Progressive Geography's Intellectual Dead End


Americans are familiar with steep political divisions on issues like race, class, and gender. Perhaps less understood, but arguably more definitive, is the widening gap between the cognitive elites concentrated in big cities and the rest of the country. In our current “war against the masses,” to quote the late Fred Siegel, geography plays an increasingly dominant role.

Even as people move away from big cities and head to suburban, exurban, and rural areas, progressive geography insists that the nonurban majority lives in racist hellholes that produce leaders like the odious Donald Trump. These areas also supposedly serve as breeding grounds for Trumpian fascism, as the Nation recently suggested.

Disdain for the people inhabiting the periphery has long been embedded in the media and academic worldview, dating back even before the writings of Lewis Mumford. It is also ultimately terrible politics. Demeaning non-city dwellers as racists, homophobes, and fascists may not be the best way to start a conversation with the roughly 90 percent of Americans who live outside the urban core.

Urban Progressive Rage

Perhaps the most noxious—and widely discussed—assault on how Americans choose to live can be seen in White Rural Rage . Written by two progressives, University of Maryland professor Tom Schaller and veteran journalist Paul Waldman, the book’s basic thesis is that the American countryside has become a breeding ground for every reactionary tendency, from assaults on transgender “rights” to racism, authoritarianism, and the latest bugaboo, Christian nationalism.

The authors base much of their thesis on the “abandoning of rural and small-town America, particularly among the young.” In reality, however, rural and small-town America turned the corner several years back, and now these areas are growing faster than they have in a half century. Demographer Wendell Cox has found, through census data analysis, that migration out of small towns and cities began dropping in 2016. Since 2020, they have started gaining net migrants while big metro regions with over ten million residents have lost 1.5 million migrants since 2010, a decline that has now spread to regions with over 2.5 million.

Schaller and Waldman link this decline to the rise of far-right, violent politics and identify rural and small towns as the “essential source” of anti-Democratic Trumpism. But as a recent piece in Reason demonstrates, the research cited by Schaller and Waldman concludes the opposite: the “more rural the county, the lower the county rate of sending insurrectionists” to the January 6 Capitol riot. The authors of the Reason piece also mention a peer-reviewed article in the journal Political Behavior that compared rural and non-rural beliefs and found that rural Americans are actually less supportive of political violence than people in bigger cities. In discussing political violence, Schaller and Waldman, not surprisingly, do not mention the deeds of Antifa or the massive and sometimes deadly disruptions during the 2020 Floyd riots.

The authors also claim that commitment to democracy and free expression in rural America is “faltering.” An Atlantic study, however, recently showed that the most “intolerant” precincts in America are located not in the countryside but in urban regions, led by the Boston area, the Bay Area, and the Puget Sound, while rural areas were far less so. Similarly, the strongest opposition to free speech and support for censorship and de-platforming comes not from the South or the Great Plains, but from highly educated college graduates, particularly from the most elite schools such as Harvard. A recent Rasmussen poll notes that inner-city elites, with graduate degrees from prestigious institutions and an oversized media imprint, feel Americans have “too much freedom,” while the vast majority believe there is not enough.

Read the rest of this piece at American Affairs Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and and directs the Center for Demographics and Policy there. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.