Thursday, February 16, 2017

The importance of difference: why we leave big cities for rural homogeneity

In my last post, I discussed "the brain drain," and what it can look like when young, educated people move away from their rural home communities, to never return. In this post, I'm addressing essentially the opposite effect: when we choose to leave the larger, more urban regions for smaller, more insular rural communities, do we do so especially because we are seeking homogeneity of beliefs and values on some level?

This NPR article certainly points towards the conclusion that in many instances, people do leave urban areas in search of people with "similar political stripes." The most oft-cited statistics about moving to, or back to, rural areas often include things like family needs, safety, and cost of living. A need for political affirmation and support from the surrounding community is certainly much harder to quantify, but perhaps that particular factor deserves our attention now more than ever.

More sinister than the search for political affirmation is something colloquially termed "white flight" wherein whites intentionally leave large cities for the "solace" of the suburbs, or rural communities, where they can depend on the community being largely of the same race.

As much of the nation found itself stunned after the events of November's election, there were certainly some pockets of the population that were decidedly less incredulous about the result. In communities where people of the same race and/or political creed make an active effort to band together, a certain homogeneity of opinion and voting behavior necessarily emerges, as an inherent result of so much "sameness." Rural communities generally do not reflect the larger population proportions, and once considered from that angle, something like the election outcome seems a little less "left field." To understand the direction our nation as a whole is headed in, it is important to understand the reasons for movement between big cities to ruralities, and vice versa. These patterns of migration, so to speak, deserve more than a passing glance.

However, it is also important to contextualize this "ruralization" movement as considered against the still-growing percentage of people who are migrating the opposite way, into the larger cities. The U.N. reports that today 54% of the world's population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to increase to 66% as early as 2050. One professor of urban growth and population dynamics attributes the sustained trend of urbanization to "a multigenerational pattern of young adults preferring more expensive urban areas over lower-cost rural ones because the lifestyles and opportunities in such places make the extra burden of cost worth it."

The underlying reasons for the trickle of urbanites to rural regions, and vice versa, may vary widely from individual to individual. However, on a whole we can examine larger trends, such as the "white flight," that make the events of the last election cycle at least slightly more clear. Examination of these trends, and the reasons for them, is increasingly important in this highly-politicized climate we now find ourselves in.


RGL said...

This is definitely the hot topic since Trump's election. The focus has seemed to be how people live in "bubbles" -- those of us who are mostly surrounded by urban ideals had no idea that such large swaths of conservatism and Trump supporters even existed because we live in a bubble. Hence, the grand divide in ideals and values and political opinion between urban and rural became more apparent and was highlighted in the news.

I would be very curious to see some measure of migration to rural areas matched with political opinion over the past year. The NPR article you cited says that the demographic shift has been pretty strong since the '90s, but I wonder if it has picked up along with recent political strife. It would be nice if as a society we were able to place higher value on diversity of thought, but unfortunately there is an inclination toward segregation that seems to outweigh the value of diversity.

Kyle said...

As RGL points out, the 2016 election awoke many of us to the information "bubbles" we live in. The media divide has been well-known for some time, but this election highlighted the role of social media in shaping opinions. As social-media companies' algorithms have become more fine-tuned, it has become easier and easier to "tune out" the other side.

But that problem is quite distinct from physical sorting, as this post points out. Bill Bishop's work on "the Big Sort" ( has tracked this trend over the last few decades. While the sorting is not explicitly partisan, it is clear from the NPR piece that people were moving (or at least justifying their relocation, post hoc) using proxies for ideology: burdens on business, a lack of firearms restrictions.

I ruminate on these trends with some frequency, and the physical sorting is much more disconcerting to me than the Balkanization of information. I figure that thoughtful people will seek diverse opinions even it is difficult, and close-minded folks won't even if it is easy. But I have a lot of (blind) faith in the power of neighborly bonds to sustain (and moderate) political difference. Even if that faith is not misplaced, physical sorting will erode any hope of bridging political differences.

dnlauber said...

To echo what previous commenters have stated, I too was awoken from my "bubble" following the election. Living in California, and particularly in a liberal college town, it is easy to get somewhat complacent when most people around you share the same beliefs and ideals.

Right after the election, I traveled to Idaho with a group of King Hall students. Throughout our drive, we saw some of these places that your post describes as "some pockets of the population that were decidedly less incredulous about the [election] result." One particularly small town that we drove through (it took about 5 minutes to drive through) stays burned in my mind. I distinctly remember seeing homes that had entire garages or fronts with gigantic photos of aborted fetuses with phrases such as, "Elect a president who will end abortion" and "Pro-choice is sin." It was not just one house, or one billboard. Every home we passed had some sort of political statement in their yard. I caught myself wondering, if I lived here, how would I explain these signs to my future children? I thought my hometown was rather conservative, but this was unlike anything I had ever seen. This speaks to your statement about "sameness" and "homogeneity of opinion." I cannot imagine that many, if any, liberal minded individuals live in this town.