According to the New York Times, the 2016 election “highlighted a growing rural-urban split.” So, on this episode of BackStory, Brian, Ed and Nathan look at what happens when urban and rural Americans collide.
They’ll tell the story of one coastal couple’s proposal to make part of the Great Plains a vast nature preserve and how it wasn’t received too kindly by the residents of those states. They’ll look at how attitudes towards small town voters shaped American politics in the 1920s. Finally, they’ll explore the urban/rural divide during the Founding Era, when city slicker Alexander Hamilton challenged Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a country composed of humble yeoman farmers.
eLauren Donovan, Lauren Donovan is a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune.
eFrank Popper, Frank Popper is a professor at Rutgers University.
eDeborah Popper, Deborah Popper is professor emerita at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York
eDoug Smith, Doug Smith is the author of "On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought ‘One Person, One Vote’ to the United States."
JOANNE: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
NATHAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s been an unprecedented election season.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s been the most unprecedented and unpredictable.
MALE SPEAKER: Like 1968 all over again.
MALE SPEAKER: Like 1987.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s 2000 all over again.
MALE SPEAKER: Trump isn’t Nixon. Trump isn’t Reagan. Trump isn’t George Wallace.
MALE SPEAKER: You know, I think history is sort of repeating itself.
MALE SPEAKER: I don’t think history repeats itself.
MALE SPEAKER: History repeats, next.
ED: Welcome to the new BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.
NATHAN: Nathan Connolly here.
BRIAN: And this is Brian Balogh.
ED: If you’re new to the show, we’ll tell you a bit about BackStory. Joanne, Brian, Nathan, and I are all historians, but really, keep listening. Each week, we pluck a headline from the news and look at that topic through three centuries of American history.
JOANNE: Now most weeks, there’ll be three hosts, with one of us rotating out, depending on the topic. So I’m actually going to rotate out this week. But I’ll be back next week and many weeks to follow.
BRIAN: See you, Joanne.
NATHAN: All right, bye, bye.
BRIAN: Ed, Nathan, I’m going to kick off today’s show by taking you back to a cold November night in Bismarck, North Dakota. It’s 1989. It looks like a pretty ordinary scene. About 100 people are packed inside a hotel banquet room. Everyone is listening intently to the guest speakers up front, an East coast a couple named Frank and Deborah Popper. But if you take a closer look at the crowd, they’re upset, even hostile. That’s because the Poppers are presenting a pretty provocative academic theory.
LAUREN DONOVAN: You know, a lot of us here in North Dakota were offended to our very core.
BRIAN: This is Lauren Donovan, a reporter for The Bismarck Tribune. She had a bad cold when we reached her, but was kind enough to talk to us anyway. Back in 1989, she was a young editor at a local North Dakota newspaper. That night, she sat on a panel assembled to refute the Poppers and their offensive idea.
LAUREN DONOVAN: When it was my turn to talk about Frank and Deborah Popper, I remember being pleased that I’d been so clever to come up with the idea that their whole theory was poppycock.
NATHAN: Then I guess in that part of the country, them’s fighting words.
LAUREN DONOVAN: And I remember looking over at Mr. Popper and he absolutely flinched. And I remember feeling like, hah. It was very emotional for me. And so, I wasn’t interested in examining any merits of their theory. I was only into giving them a piece of my mind.
ED: I’m curious. What was making people in this room so angry?
BRIAN: Ed, not just the people in this room, the Poppers were saying something that was deeply threatening to people across the Great Plains. And this story reflects a tension we hear a lot about these days.
MALE SPEAKER: Data and the numbers do show a clear rural-urban divide.
MALE SPEAKER: There is an urban-rural divide that we saw in this election.
FEMALE SPEAKER: This urban-rural divide.
MALE SPEAKER: You look at the divide. The big cities tend to go more for the Democrats and the rural areas more for the Republicans.
MALE SPEAKER: That’s an old division in American politics.
NATHAN: Today on BackStory, we’re going to look into the history of tensions between urban and rural people.
BRIAN: If you listen to the news, these two parts of the population aren’t even on speaking terms. They don’t see eye to eye on politics or even basic facts.
NATHAN: We’ll hear how those disagreements go back to the country’s very founding. We’ll also show how rural voters have often had an outsized voice in American politics.
BRIAN: And we’ll dive into that story about the Poppers nearly 30 years ago, the surprising outcome, and the lessons for today.
NATHAN: OK, so going back to that cold night in Bismarck, who were the Poppers?
BRIAN: Nathan, I’m going to let them introduce themselves.
FRANK POPPER: My name is Frank Popper. I’m a professor at Rutgers, and I’m here with my wife.
DEBORAH POPPER: And I’m Deborah Popper and I am now professor emerita, and the two of us are also visiting professors at Princeton.
FRANK POPPER: Which we’ve been visiting for 15 years now.
BRIAN: Back in the late 1980s, the New Jersey couple was looking at demographic data across the Great Plains. This is the arid, sparsely populated midsection of the country that spans about 500,000 square miles from North Dakota and Montana all the way down to Texas and New Mexico. At the time, the region was in an economic freefall. Family farms were going bankrupt. There was a severe drought. And jobs were disappearing.
The Poppers pointed out that tens of thousands of residents, especially young people, were leaving the Great Plains. The region was basically emptying out.
ED: So were their numbers right? Was it becoming depopulated.
BRIAN: Their numbers were right. The Poppers could see that the Plains was actually in the middle of its third cycle of severe depopulation.
FRANK POPPER: The Great Plains has been losing population for, in fact, well over a century.
