Why Rural Communities are Conservative   Leave a comment

The last four presidential elections have revealed an urban-rural cleavage that is hard to ignore. The “red” vs. “blue” Election Night maps really mask a rural-urban divide within states that has increased in recent years.  

Rural populations are not well represented in most national polls. The 2004 American National Election Studies indicated a 20-point gap in presidential preference between inhabitants of counties with more than a million people and those in non-metro counties of less than 25,000. This gap was significant enough that Democratic Party strategists were alarmed, prompting Howard Dean, then-party chairman, to urge his party’s elites to study and address their “rural problem.” In some sense, the Obama victories of 2008 and 2012 are the offspring of this effort, but the new understanding is not as great as the Democrats would like us to believe.

First, let’s admit that Republican does not necessarily mean conservative and Democrat does not necessarily mean liberal. The two major parties do a poor job of actually representing their respective constituencies. Generally speaking, those who vote with the Republican Party tend to be more conservative than those who vote with the Democratic Party, but if I had my druthers it would be a three-color and at least six-shade map. I don’t really love the color yellow, but if we’re going with primary colors, I think the conservative movement could claim it, but that’s off topic.

Political scientists admit they are ill-prepared to study what makes rural Americans tick. For all the research on urban politics, there is no remotely comparable body of accumulated wisdom on rural populations. Yes, there are compositional differences between the two populations that make them politically distinct from one another. Areas with low population density may stand out from other locations because only certain types of people have come to reside there. If so, there is nothing magical about place-of-residence, per se, but the peculiar economic and demographic traits of resident populations identify rural behavior and beliefs.

Major national surveys show that rural voters are, on average, more white, Christian, evangelical, religiously devout, elderly, less educated, and less affluent than urban and suburban populations. They also own more guns, are more likely to oppose abortion rights, and hew to more traditional family arrangements than those living elsewhere.

A few other traits of rural voters are less obvious. Rural voters are not more Republican in party identification than suburban voters, although they are much more so than those living in central cities. Rural voters are also much more likely to be homeowners, and to be self-employed, than non-rural residents. Contrary to widely held hillbilly stereotypes, they are not entirely Southern – only 29% of the nation’s rural voting-age residents reside in Deep South states, with another 21% residing in Border states.

In summary, the profile of the rural American contains potential cross-pressures. Rural voters tend to be morally and socially conservative, but there are observers who believe rural Americans should have good reasons to vote with Democrats on matters of economic import. They just can’t understand why rural voting loyalty is growing more Republican, while people in America’s most populous locations head in the opposite direction. 

We’ll discuss suburbs some other time.

In 2004 Thomas Frank contended that the wily deployment of religious and moral symbols by business-oriented Republican elites had  displaced economic vulnerability as an issue among rural Americans. Foolish rural voters, Frank contended, had become distracted from their legitimate economic grievances and enticed into voting with the most affluent segments of society.  The result had been the formation of a coalition on the American right of working-class rural voters and corporate business interests, with the latter wielding the greater influence. In Frank’s view, rural voters mindlessly elect people who follow the business interests of Wall Street, unwittingly undermining their own economic position for nothing in return. This, according to Frank, is why some of the poorest counties in the nation in predominantly rural states gave over 80% of their vote to Republican candidates in recent presidential elections.

Frank’s contention that rural citizens are ill-bred dimwits who vote incorrectly resonated with metropolitan readers, most university faculty and political elites in both parties. The unflattering views that urban sophisticates harbor toward rural Americans (which are mutual, by the way) have dredged a wide moat. City dwellers evidently believe that rural Americans are rubes, just waiting to be fleeced and, obviously, in need of guidance from their betters.

I think the urban-rural divide is rooted in much more than morality politics. Frank’s 2004 argument that rural Americans are easy to fleece politically was challenged a 2006 study that soberly insisted that Frank’s evidence was flawed because economic conditions continue to be important to Americans, regardless of place-of-residence. Might it be possible that the economic struggle in rural areas has been exaggerated, rural self-image is not well understood by urban elites, and/or there is widespread misunderstanding of rural Americans’ adaptability to and perceptions of changing economic circumstances.

