Missaukee County, a secluded community in the northern Lower Peninsula with a population just edging 15,000, is a long way from Detroit. According to Google Maps, Missaukee County sits over 200 miles from Motor City, a distance that can be covered in about 3 hours by car. 

At first glance, there’s nothing extraordinary about Missaukee County. It’s just another rural community barely noticeable on a map. But dig a little deeper, and there’s something about Missaukee that stands out: It is one of the most conservative counties in the state of Michigan. According to 2020 election results, Missaukee voted 75.9% for President Donald Trump; 75.8% for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James; and 78.6% for U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich. By contrast, Detroit — the largest city in Michigan and a solid blue community — voted 93.5% for former Vice President Joe Biden; 90.9% for Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.; and 92.3% for Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich.

This vast political divide between communities like Detroit and Missaukee is a phenomenon becoming more common across the country. As urbanization continues and cities and suburbs grow rapidly, rural areas continue to lose both population and power. It is becoming increasingly normal for one or two concentrated urban areas — which usually are predominantly Democratic — to wield control over an entire state. While urban areas continue to expand, taking representation away from sparsely populated areas, our country is forgetting and neglecting rural America.

In Michigan, this trend has been prominent for decades. Metro Detroit, according to the land boundaries delineated by the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn Statistical Area, has a population of 4.32 million people. This means that the greater Detroit region, which covers less than 7% of Michigan’s land area, accounts for over 43% of its population. In the November general election, the two largest counties in Metro Detroit (as well as Michigan), Wayne and Oakland, voted 68.0% and 56.2% for Biden respectively. Votes for the Democratic presidential candidate from vastly urban areas are arguably what put Biden over the top in our state, securing him Michigan’s 16 electoral votes; the same is true for Peters, who also secured Michigan by narrow margins.

There is significant evidence for this phenomenon in other Midwestern states, too. Take Illinois, for instance. Illinois has a population of roughly 12.7 million, but the Chicago metropolitan area accounts for a staggering 75% of that tally, even though it takes up a miniscule 13% of Illinois’ land area. In the presidential election, Illinois voted 55.1% for Biden, even though Trump neared 80% of the vote in many of the state’s rural counties. In Wisconsin, which borders Illinois to the north, the state’s urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison carried Democrats to victory too, with Biden edging Trump by a margin of 20,000 votes. Minnesota, which voted 52.5% for Biden, tells a similar story.

Outside of the Midwest, the same trend is even more apparent. Biden easily won New York’s 29 electoral votes with nearly 60% of the vote, even though the map of the Empire State has vast swaths of red. Pennsylvania, which was seen as a battleground for this presidential election, narrowly handed its 20 electoral votes over to Biden. The former vice president unsurprisingly ran the table in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while nearly all of the rural areas in Pennsylvania turned out in massive numbers for Trump.

Finally, as this trend continues in the Midwest and Northeast, it has picked up steam in recent years in Southern and Western states, making it increasingly difficult for Republican politicians to gain traction. One of the most obvious examples of this is the state of Virginia. According to UVAToday, “Virginia in 2000 was a solid red state,” and this year, “its metro areas turned it blue for the fourth consecutive election.” While President George W. Bush picked up a comfortable 52.5% of the vote in 2000 against Democratic candidate Al Gore, Biden had a commanding lead in the same state, winning it by 54%.

Now, political scientists theorize that Georgia is the next Virginia. Like Virginia, Georgia used to be a solidly red state. But the growth of the Atlanta metropolitan area has moved the state from a Republican stronghold to a tossup. While Trump won Georgia by comfortable margins in 2016, Biden just barely prevailed over Trump in 2020, garnering 49.5% of the vote. In the future, it is quite plausible that like Virginia, Georgia will be a solidly Democratic state as the population continues to shift to urban and suburban areas.

Georgia isn’t the only state that is demonstrating these population shifts. For example, as Arizona’s sole urban center of Phoenix continues to enlarge, the state has moved from the Republican column in most elections to an apparent toss up. Trump also took Arizona easily in 2016 but lost to Biden by slim margins in 2020. Nevada, with the growing Las Vegas metro area, and North Carolina, with the Raleigh and Charlotte metropolitan areas, are additional clear examples of this accelerating trend. While Trump won North Carolina in 2016 with little trouble, the state was so close in 2020 that it took days to call. 

As the 2020 presidential election becomes a distant memory and time goes by, this trend will not only continue where it has already started, but it will also likely become more common in areas where it has not. While increased urbanization and suburbanization may be seen as very favorable to the Democratic Party, since America’s cities vote reliably Democratic, the deepening urban-rural divide creates problems on the national scale. For one, rural America continues to deal with staggering poverty rates, which advocacy group Save the Children has called an “emergency.” In 2016, according to NPR, almost a quarter of American children growing up in rural areas were poor; meanwhile, rural areas have been plagued by a lack of quality health care options for years, a crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Rural areas continue to be increasingly forgotten, and these regions aren’t getting the representation they deserve.

More and more, conservative areas of our country are voicing their opposition to liberal power centers far away; rural Americans are tired of being left behind. In left-leaning Oregon, which voted overwhelmingly for Biden, a group of red counties successfully passed a ballot initiative to set in motion a process by which they may leave Oregon and join Idaho. In Illinois, a proposal has been discussed by conservative areas to break off from liberal Chicago. While these conversations are nothing new, they have gotten renewed attention over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, as Democratic governors set regulations for entire states, which includes red areas, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

There is no easy solution to solve this problem. It clearly sets a bad precedent to allow several counties in one state like Illinois or Oregon to secede. If that were the case, it would only be a matter of time before state boundaries in the continental U.S. looked radically different. Meanwhile, such a trend would have drastic logistical and political consequences. 

As the urban-rural divide continues to exert its influence more and more, some people are expressing interest in Nebraska and Maine’s congressional district method to allocate electoral votes in presidential elections. While most states, including Michigan, are winner-take-all, different presidential candidates can win different congressional districts in Nebraska and Maine. If the Electoral College were reformed to operate on the basis of congressional districts instead of entire states, it would take away much of the influence of predominantly urban areas, since rural districts in blue states would typically be won by Republican candidates. Such a change could hurt the Democratic Party in some regions, but it would help both Republicans and Democrats in obvious ways. For example, Texas, Florida and Ohio all awarded their electoral votes to Trump in the 2020 presidential election, but all three of these states have significant blue territory in urban areas. In a reformed Electoral College, while Democrats would be harmed in blue states like New York and Illinois, they would be able to acquire more electoral votes from urban centers that aren’t represented in red states.

In the end, it is better at the moment to simply recognize the growing divide between urban and rural America, as opposed to setting out to immediately solve it. We can only truly eliminate this divide after thoroughly understanding it. While University of Michigan students and the Ann Arbor community may see the population shifts from rural to urban areas as a promising development, one of the hallmarks of our republic is that everybody is represented by our leaders. And, right now, that hallmark is being neglected.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu.

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