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America’s great divide

WORLD Radio - America’s great divide

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 5th of January, 2021.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: the political differences between city voters and those who live in rural areas.

Georgia voters are heading to the polls today for two special run-off elections. The races will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate for the next two years. 

No matter the outcome, it’s likely that a majority of voters in cities like Atlanta and Savannah will vote for Democrats. The rest of the state, the rural counties, will most likely go for the Republicans.

REICHARD: This is consistently one of the clearest divides in American politics: the gap between rural and urban voters. 

What drives this divide? WORLD’S Sarah Schweinsberg reports.

AUDIO: Would you gentleman like more coffee today?

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG: REPORTER. At J.C.’s Diner the 3 o’clock crowd has arrived for a cup of Joe and a chat. 

Waitress Shanna Allred says the diner sees a cycle of regulars all day. 

ALLRED: 5:30 you have a group. And then you’ll have a group at 6 and then you’ll have your 7 o’clockers, then you’ll have your 8 o’clockers, the last group is about 5 o’clock to 6.  

The log diner is a hub for the small town of Elwood, Utah. Population: 1,097. 

Owner Jim Abel says people come here to talk and share life. And that’s one of the beauties of rural living.

ABEL: It’s a hometown. Everybody cares about each other. Everybody takes care of each other. 

Abel says it’s an approach to life that city folks just don’t get. 

ABEL: I think the city people has forgot some things that they were taught and they just want it easier and faster pace and more fun, less work, you know? And whether you like it or not, you don’t ever get something for nothing. 

Adela Antel lives on the other side of the country—in Washington, D.C. She moved there a few years ago from small-town Pennsylvania. 

Antel is working to grow a photography business. She says the city offers more economic and cultural possibilities.

ANTEL: What attracted me are all the opportunities that we have here. It’s like, where the conversations happen. So I just wanted to be part of the conversation.

Being an urbanite has down-sides. 

ANTEL: The cost of living is high.

But Antel insists that the high cost is buying her more. 

ANTEL: For me, cities are inspiring. You look around at the big buildings and you walk by the Capitol, and by the monuments and you just want to try harder? Right? Um, whereas I wasn’t really inspired by the cornfields of Pennsylvania. (laughs) 

Easy-going towns versus bustling cities. These two contexts offer vastly different ways of seeing the world.  

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist at Princeton University who studies rural and urban differences. He says a combination of characteristics make rural areas more religious and, largely, more conservative. 

Rural areas have older populations. And families are also more likely to have lived in the area for generations. 

Small towns also have a strong religious heritage.

WUTHNOW: Many towns were settled by religious groups. 

And the church is still the center of the community. 

WUTHNOW: It is where people meet and greet. Where they talk to one another.

Wuthnow says higher church attendance combined with larger family networks instills Biblical social values and emphasizes community problem solving. 

WUTHNOW: People who live in a small town, whether they’re rich, or poor, or in between, are more likely to know one another. And to feel an important sense of responsibility to one another. And so that leads to a very strong emphasis on private charity in private compassion, rather than large scale public government welfare.

Cities on the other-hand have more transient populations. They are also much more racially diverse. And economic differences are more visible. 

WUTHNOW: One of the things that means is that when policies are being debated about public welfare, racial inclusion, civil rights, there is going to be more interest and more understanding in urban areas of those issues than there is likely to be in rural areas. 

Michael Hendrix is a scholar at the Manhattan Institute. He says the differences between rural and urban places have always existed, but in the last 20 years, the lines have deepened and understanding has diminished. He calls it the Big Sort. 

HENDRIX: Where people begin to find other like minded people. And then once they’re around each other, they begin to self reinforce.

But Hendirx sees signs of a reshuffling. 

As job prospects have declined in small towns, rural folk move to cities, bringing their values with them. And now as COVID-19 restrictions and remote jobs allow people to leave cities, they are taking their values to the suburbs and small towns. 

HENDRIX: There’s really a lot more diversity now we’re beginning to discover in this country, then the urban rural divide would otherwise seem to imply. And I think that there’s some opportunity there, maybe not at the national level, but certainly the state and local level to at least give us as much diversity among the elected, as we’re beginning to see among the electorate. 

And there’s something else blurring the rural-urban divide: urban sprawl. American cities are growing into small towns. 

That’s what’s happening in Elwood, Utah. It’s a good 40 miles from the Salt Lake City metro area. 

AUDIO: [Busy highway] 

But Jim Abel says the road outside his diner is busier than ever. Ready or not townees seeking more space and cheaper housing are coming. He’s OK with it—as long as they don’t try to change their new home too much. 

ABEL: And one of the things that happens is, they don’t like where they’re at. So they move and come up here, but as soon as they get here, then they try to change it to what they run away from, instead of enjoying what they got. You have to manage growth, and you have to balance that growth.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Elwood, Utah.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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