The latest guest blogger over on Swampland, Democratic political consultant Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, has been stirring things up bigtime with his condemnation of the “Metropolitan Opera Wing” of the Democratic Party. I initially thought this was because his loyalties lay with the party’s notoriously combative Lyric Opera of Chicago Wing. But no, it turns out that Saunders meant it as more of an urban-rural thing. (I used to know a farmer in Tulare, Calif., who loved to blast Wagner’s operas on his tractor’s sweet stereo system. But whatever.)
Anyway, all Mudcat’s talk about rural voters got me wondering: How many rural Americans are there left, anyway? I’ll admit that I don’t entirely get how the Census Bureau divides between urban and rural. Some places that don’t entirely fit the conventional definition of urban America (like, say, Tulare, Calif.) do fit the Census Bureau’s definition. But according to the Census folks, just 21% of the U.S. population was still rural in 2000, and the trend is decidedly downward. Here’s the chart, going back to 1790 (there was some kind of big change in 1950 in how urban and rural were classified, but I don’t think it affects the overall result much):
I could only find four states where rural residents are in the majority: Vermont, Maine, West Virginia and Mississippi. The latter two look to be on the verge of flipping to majority urban, which would leave a couple of New England states where I don’t think Mudcat gets a whole lotta work as the last great bulwarks of rural America. The world as a whole, by the way, just flipped from majority rural to majority urban on May 23.
None of this means that rural Americans are lesser beings who deserve to be ignored by Democrats or Republicans or even business/economics bloggers. But their relative importance, both economically and politically, is shrinking every year. (The decline was actually almost halted for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, but appears to have gotten back on track since.) The whole bass-fishing-and-pickup-trucks political ethos may survive for decades or even centuries more on pure nostalgic affectation. But the United States is now a decidedly urban (well, really it’s suburban) nation.
There are now 56 million geographically-rural Americans. There are also millions of displaced rural-thinking Americans living in urban and suburban areas. Justin Fox is absolutely correct in saying that rural America’s influence is shrinking “economically and politically”. And as Democrats, we need to be shouting his words of truth to rural Americans. Examples of truth? The truth is we are shrinking economically because there is government policy in place that rewards the big, greedy corporations that send our jobs overseas. The truth is that the greedy who exploit us and the Republicans are in lock-step. On healthcare, why have the Republicans allowed 400 hospitals to close in rural America since Reagan? And then ask the big question, “What have the Republicans done to improve your quality of life?” I know of no real answers to that question.