Politics & Elections: Alienation Rates Higher in Rural Areas than in Cities

A new poll finds that rural Americans are twice as likely to feel left behind by the nation's culture and economy than urban residents. Researchers say the rift between poor rural residents and more affluent urban residents is the "San Andreas Fault" of politics.

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A new poll finds a stark geographic division in the nation’s culture and politics.

The study was conducted by Gallup for the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The polling finds deep distrust in the nation’s institutions and leaders. For example, less than 5 percent of all respondents to the survey believe America is “strongly improving” while nearly six out of 10of those polled agree that the “American way of life,” which is undefined in the poll, “is rapidly disappearing.”

Distrust in American institutions — Wall Street, government, science — has been rising since at least the mid-1960s. Indeed, a decline in trust is a feature in all industrialized countries. A good number of Americans feel powerless and marginalized. What this poll finds, however, is that the levels of personal alienation differ with population density.

“Alienation rates are twice as likely to be very high in the most rural areas as in the denser cities; three-and-a-half times more likely if you have only a high school diploma than a graduate degree; and four times more likely if you are in the lowest income bracket than if you belong in the highest income bracket,” write James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman.

Hunter and Bowman make it clear that all Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going. But, they add, “When one considers all dimensions of disaffection together and looks to their cumulative impact, one sees the greatest intensity of total disaffection in a population that tends to be more male than female, disproportionately represented among Baby Boomers, and among those who reside in the lowest density parts of the country, though not in any particular region of the country.”

The poll finds that “about half (53%) of all who have a very high disaffection live in the lowest two levels of population density. If you live in the least populated rural areas, you are twice as likely to be in the highest category of disaffection.”

Despite the prominence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement over the last few years, white Americans are much more dissatisfied with government than are African Americans. “In general, whites are twice as likely as blacks and Hispanics to be very distrustful of the government on a variety of measures,” write Hunter and Bowman. This difference extends to perceptions of whether one is doing better or worse. Only one in five African Americans and Hispanics report they are worse off, compared to nearly half of whites (43%).

A new cultural divide has opened between “Social Elites” – educated, urban and well-paid – and the “Disinherited,” those who are poorer, less optimistic, less educated and less urban. And these differences play out in how people view government.

“When asked to choose which statement comes closest to their view of the role of government, two-thirds (68%) of all Social Elites said, ‘government should do more to improve the lives of ordinary Americans’ compared to 70 percent of the Disinherited who believe that ‘government is doing too many things that are better left to businesses, civic groups, and individuals,’” Hunter and Bowman write.

There is a “San Andreas Fault” that runs between Social Elites and the Disinherited. Social Elites favor Obamacare and gay marriage; the Disinherited do not. Six in 10 of the Disinherited believe that “if more Americans legally carried weapons in public” it would make the nation safer. Only 8 percent of the Social Elite believe more guns would make society safer.

At one time, conservatism was the ideology of the rich and privileged. Not anymore, Hunter and Bowman find.

These differences are playing out in the current election, according to the survey. They are exacerbated by a partisan and sensational-seeking media and the “absence of a balance of thoughtful, political engagement by a seasoned and knowledgeable political class.”

“The ‘vital center’ of a hopeful and substantive liberal democracy, then, has all but disappeared,” Hunter and Bowman conclude.





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