At its founding, the United States was an overwhelmingly rural nation. The inaugural census of 1790 showed that 95% of all Americans either lived in isolated rural areas, on farms, or in tiny towns with fewer than 2,500 people. However, a steady national trend towards urbanization began immediately thereafter.
The rise of American cities during the 19th century was spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, which created a high demand for labor. Cities became population magnets, drawing workers from around the country and eventually around the world. One generation after another, people left the American countryside behind and headed for the nation’s new and growing cities. The scales slowly but inexorably tipped in the opposite direction, and today's census numbers are practically reversed from those of 1790.
For most of American history though, rural populations did not falter. Rather, they continued to grow side by side with cities. While they were not able to keep pace with rapacious urban expansion, the sheer volume of rural America nonetheless rose at a substantial rate. Two factors largely explained the ongoing growth of rural populations despite the urban syphon: natural increase and immigration.
Agricultural families typically had a higher birth rate than urban families because children provided valuable labor on the farm from an early age. At the same time, rural America received its fair share of foreign immigrants. While stereotypes of 19th and early 20th century immigration often focus on Irish, Italians, and Jews making new homes in American cities, waves of Germans, Scandinavians, Slavs, British, and many others passed right through those cities and continued on to the heartland.
The draw to rural America was strong, particularly for European farmers who had lost land amid the economic, social, and political tumult in their homelands. Over here meanwhile, the colonial conquest of Native nations and the federal government’s seizure of millions of acres led to successive land booms and rushes. The United States had a history dating back to the Revolution of seizing Indian acreage and giving it away on the cheap, the most famous example being the 1863 Homestead Act. Of course, much of the land also ended up in the hands of speculators and railroad companies who charged maximum market rates, but even that was often a pittance compared to land prices in much of Europe.
Thus, both rural and urban America grew rapidly during the 150 years following the Declaration of Independence. Cities merely did so at a faster pace, gaining a majority of the nation’s populace by the early 20th century. But at the same time that urban Americans were finally eclipsing rural Americans in total numbers, several new factors conspired to severely temper rural growth, beginning its relegation to dwindling minority status.
The first was immigration restriction. It began with the targeted Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, evolved over the next few decades into more wide-ranging and comprehensive restrictions, and culminated with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. Many “non-white” immigrants were banned altogether, and immigration policy was defined by national quotas. Now only about only about 350,000 slots for were available per year for immigrants to the U.S. Previously, they had been arriving by the millions.
At the same time the number of foreign immigrants dwindled, fewer domestic migrants found the countryside enticing for a number of reasons. The nation was no longer expanding, and so land prices were not as cheap as they had once been; the mechanization of farming had led to a decreased demand for labor; and tumbling commodity prices and rising debt for farmers made the occupation more tenuous and less appealing.
Just as fewer people were arriving in rural America, more were deciding to leave. The U.S. agricultural economy went into depression immediately following World War I, a full decade before the Great Depression. America’s traditional farming economy began to collapse. And in parts of the Great Plains, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s proved to be one of history’s major environmental calamities, further encouraging emigration from rural areas. Some states took decades to recover lost they population during the Depression. North Dakota still had fewer people in 2010 than it did in 1930.
After the Depression, World War II pushed yet more people to vacate rural America. Mobilizing for the war led to the building and expansion of thousands of new factories and the creation of millions of new jobs in cities across nation. Rural depopulation plowed ahead with unprecedented vigor. After the war, the trend slowed but continued. My own family, on my father’s side, is a fairly typical example.
My father is descended from people who had lived on farms and in small towns of western North Carolina since the 1700s. Several young men left the state to find work during the Depression. Many of them then left to fight in the war. Upon returning home, the Reinhardts decided to cast their lots elsewhere. My father was still a boy when his entire nuclear family left farm life behind. Some of his extended family joined them, and they all headed west for the San Joaquin Valley of central California. Today, I still have distant relatives in North Carolina, but so far as I know, there are no Reinhardts left in Catawba County.
As Americans deserted the countryside during and World War II, rural America began to sag. The trend has largely continued unabated down to the present day. Since 1990, over 700 rural counties have lost at least 10% of their population. Half of all rural counties in America now have more deaths than births each year.
An interesting analysis of rural America’s decline can be found in the work of two sociologists who happen to be based in the urban East: Patrick Carr (Rutgers) and Maria Kefalas (St. Josephs). Among other things, they have noted certain similarities between rural decay and the much more studied and talked about urban decay of the post-WWII era. Both areas are plagued by high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, drug use and sales, high school drop outs, and teenage pregnancy. General causes for these and other problems are also eerily similar, including the loss of industrial jobs, middle-class flight, and global market shifts.
