finance, journalism, and academia is urban to the core—degrees from brand-name universities, internships at well-connected agencies, residence in New York or Washington, power marriages. The power résumé does not include mechanical apprenticeships, work on ships or oil rigs, knowledge of firearms, or farm, logging, or mining labor—jobs now regulated and overseen by those with little experience of them.
Half the week, when I live in downtown Palo Alto, I have no idea who else lives in the high-rise apartments—and no interest in finding out. I could be a felon or a saint and no one on the street knows or cares. That the rest of the time I live in the same house on the same farm where my great-great-grandparents lived is of no interest. I could dye my hair green and pierce my nose and the reaction would be “so what”—not “Old Victor Hanson out there on Mountain View Avenue finally went crazy.” Few in Silicon Valley know exactly where in the High Sierra their Hetch Hetchy water comes from or where in the bay their sewage is dumped—but they’re adamant that agriculture is allotted too much irrigation water. Food, too, is an abstraction. I doubt that most of my Stanford colleagues know that a raisin is typically a dried Thomson seedless grape or whether a peach or plum needs to be cross-pollinated. During gun-control debates, we often hear pundits confuse shotguns and rifles, yet insist that they know exactly what an assault rifle is and why it should be banned.
In the manner of ancient genres of the pastoral and georgic, the more urban culture grows, the more it romanticizes the rarely visited countryside. What is the attraction of reality TV, especially of the white, blue-collar people that appear in Deadliest Catch, Ice Truckers, Duck Dynasty, or Axe-Men, replete with rural accents, bib overalls, short tempers, propensities to swear and to fight, and lots of broken-down and often dangerous equipment? Are the good ratings based on urban viewers’ vicarious desire to experience hard nature? Or is the draw anthropological, as if the rural white American in Alaska or the Everglades is a rare species not fully understood but fascinating in his natural habitat? Or are these shows therapeutic and condescending reminders that city folks are clearly superior and still have their teeth, solve problems without screaming, watch their weight, and speak a recognizable, standard English?
Urbanites now prefer natural granite counters to tile, wood floors to nylon carpets, and stainless-steel appliances to artificial white enamels. But these supposedly natural tastes don’t lead to a greater appreciation of the miner, the logger, or the fabricator—much less of the abstract idea that before there exists a polished floor or counter in the city, lots of messy operations are needed to force nature to give up its bounty. Like bored Hellenistic court poets who romanticized shepherds’ lives in never-visited Arcadia, Silicon Valley techies like to wear heavy-duty hiking boots and flannel and drive four-wheel-drive SUVs with mud tires. The cause of the delta smelt or the San Joaquin Valley salmon fills a spiritual need for the Sierra Club activist; the livelihood of the Hispanic grape pruner in Caruthers and the poor children of the field irrigator in Five Points do not.
Add all this up, and these days rural man is more likely to be conservative and thus Republican, his urban counterpart liberal and logically Democratic. Freedom is the former’s creed; the equality and sameness of the co-op are the latter’s.
Another symptom of the urban-rural disconnect is trivialization. Given the existential problems facing California—clogged freeways, failing schools, millions of illegal aliens, idled acreage, obscene prices for houses, sky-high power and fuel costs—among the least of worries for the state legislature should be banning plastic bags or mandating gender-neutral school restrooms. Such distractions are possible only because necessities such as food and fuel are plentiful, and their acquisition has become boring to the urbanite in a way that a transgendered march in San Francisco is not. Or is the problem that urban man has no answers for the existential challenges, so he finds psychological refuge for his impotence in obsessing over the trivial?
The ongoing four-year California drought offers a case study of the war between city and country—and of the contradictions inherent in a dependent urban population that is nonetheless clueless about the sources of its imported food and water. Once the state grew to more than 10 million people, California legislators, along with federal officials, and with the full support of the electorate, created the vast California Water Project and Federal Central Valley Project. The aim of both systems was simple: transfer vast amounts of water from where it falls as snow and rain, and where few in the state live, to areas where there is little rain or snow but the majority of people prefer to reside. It was a win-win solution, as Californians were blessed with an arid Mediterranean climate but plenty of man-delivered water, leading to the most productive farm sector in the world.