Perhaps rural Americans are not laboring to choke down their economic misery. This is not so difficult to believe if accounts of rural economic collapse have been exaggerated, or if economic conditions and the experience of economic conditions are separable. Republican voting habits may be sustained throughout rural America because it is not so evident to rural residents that economic conditions have worsened dramatically under Republican leadership more than they did under Democratic leadership, or more than they have in other geographic locations. In spite of globalization and the move to market-based corporate farming, the sky has not fallen on rural and small-town Americans, rather few of whom actually are employed in the agricultural sector anyway. Economic decline in some sectors has been met with improvements in others. The upshot is that rural residents may see little compelling reason to revolt against their Republican representatives, at least from a pocketbook perspective.

A number of studies of life and job satisfaction show that people who live in rural areas are more satisfied with their lives and jobs than those in urban and suburban locations. Much of this happiness appears to be anchored in self-employment or an enlarged scope of job responsibility. Socialization also has shaped subjective judgments about the meaning and value of work. Data from the 2000 ANES indicated that rural residents working for an employer other than themselves were more likely than those living elsewhere to say they were completely satisfied with their lives. Rural residents who were self-employed were far more likely to say they were completely satisfied than self-employed individuals in non-rural areas. In other words, your world view may have a lot to do with how you perceive the world around you .

Imagine that!

Evidence shows no groundswell of discontent in the remote hinterlands. In areas of employment, economic security, and general happiness, rurals rate their own comfort a great deal higher than do their urban counterparts. Maybe the real puzzle is why so many unhappy urban and suburban citizens are not translating their high levels of discontent into political demands.

People who live in rural areas are no different than other Americans in that they discriminate between those who deserve government assistance and those who do not. Additionally, rural residents express the same desire for lower taxes, less regulation, and free markets as do residents of wealthy suburbs. Why is this so? A strong sense of self-reliance anchored in an individualistic ethic is traceable to the earliest days of the republic. This ethic is tied closely to a preference for little or no government regulation of business and belief that those who succeed in a competitive marketplace owe nothing to those who fail. Economic individualism shows up in the indisputably conservative attitudes of rural Americans toward welfare, while also reinforcing two cornerstone aspects of the rural economy: self-employment and widespread property ownership.

As business owners and homeowners, rural dwellers’ commitment to private property thwarts many policy sentiments that run counter to an individualistic and competitive ethic.  The small independent owner-operated has shaped rural areas and their economies. High levels of self-employment and homeownership have prevented a widespread sense of class oppression. According to the 2004 ANES, for example, 3.1 rural residents worked for someone else for each one who reported to be self-employed, but in non-rural areas, this ratio was more than double that: 6.3 Many rural families own land or other capital items such as buildings, equipment, and store inventories, and are in entrepreneurial control of the allocation of these resources. Farm and small business owners naturally operate in a competitive marketplace subject to commodity price shifts, interest rates, and commercial lending practices and regulations because their reliance on largely unpaid family labor allows them to absorb market downturns that might crush a corporate farm .

Rural reporters see themselves as independent business persons rather than on-the-clock wage slaves. Their self-perceived economic status plays a larger role in their political sentiments than their actual monetary income.  As long as these rural owner-operators view their own success as contingent upon market forces, individualistic beliefs and attitudes will be sustained. Cultural difference aside, rural entrepreneurs share more in common with the denizens of boardrooms of corporate America than they do urban service workers or industrial laborers, who pay exorbitant rents for modest housing, punch a time clock, and must ask permission to take a bathroom break, go to see a physician, or attend a school play.

Survey researchers have suggested that the commitment to self-reliance and small government is somewhat at odds with the value of equality. I disagree. One of the signal facets of rural life is its relative income equality, typified by a narrow income distribution and a smaller gap between rich and poor than what prevails in metropolitan areas. It is this level aspect of rural life that allows a fierce commitment to individualism to thrive. Rural voters express relatively little systematic concern about the concept of equality in response to survey questions.

