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Explaining the urban-rural political divide: Why do Democrats so often concentrate in cities?

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  1. Kuromantis
    A neat article on why the Rural-urban divide seems to be one of the most important/visible divides between the 2 parties in the US and a decent number of areas in the world. It also talks about...

    A neat article on why the Rural-urban divide seems to be one of the most important/visible divides between the 2 parties in the US and a decent number of areas in the world. It also talks about how detrimental this is for the left in places with land based, FPTP electoral systems like the US and a lot of other places that used to be part of the British empire (The UK, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand until somewhere in the 90s)

    (Well, minus this pretty dense comment, if you care.)

    I think many people have pointed out that the support for Democrats is increasingly concentrated in counties that are relatively wealthy. And if we look at data from the IRS on taxes, we see that something like two thirds of of IRS income comes from places that the very small number of counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

    So essentially we’re creating a system in which the party of the left is the party that is paying into the system of fiscal transfers.

    And this is true within states as well. So the party whose position is essentially anti-government is the party whose voters, at least when it comes to spatial fiscal flows, tend to be relatively dependent on government. And that creates an interesting dynamic and an interesting set of dilemmas for the Republican Party in states like Kansas and Kentucky, that might be interesting to keep an eye on in the years ahead. How do they manage this desire to simultaneously to cut government but also to avoid angering places that are important to their base where government employment is actually a pretty large share of the employment base.

    (It's become pretty clear they won't really try.)

    I argued that this urban-rural divide really started in the industrial era, and started in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, in a time of working-class mobilization when parties that became parties of the left started forming alliances with labor unions and with workers. That activity was largely concentrated in cities.

    So this is how left parties start to become urban parties, but that’s not where the story ends. It really … just kind of where it begins. The correlation between urban residents and Democratic voting in the United States really increases a lot in the ’80s and ’90s, a time when labor unions are on the decline. So there’s a story about the rise of new issues and the reorientation of the parties around a set of new issues. And people’s preferences on those issues are correlated with population density, so that the parties kind of, as they latch onto new issues and new groups over time, the Democrats become increasingly urban. The Republicans become increasingly rural. So that’s the first section of the book, is explaining how all that works and some of the variations on that theme.

    The divergence of urban and more rural economies is a pretty longstanding trend and it just keeps getting worse and worse and it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better anytime soon. But over the long term, this shift, this increasing concentration of economic production in cities, is a function that’s a cause and an effect of urbanization. It’s part of why urbanization is happening in the first place.

    So you get efficiencies from clusters of specialized, educated workers. Economist call it agglomerative efficiencies. You get a higher rate of individual production, but you also get sort of spillovers from … Growth is driven more and more by just people coming up with new ideas, but through innovation, not just increasing the output of every worker per second, right? It’s coming up with new ideas of new products, new methods of production, everything that goes into the economy. You get those ideas faster when you have the smartest people all butting heads together day by day.

    As economic output and growth depends more and more on a educated workforce but the wage bonus for a higher level of education keeps going up and up in the agglomerations of specialized workers, it draws those better educated people to those clusters and out of the rest of the economy. And so those places get a lot richer and everywhere they’ve moved away from kind of goes through a sort of negative feedback loop into stagnation and decline.

    I think a distinct argument is one that’s more about self-interest. It might just be that that living in a dense environment just creates certain kinds of demands for public goods that aren’t there. It just kind of changes the way public goods are provided, and the demands for regulation.

    So for instance, the fire protection is something that in a rural area you can perhaps achieve through volunteer mechanisms. Whereas, in cities you end up with a government provision and public sector unions and all that. That’s just a distinct argument, I think, about… the more economic argument about the costs of providing public services and the nature of demands for public services.

    2 votes