Samuel J. Adams has some good news for those of us concerned about the urban-rural divide. The professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence University and American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow writes that the differences between urban and rural residents have been exaggerated.
We’ve reviewed some of the reports finding marked differences. For example, last December we looked at an intriguing Elway poll that provided evidence of commonalities and sharp distinctions. And in January 2017 we reported on a Stateline story suggesting the divide would continue to grow, influencing changed relations between state and local governments.
Adams examines the research and offers a contrarian take on the data. He acknowledges the abundant stories describing a gap. But takes an independent approach to analyzing available survey research, pegging off an earlier analysis.
In “The Left Behind,” Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow makes the case that rural Americans, when they think of problems facing the nation, focus more on issues of morality and governance in Washington than on economic considerations. But, despite media perceptions and Wuthnow’s thousands of interviews of rural Americans, the argument that urban and rural areas have diverged in terms of their priorities does not hold up when we look at decades of survey work.
I compiled national samples of New York Times survey data from 2006 through 2016 — the same time frame used by Wuthnow. These surveys regularly asked thousands of Americans: “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” I then broke down the data by urban areas, with suburbs included, and found no geographic differences whatsoever. Rural Americans and city dwellers exhibited practically the same priorities over time.
We encourage you to read his short analysis, written just before the Independence Day holiday. Here’s the crux:
These data tell a different story than the “culture wars” narrative suggests. The differences in reaction to the issues between urban and rural Americans are slight. While hot button culture war items such as immigration, gun control, race relations, global warming, and poverty have become more salient over time and are now regularly cited as being as important as economic considerations, concerns about community, values, and morality have been in the single digits for the past decade…
Wuthnow is absolutely correct both that there are urban and rural differences such as stated ideological leanings and that the political system is polarized. But he is wrong about priorities…We cannot ignore thousands of Americans who offer survey responses which reveal consistent patterns of unity over a decade.
As we head into the July 4th holiday, we might take solace in the empirical record, which suggests Americans may not be as divided as many studies and articles suggest.
Heading out of the holiday, we may continue to take solace in the findings. Our concerns about the divergence in economic opportunities available to urban and rural residents remain valid and urgent. The good news in the analysis offered by Adams is that Washingtonians – Americans – continue to share values that will allow good public policies to evolve.