How the Election Revealed the Divide Between City and Country

The 2016 election exposed a chasm between urban and non-urban America that will likely widen under a Trump administration.

Nick Oxford / Reuters

The earthquake that elected Donald Trump has left the United States approaching 2020 with a political landscape reminiscent of 1920.

Not since then has the cultural chasm between urban and non-urban America shaped the struggle over the country’s direction as much as today. Of all the overlapping generational, racial, and educational divides that explained Trump’s stunning upset over Hillary Clinton last week, none proved more powerful than the distance between the Democrats’ continued dominance of the largest metropolitan areas, and the stampede toward the GOP almost everywhere else.

Trump’s victory was an empire-strikes-back moment for all the places and voters that feel left behind in an increasingly diverse, post-industrial, and urbanized America. Squeezing bigger margins from smaller places, Trump overcame a tide of resistance in the largest metropolitan areas that allowed Clinton to carry the national popular vote, but not the decisive Electoral College.

This election thus carved a divide between cities and non-metropolitan areas as stark as American politics has produced since the years just before and after 1920. That year marked a turning point: It was the first time the Census recorded that more people lived in urban than non-urban areas. That tangible sense of shifting influence triggered a series of political and social conflicts between big cities teeming with immigrants, many of them Catholic, and small towns and rural communities that remained far more homogeneously, white, native-born, and Protestant.

In an extended tussle over the country’s direction, forces grounded outside of the largest cities overcame urban resistance to impose Prohibition in 1919 and severely limit new immigration in 1924. The same fear of “a chaotically pluralistic society,” as one historian put it, fueled a resurgence of religious fundamentalism and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Then, as now, the lines between city and country were not absolute: both Prohibition and immigration restriction drew meaningful support from within the urban professional and intellectual classes. But contemporaries like Walter Lippmann, the era’s preeminent newspaper columnist, recognized that at their core these disparate disputes represented “the older American village civilization making its last stand against what to it looks like an alien invasion,” as he wrote in The Atlantic in 1927.

Lippmann had no doubt about which side would ultimately prevail: “The evil” that rural America believed it was resisting, he wrote, “is simply the new urban civilization with its irresistible economic and scientific and mass power.” Before long, the polyglot “urban civilization” established unquestioned dominance over the nation’s direction in culture, the economy, and ultimately politics, when it emerged as the cornerstone of Franklin Roosevelt’s lasting New Deal coalition.

Echoes of this struggle to define the nation’s identity and direction are growing louder today. This campaign crystallized the long-developing separation between a Democratic Party centered in the urban areas at the forward edge of growing racial diversity, new family and sexual arrangements, and the transition to a globalized information economy; and a Republican Party consolidating a deepening hold on the non-metropolitan places where many view those changes with suspicion, if not hostility.

Bill Clinton was the last Democratic nominee to demonstrate wide appeal across that divide: In both 1992 and 1996, he carried nearly half of America’s 3,100 counties. But since then, Democrats have retreated into the nation’s urban centers. In 2000, Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote, but carried fewer than 700 counties. In 2012, President Obama squeezed even more advantage from the biggest places: He carried 86 of the nation’s 100 largest counties (including the District of Columbia), winning them by nearly 12 million votes combined. That allowed him to win comfortably, although he carried only about 600 of the remaining 3,000 counties, and lost them by nearly 7 million votes combined.

This year, Hillary Clinton pushed that model just past the breaking point. Pending final results, she now leads in 88 of the nation’s 100 largest counties (including D.C.). Suffering a slight decline in African American support, Clinton did not quite match Obama’s vote margins in some crucial metropolitan areas, particularly Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.

But overall, she delivered a dominant performance in most urban centers and many affluent white-collar suburbs. She held Trump to less than one-fourth of the vote in such mega-counties as Manhattan, Cook (Chicago), and Los Angeles; expanded on Obama’s margins in growing Sunbelt cities such as Miami, Charlotte, and Houston; and utterly routed Trump in thriving new economy centers like Austin, Silicon Valley, and Seattle. At latest tally, Clinton won the nation’s 100 largest counties by fully 12.6 million votes—an historic lead certain to widen with many more West Coast ballots yet to count.

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But Clinton suffered far greater losses than Obama outside of this vibrant urban core. Tom Bonier, the chief executive of the Democratic targeting firm TargetSmart, says that with final results still pending in some states, Clinton has won only about 420 counties total—far fewer than any popular vote winner over the past century. In the roughly 3000 counties beyond the 100 largest, Trump trounced Clinton by about 11.5 million votes. In the decisive states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the electoral map was a sea of Republican red interrupted only by lonely blue islands in big cities and college towns.

Reeling from Clinton’s defeat, many Democrats have declared economic populism the key to restoring competitiveness beyond the party’s urban strongholds. But, as Bonier notes, the Democrats may have permanently reduced their ceiling of support in non-urban areas by unifying behind liberal positions on almost all social issues.

The converse is that several big city mayors are already promising to fight Trump’s plan to accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants, while other collisions with urban attitudes loom over his pledges to loosen gun laws and tighten surveillance of Muslim communities. The chasm between town and country that this election exposed will only widen as the already tumultuous Trump presidency unfolds.

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