Democracy Does Not Die With Dispersion


With the COVID-19 pandemic declared over, a significant question for politicians, planners, and pundits alike is what to do with city centers and old urban cores after the pandemic pushed many Americans to move away from dense urban areas. For many, the central city remains an idealized version of spatial organization, which serves as an engine of creativity, innovation, opportunity, upward mobility, and the height of civilization itself.

But, most Americans feel differently, preferring to live in environs well outside urban cores and not just within suburbs but increasingly  small towns and rural areas as well. Even younger generations of Americans —who traditionally flocked to big cities for careers, social lives, and cultural amenities —show greater interest in suburban living than dense city living.

A frequent concern amongst theorists involves community cohesion and spatial organization, often with the assumption that living on the periphery discourages civic participation. As individuals move to less dense areas with more privacy, it is widely believed that they will naturally start to isolate themselves from the wider public and places will have an impoverished public sphere. Fortunately, these concerns are deeply overblown. Data from PACE’s 2021 Civic Language Perceptions Project, which sampled 5,000 voters in 2021, shows that attitudes toward democracy and community participation vary minimally when one moves from urban to suburban and rural areas.

When presented with a list of activities and behaviors that voters think are important to ensure that democracy works, responses change little depending on the respondent’s environment. For example, 71 percent of urban respondents believe that voting is critical behavior for a democracy to be successful, while 74 percent of rural and 80 percent of suburban residents feel the same way. While non-urban residents may be less likely to share residential spaces with their neighbors and they may directly interact a bit less often with their immediate neighbors than their city dweller counterparts, the residents of the often mischaracterized “lonely and desolate suburbs” are anything but electorally disengaged.

Indeed if we look at voting levels, they tend to be much higher outside of cities than within the cities themselves. Research regularly finds that residents of most major American cities typically vote at rates 5 to 15 percent lower than their suburban neighbors. Further analysis has uncovered low voter turnout in almost every city for both local and national elections such that turnout in the nation’s largest 30 cities is only a dismal 20 percent of the voting age population. Towns and suburbs are where elections are now decided and the 2020 election is a powerful example of the spatial politics today for the dominant electoral and geographic fissure is “not between urban and rural voters but between suburban and rural voters. And not just close-in highly urbanized suburbs in close proximity to the urban center, but some further out suburbs, even exurbs.” As such, so many of our political decisions are not being decided  in old, urban, picturesque cores but in the suburbs where most Americans are choosing to live.

Turning to other forms of direct local engagement, non-urban areas edge out the urban cores again, but the spatial differences are negligible. When it comes to the salience of volunteering, just under a third (31 percent) of urbanites recognize the importance of volunteering with slightly higher numbers of rural (34 percent) and suburban (34 percent). On attending public meetings such as town halls, community forums, school board meetings, and library events, non-urban areas are again slightly more inclined to engage. 39 percent of rural and 39 percent of suburban residents believe that being part of communal events is valuable compared to 34 percent of urban residents. Discussing politics with neighbors is important to 29 percent of city-dwellers areas, compared to 26 percent of suburbanites and 24 percent of people in rural areas, presumably due to distance – but these are minimal differences.

Predictably, interest in protests is higher in urban cores (16 percent) compared to suburban (12 percent) and rural (12 percent) areas. This is presumably because there are fewer central and often historic locales to demonstrate and advocate for positions. Residents of urban areas are only slightly more likely to advocate for social or political issues, with 15 percent of residents stating that this is important for democracy compared to 10 percent of residents in both rural and suburban areas. These figures are relatively small across all populations and have little more than a trivial impact on Americans’ beliefs on how to have a thriving civil society.  Therefore, the notion that rural and suburban areas are civic wastelands compared to cities is simply untrue. Values toward participatory and democratic norms are fairly consistent across urban form. Even if activism and demonstrations in older, urban spaces with historical buildings and halls capture the imagine of civic vitality – like Union and Washington Squares in New York City – it is wrong to write off leafy, quiet suburbs are as civic wastelands.

There are far too many misconceptions about the impact of the built environment on socio-political life. Suburbs and rural towns are not bleak social environments filled with residents disconnected from political engagement and the civil sphere. Many small towns and suburbs are amenity-rich communities and the data show that residents in these places regularly have similar levels of community satisfaction as people in dense, urban neighborhoods. We now also know that attitudes toward political engagement and democratic health do not decline in non-urban spaces. Suburban and rural communities have, in many cases, far more vibrant and positive views toward civic health and community-enhancing behaviors. As the nation reshapes itself with remote work and residential organizations that prefer space and privacy over older, urban cores, theorists and practitioners should take comfort that there is widespread agreement in the fact that Americans are collectively on the same page about what behaviors and actions are critical in ensuring that we have a thriving democratic nation.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo: John Brighenti via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.