In Pew’s recent survey on political polarization in America, there was one finding to rule them all: Only 4 percent of “consistent conservatives” want to live in the city. Just 4 percent! That’s fewer than the proportion of Americans who believe the moon landing was faked. Conservatives clearly have an overwhelming preference for rural areas and small towns, as the two account for more than three-quarters of right-wing America’s preferred living arrangements. Even the city-hugging suburbs garner 20 percent support. But to actually live in the city? That’s a line too far.
Conservatives may prefer the rural life because they’re more likely to have more kids, as some have suggested. But that’s not the driving factor behind conservative distaste towards city living, for it’s not as if liberals have such dramatically lower rates of family formation that 46 percent of them prefer to live in cities.
No, the right’s distaste for cities is a deeper and less circumstantial sentiment. Many still see cities in the light of Gotham and Gomorrah. They are cut from the cloth of Thomas Jefferson, who once said, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.” This overwhelming antipathy toward cities is just as real today as it was in Jefferson’s time. And this feeling will, absent change, effectively marginalize conservatives.
Now, don’t get me wrong: rural living is a beautiful thing. Americans of all kinds are welcome to live wherever they please. But to have so many conservatives so deeply reject the city sidelines conservatism from politics, culture, and the economy at a critical time, while discouraging those who might otherwise have used their voices for good in the city.
While the country is growing urban, conservatives are going rural. They desire to live in places that are losing population relative to the rest of America. For a while, conservatives may benefit from a preference for being spread out. But in the long run, it will be difficult to buck this trend and keep a solid electoral and cultural foothold. The growing share of urban Americans will be a ringing death knell for a strong conservative showing in national elections.
In the meantime, rural living will increasingly inform the platform the right puts forward. These policies are likely to be out-of-step with urban America; that is to say, most of America. Large cities already make up 85 percent of America’s economy. Their economic concerns are as different as their industry makeup, and their transportation needs will differ too.
Meanwhile, cities will also be dogged by many of our country’s most pressing challenges, such as sclerotic bureaucracies and walled-off markets. They will be in need of good ideas, particularly of the sort that reform-minded conservatives are cultivating. Yet the American right risks feeding a closed loop of country conservatism.
What’s more, culture-making is not just a bottom-up affair. It’s rather more like making tea, with a small cluster of people packing together the artifacts that will inexorably seep into whatever we boil up and drink down. That is why culture is more or less made in cities.
Networks of city elites hold a firm grasp on the means by which common knowledge spreads, whether television, universities, or newspapers. In fact, New York City and Los Angeles alone inform much of what we see on our TV screens or read on our iPads. If you include Washington, D.C., in the mix, you have covered centers of finance and politics, too.
If conservatives feel like they’re on the outside looking in on culture-making now, just wait a decade or so—it’ll get worse.
We can and should be free to live in small towns. But a preference for rural living shouldn’t be drenched in antipathy to cities. Both for our culture’s sake and our own, conservatives should learn to stop worrying and love the city.
Michael Hendrix is the director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.