In their book Hollowing Out the Middle, Carr and Kefalas point to several specific causes for economic collapse in rural America. They cite the rise of agribusiness and big box retail, the decline of unions and blue collar wages, a growing reliance on undocumented workers, and an under-investment in younger workers who enter the workforce without college degrees. The result has been a sharp drop in small business ownership (both farmers and retailers), quality wage jobs, and income. Economic decline has been followed by population loss and social decay, much as it has with many cities. For example, for the first time in history, rural Americans are now just as likely as their urban and suburban counterparts to be divorced.
Carr and Kefalas’s spent a year living in Ellis, Iowa and conducted an extensive study of that small town. They concluded that Ellis is in many ways emblematic of the problems afflicting rural America at large. In particular, the town suffers from an ongoing exodus of its most promising young people. As one high school guidance counselor put it: “The best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation.” Instead of being encouraged to stay and build up the community, ironically many of the most promising kids are encouraged to leave because the town’s economy is in decline; opportunities simply aren’t there. Meanwhile, kids who feel alienated and/or do not develop marketable job skills are often trapped.
One of the fundamental results of all this has been a substantial brain drain for rural states. For example, even during the economic boom years of 1995-2000, Iowa endured a net loss of nearly 20,000 college educated people. This happened despite the fact that Iowa does an excellent job of developing college students both from among its own ranks and by drawing them from out of state. It has respected state college system, two elite public research universities, and a bevy of small, private liberal arts colleges. The problem is, many students leave Iowa after graduating. And many of those who remain in-state move to cities such as Des Moines or the Quad Cities area. This phenomenon has repeated itself over and over throughout the country. As a result, just one in six rural residents has college degrees, far fewer than in cities, where one in three do.
There is a panoply of consequences stemming from rural decline, depopulation, and the so-called brain drain. One with national implications is the role it plays in the partisan red/blue, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat divide that increasingly stains the United States.
Let me be clear about one thing from the outset. I do not mean to suggest that a drain brain has left rural America red/conservative/Republican because smart people are blue/liberal/Democrat. It is true that educated people are more likely to be liberal and/or Democrat, (though not at as high a rate as is often assumed). For the record though, I don’t believe that being formally educated and being smart are the same thing. But beyond that, I don’t believe that voting habits and political stances are generally much a sign of intelligence one way or the other.
To the contrary, I think political stances are typically a form of identity construction. I think political engagement in America is largely a cultural and social act. I reject the notion that most people vote based on rational choices about their own self-interest. Rather, I think most people take political stances and engage in political actions primarily as ways of defining and expressing themselves. That loyalties to political parties, ideologies, and philosophies are largely a way for Americans to understand and present themselves as the people they want to be, and as the way the want to be perceived by others.
Thus, when I offer the query about how the rural brain drain has shaped the red-blue divide, what I’m really asking is, how can we better understand the ways in which American culture and politics shape each other?
The British Royal Society first coined the term Brain Drain in the 1950s to describe the steady stream of highly skilled workers who had begun to leave Great Britain after the war, mostly for Canada and the United States. By the 1980s, it had taken on the more familiar definition, referring to the problem that developing nations confronted in retaining their educated classes, many of whom moved to the U.S. and Europe.
But the term “brain drain” is somewhat misleading in the way it emphasizes economic impact and the supposed dumbing down of a region. While the economic implications may be accurate, it must be noted that the exodus of skilled workers is merely the symptom of decline, not the cause. As much as anything, the real effect of so-called brain drains are about cultural shifts that come about from demographic changes.
Rural America’s ongoing depopulation, economic decline, and accompanying brain drain have had led to specific demographic changes. Those changes in turn have contributed to certain cultural shifts that express themselves politically. As the region, in comparison to the rest of the nation, becomes older, poorer, whiter, less educated, and remains religious, more and more rural Americans choose to identify themselves with cultural markers that are easily expressed through conservative/red/Republican actions and philosophies.
Meanwhile, cities have also become poorer and lost population since the 1950s. But different cultural identities are expressed through politics in cities because those populations possess a high percentage of minority, highly educated, and secular voters who are likely to identify as liberal/blue/Democrat.
Two-thirds of the eligible voters from the so-called Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) identify as Democrats. In the next national election, about one-quarter of all eligible voters will be from this group. Non-white voters identify Democratic at roughly the same rate. Specifically, over 80% of African Americans identify as Democrats. Among white voters, the less often one attends religious services, the more likely one is to vote Democratic. As noted earlier, more formal education also correlates somewhat with voting Democratic.
However, the great irony is this. Despite the absolutely central roles rural and urban America have played in the nation's history thus far, in the years to come, the cultural battle between them will become less and less important. In the long run, the ways in which rural Americans express themselves through country music, cheap beer, and red politics, or the ways in which urban Americans express themselves through hip hop, cocktail parties, and blue politics, will matter little. Rather, it is the strip malls, play dates, and drive-thrus of suburbia that now dominate America. But just how the culture of runaway sprawl will express itself politically remains to be seen.