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Ideas | Craig Fehrman

How cities split the nation

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The divide between rural America and urban America has become a key theme in our national life — two landscapes, two presidential candidates, two sets of antithetical beliefs.

But a new book suggests that this split isn’t the result of national politics. Instead, the opposite is true. In “The cities on the hill: How urban institutions transformed national politics,” Thomas Ogorzalek shows that the divide originated with the cities themselves. Nearly a century ago, cities and their leaders remade the Democratic party, pushing it to become more inclusive and more open to big government.

It’s a book that will make big-city liberals swell with pride — but also fret about their future.

Ideas reached Ogorzalek, a political science professor at Northwestern, by phone.

Below is an edited excerpt.

Why is our urban-rural divide so pronounced?


The partisan trends are as strong as they’ve ever been. Cities are more Democratic than ever. Rural areas are more Republican. And significantly suburbs are more in the middle.

It wasn’t always this way. Both parties used to fight in both kinds of places. But by 1932 you could see changes in New York and Massachusetts, where rural places split between the two parties while the big cities went much more Democratic. By 1960, the pattern in New York and Massachusetts was present in Pennsylvania and Michigan and a few others. By 2008, the pattern was present in basically every state with a big city.

Can we tell if this started with voters or elites?

There’s a lot of data in congress, and it’s easy to get relative to other data sets. There are also a lot of rules in congress, so it’s a fun place to study.

I went through the maps for every single congressional district from every single congress, starting in 1789. Then I used Google Maps and other sources to get a picture of what each district was like — whether it was suburban or urban or rural or a mix. I gave the districts codes, and that allowed me to look at how each representative voted. Starting in the late 1920s, we see a separation between urban representatives and other kinds of representatives. Before that, the place and character of a district didn’t seem to affect its representative votes. But as the Great Depression unfolded, there emerged a new urban agenda, a call for more government intervention. During this period what it means to be a Democrat changes, and urban representatives vote differently for the first time.


You also found that some of the change also originated with the cities themselves, including Boston. What happened here?

It’s the Great Depression, there’s massive unemployment in basically all the big industrial cities. Mayors have run out of local money. They’ve exhausted their ability to deal with this crisis on their own. So they get together and form the United States Council of Mayors. They decide to coordinate instead of be rivals. Boston’s then-mayor, James Michael Curley, traveled to Washington as a representative of the council. The states had restrained their cities from borrowing more money, so Curley made a plea for extending more credit to the cities. He warned Congress that the nation was in danger “unless action is taken at an early date.”

Was this all a byproduct of the Depression, or did something special about cities play a part?

When I ask my students what makes a city, the first thing they say is that cities are super diverse — racially, economically, along many dimensions. There’s the density, with everyone close together. There’s the speedy pace. And then there’s just the size. It’s a big local community.


Now think about how to govern that kind of place — the suite of policies we call liberalism sort of maps on to it. There are theories, for example, about how diversity and density work together to make regulation more useful. There are going to be more kinds of interactions, from more kinds of people, so rules for those interactions are more necessary. The same thing is true for building public goods and for doing some kind of redistribution. Those are the three main ways the federal government has tried to manage capitalism, and you’d expect to see relatively more of each in an urban environment.

More people than ever live in urban areas — about four in five Americans, according to the last Census. But in your book you warn city dwellers not to be too optimistic about their political future. Why?

The clearest reason right now is the inefficient spacing of city voters. Hillary Clinton won Chicagoland by such a large margin that she would have won Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, if they were one state. But they aren’t, so she only won Illinois.

Another reason is federalism. There are big challenges in our future — automation, climate change — and big cities need to find a way to deal with them. But when cities come up with new ideas, states can just say no. It’s the same dynamic that was in play when Curley was Boston’s mayor almost a century ago.


Craig Fehrman is a freelance writer.