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Our Urban/Rural Political Divide is Both New — And Decades In The Making

Policies dating to the 1930s have helped shape the conflict defining today’s politics.

The 2020 election revealed a stark divide between rural and small-town voters — who overwhelmingly supported Republicans — and those in cities and suburbs, who favored Democrats. In 2020, this growing pattern enabled Joe Biden to capture formerly safe Republican states like Georgia and Arizona, while President Donald Trump targeted longtime Democratic-bastion Minnesota.

This “geographic sort” between metro and non-metro areas has also played out across issues including variations in coronavirus vaccination rates, ongoing legislative redistricting fights and people’s very identities, with many extolling the virtues of hailing from a city or the country, and feeling alien from those living in the opposite circumstance.

Today’s blue/red divide then plays out not between regions — as we saw in the famous 2000 electoral map, which introduced the concept of such divisions and pitted red states vs. blue ones — but between metropolitan and rural areas within states.

Although this shift has become apparent in the last 10 years, its origins lie in policy choices by both parties that can be traced back to the 1930s.

Nearly 90 years ago, the New Deal laid the foundation for modern metropolitan regions. At the time, manufacturing industries based in the Northeast and Upper Midwest dominated the U.S. economy. Rural areas were highly agricultural or remained mostly undeveloped.

The vast public works projects implemented under President Franklin D. Roosevelt built roads, water projects, schools, airports and other important infrastructure. Such efforts shaped cities and rural areas alike, and the latter benefited in particular from electrification efforts like the Tennessee Valley Authority. But together, New Deal projects in previously poor, underdeveloped sections of the country like the South and Mountain West ignited more advanced forms of economic growth.

After World War II, the Eisenhower administration brought interstate highways to the United States, further solidifying these once isolated regions’ connection to the national economy. The highways allowed trucking to emerge as a primary means of shipping goods. This facilitated the growth of factories and distribution centers in areas that had been largely beyond the reach of rail. The Atlanta metropolitan region, for example, is now ranked by one industry assessment as the country’s top location for distribution centers.

The federal government also facilitated the postwar construction of airports through federal-local matching grants, and, beginning in 1970, an airport development trust fund financed through taxes on tickets and fuel, along with other fees and surcharges. Easy access to airports like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International made it possible to move people and commercial goods rapidly around the country, decreasing place-based dependence on the old financial and business centers of the Northeast.

The result: the South and Mountain West could suddenly compete on a national and even a global economic stage.