The water projects helped turn the scenic but dry corridor along the coast from sparsely populated to the most densely inhabited in the United States, home to an array of sophisticated companies, universities, and resorts. Because city and country were once seen as complementary, most residents in the 1950s and 1960s supported the planning for additional dams, reservoirs, canals, and pumping stations. The state then was more evenly divided between urban and rural residents; almost every city inhabitant had a relative on a farm or remembered visiting a grandparent’s small town. But by the 2000s, California’s rural foundation had collapsed. Huge influxes of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the transformation of once-blue-collar cities into boutiques for greens, gays, and techies, and the flight of millions of middle-class residents out of state changed not just the demography but also the mentality of California.
How did the new Californians deal with the drought? Not as in the past. Water projects like the huge Temperance Flat reservoir on the San Joaquin River were canceled. Millions of acre-feet of precious stored water were released out of rivers as urban environmentalists hoped to increase the population of three-inch delta smelt and to restore nineteenth-century salmon to the upper San Joaquin River. Despite millions of acre-feet of released water, both fish projects have so far failed. (See “The Scorching of California,” Winter 2015.)
Common sense would have warned that droughts are existential challenges, the severity and duration of which are unpredictable. Droughts are times to bank water, not to release it for questionable new green initiatives. If Californians wished for a state of 40 million people and wanted it to remain the nation’s leader in agriculture and for its dry coastal corridor to continue to host Cal Tech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Apple, Google, Facebook, Hollywood, Wells Fargo, Safeway, and Pacific Gas & Electric, it seemed obvious that they would continue to build water projects—and to stop releases into the Pacific never envisioned by the architects of the huge transfers.
Such common sense would assume, though, that millions of Californians had seen a broccoli farm or a Flame Seedless vineyard and had made the connection that what they purchased at Whole Foods was grown from irrigated soil. But the drought has reminded us that urban Californians don’t wish to think about, let alone visit, the farms that feed them. As long as the lights flick on in the morning, the Google bus arrives at the corner stop at the designated time, and the lattes are made at the corner coffee house, these benefits are considered either natural processes or birthrights ensured by distant others—perhaps less bright and less important and certainly less cool.
The Founders and early observers of American democracy, from J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur and Thomas Jefferson to Alexis de Tocqueville, reflected a classical symbiosis, in which even urban thinkers praised the benefits of life in rural areas, where most Americans then lived. The Founders were pragmatics who also owned farms or at least knew the soil, not romantics who dreamed about a rural paradise that they had never experienced. Jefferson famously wrote of the preponderance of rural life in early America: “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” Jefferson meant that reservoirs of farmers were essential to self-government. As long as Americans were not dependent European peasants or Russian land barons or the shiftless masses of a Paris or Saint Petersburg, there would be enough self-reliant agrarians to check the passions of the fickle urban mob.
Our Constitution, even in its idiosyncrasies, reflected these concerns. In presidential elections, the Electoral College trumped the popular vote that could be heavily weighted to urban interests. Legislative appointment rather than direct election of each state’s two senators would likewise protect the political voices of rural states and counties from being overwhelmed by more numerous urban citizens, whose daily lives were not commensurately predicated on tradition, custom, and a balanced view of nature and progress. States could even establish property qualifications for voting, on the premise that the autonomous agrarian was grounded and sober in a way that the mass of the urban populace was not.
From Hesiod’s Works and Days to Virgil’s Georgics, the connection between farming and morality was always emphasized as a check on urban decadence and corruption. What was gained by the city’s great universities, monumental edifices, churches, and pageantry was often lost through the baleful effects of being cut off from nature and defining success through intangibles such as transient goods, status, and material luxuries. Physical and mental balance, practicality, a sense of the tragic rather than the therapeutic—all these were birthed by rural life and yet proved essential to the survival of a nation that would inevitably become more mannered, sophisticated, and urban. Jefferson idealized an American as a tough citizen who couldn’t be fooled by sophisticated demagogues, given his own steady hand guiding the plow or digging irrigation ditches. Rural folks didn’t romanticize the city, but rather, like characters in Horace’s Satires or the content rustic mouse of Aesop’s Fables, saw it as a necessary evil. Yet urbanites, though cut off from nature, dependent on government for their sustenance, and embedded within the politics and trends of the day, idealized the farm and pasture—if certainly from a safe distance.
The twenty-first century may at last see the end of a venerable consensus that rural citizens prizing liberty and freedom provide a necessary audit on the democracy of urbanites who prefer uniformity and demand equality at all costs. We have left for good the world of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and entered the age of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—and likely with worse to come.
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