Who needs economic leveling when it exists already?

Homeownership is an especially strong influence on individualistic attitudes favoring less government intrusion and greater resistance to egalitarianism. Self-employment generally has a positive impact on individualism and a negative impact on egalitarianism. In other words, rural residence does not matter independent of the geographic distribution of self-employment and homeownership. If rural areas do stand apart from other locations in their propensity to favor individualism and express skepticism about leveling policies, it is primarily because there are more homeowners and self-employed workers in rural areas than in more urbanized areas.

Corporate America has extended its reach from farming into small-town banking, wholesale and retail trade, and, increasingly, service delivery. Corporate interests, such as agricultural middlemen in meatpacking and food processing, are sometimes at odds with the interests of farmers and ranchers, but other rural Americans have come to depend on employment with these companies. The economic consequences of globalization have been mixed. Large corporations are often viewed as hostile to the interests of Main Street. When a “big-box” store moves in, one person’s loss is someone else’s gain. Rural residents appreciate shopping in big-inventory stores with a wide range of inexpensive merchandise. Consistent with their self-image as independent entrepreneurs, small retailers often will close their struggling enterprise, leaving town to find employment elsewhere, or finding another enterprise that can compete effectively in the remote market.

Population mobility allows labor market supply and demand to remain in equilibrium in rural America. The next time a pollster calls rural residents, a large share of those who have failed economically in the preceding decade may no longer be there to answer the telephone, while those who remain report that the local economy has remained about the same. Political discontent in reaction to economic downturn is difficult to gauge because different people constitute the rural electorate in each successive election.

The challenging task for the student of rural economic grievance is to locate the displaced rural workers who would be more likely to express economic discontent. Economic decline in rural areas typically has been accompanied by steady population losses, whereas this has been less true of metro areas facing the same extent of decline. It is the change in unemployment that drives out-migration in rural areas, not the absolute level of unemployment or income. Residents of many rural counties that have experienced sustained high unemployment rates over long periods have learned to live with a modicum of joblessness. As long as it is not too steep, they cope rather than complain.

Metropolitan locations, however, saw no corresponding drop in migration as a consequence of rising unemployment. Because of the stigma associated with public assistance, rural Americans who struggle economically and have no family to draw upon for support usually leave. As long as one has the means to pack up, travel, and afford a first- and- last-month’s rent payment at the destination, labor market migration can proceed with some efficiency. The massive 20th-century outflow of labor surpluses from the rural South to northern cities and from the Midwest and southern plains to the nation’s west coast are clear examples of the human capital generalization that people move from areas of poor opportunity to places where jobs can be found. Rural locations consistently have lower unemployment rates than big cities, not because the rural economy is always better, but because of the way in which rural workers respond to hard times.

Nearly all contemporary surveys show that rural Americans are more religiously and morally conservative than those living elsewhere. They are more family-oriented and adhere to traditional values. These are not the only reasons why they have been less inclined to vote for Democrats in contemporary presidential elections. In spite of prevailing low income, their individualistic ethic and legacy of self-employment and home-ownership inclines them to adopt the self-image of the independent entrepreneur and property owner rather than that of the laborer in need of state regulation and protection.

Rural Republican voters are not daft. Serious inquiry into a subject must not begin by taking a prejudicial posture toward it. Common stereotypes may be easy to believe, but they aren’t necessarily correct. To the extent that we can say that the electoral color of rural America is Republican red rather than Democratic blue, we can cite a variety of concrete explanations for this trend. Moral views, religious beliefs and economic considerations all play a role. The Republican emphasis on personal effort, limited government, and free markets fits comfortably within this self-image.

The Democrats are not an attractive party for rural Americans, not only because of their positions on commonly understood issues of morality politics (gay privilege, abortion, or prayer in schools) but also because many rural Americans doubt whether typical Democratic economic positions fit with what they believe is true about themselves and the world.

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