BRIAN: So back in New Jersey, the Poppers came up with a solution.
FRANK POPPER: And that’s the Buffalo Commons.
BRIAN: Sounds pretty benign, right?
NATHAN: A little bit, yeah.
BRIAN: Yeah, well, the basic idea of the Buffalo Commons was this. Turn big chunks of the Great Plains, nearly a quarter of the region into something like a nature preserve, one where native grasses and native species, including buffalo would return and replace farms and ranches.
DEBORAH POPPER: The Buffalo Commons was more a metaphor rather than, this is what must happen. In essence, it’s thinking about how you could live more lightly on the land.
BRIAN: The poppers laid out that in the December, 1987 edition of Planning Magazine. I think you got yours early this year.
NATHAN: I only read it for the articles though.
BRIAN: You may be laughing now, but they gave their article a gloomy title, “Great Plains, From Dust to Dust.” Here’s Deborah reading.
DEBORAH POPPER: “Most of the Great Plains will become what all of the United States once was, a vast landmass largely empty and unexploited.”
FRANK POPPER: I expected the article to go– we expected the article– I think I can speak for Deborah here –to go off into the ether and never reappear again.
BRIAN: We’ve all been there.
FRANK POPPER: Yes. Some of us are there permanently, in fact. But to our great surprise, people read it. Politicians read it.
BRIAN: And most importantly, people on the Great Plains read it. And those who didn’t actually read it, heard about the Popper’s proposal. Angry letters to the editor poured into the magazine. Deborah and Frank soon started getting hostile phone calls.
FRANK POPPER: Saying, we know nothing. We’ve been called various names, this is quote socialite socialists.
DEBORAH POPPER: Where are you putting the fence would be another one. So is my house– which side of the fence is my house on?
FRANK POPPER: A woman from Coldwater, Kansas called me up, said she was from the local paper and her first question was, how many of you are there in this conspiracy?
NATHAN: And where was that reporter you mentioned. Lauren Donovan, during all this?
LAUREN DONOVAN: We were not at all excited about the idea that a pair of sociologists from the East Coast had proposed that perhaps a better land use for North Dakota and the Great Plains at that time was to become a giant preserve for buffalo and other wildlife.
FRANK POPPER: Some people reacted to it as if we wanted to create a giant national park. Often they misinterpreted, they thought for example we were calling for a forcible expropriations scheme, where everybody would be out by Tuesday.
BRIAN: Which you did not call for in the article.
DEBORAH POPPER: We didn’t feel we called for it.
BRIAN: What does that mean you didn’t feel you called for it?
DEBORAH POPPER: There is this maybe you could call it a sort of [INAUDIBLE]. If these trends continue, then what you’ve seen in the past is people leaving. If they keep leaving and they keep leaving and they keep leaving, then what happens? Rather than push them out–
FRANK POPPER: Which, as I look back, maybe we should have stressed more strongly.
BRIAN: To be fair, the Poppers did write, the Buffalo Commons would become the ultimate national park. That had to sting.
ED: That’s not really crazy when you think about it. In the 1930s, the Shenandoah National Park was created by driving away several hundred families that lived there for a long time. And let’s don’t forget too that the Great Plains themselves have been freed for white settlement by the dispossession of Native Americans.
BRIAN: Yeah, they certainly felt they had some basis to be concerned, which makes what happened next even more surprising. The Poppers began getting invitations to come visit and speak.
DEBORAH POPPER: From all sorts of groups.
FRANK POPPER: Journalists, farming groups.
BRIAN: So this is in the plains.
DEBORAH POPPER: In the plains.
NATHAN: So they just went out there?
BRIAN: That’s right. You might ask why. Well, to be frank, they were amazed that anybody took their writing seriously.
FRANK POPPER: I personally was delighted to see some academic work actually getting a real life practical response from real people. There would be the kind of ongoing public dialogue that the schools of public policy are supposed to lead to and stimulate and so on.
BRIAN: Over the next few years, the Poppers made dozens of trips to the region. They traveled to all 10 Great Plains states. Each visit followed a standard script. The couple would show up at a high school auditorium or a hotel conference room. They’d take their seats in the front of the room and explain the Buffalo Commons theory.
NATHAN: It all sounds pretty tame I guess.
BRIAN: Not exactly.
DEBORAH POPPER: It’s going on a stage, and we really were on a stage, and talking to people that you know have many doubts about you.
BRIAN: Local officials and journalists would challenge them. Then it was the audience’s turn. Residents who–
FRANK POPPER: In some cases will come up and tell you, because they’re lovely people, I drove 300 miles to hear you, and you’re still full of nonsense.
BRIAN: And is nonsense the word they used?
FRANK POPPER: Sometimes they were stronger.
DEBORAH POPPER: I remember a specific incident of a farmer coming up to Frank with some wheat in his hands and saying, do you know what this is? Do you even know what this is? And you know. a person who was clearly had put his life into growing wheat, and indeed I appreciate that. But how can you talk about my community in this way, when I am growing this for you?
BRIAN: Sometimes the couple even had to be escorted by local officials.
DEBORAH POPPER: I would say that a tremendous number of our appearances, there was definitely security, you know local security provided, because the host would be a bit nervous about how the audience was going to respond.
BRIAN: Lauren Donovan says the locals didn’t just resent what the Poppers were saying, they also resented the Popper’s attitude, as if these professors from New Jersey knew what was best.
LAUREN DONOVAN: There was just this giant gap, reality gap, between the kind of people we are and the kind of people they are.
BRIAN: And what kind of people are they?
LAUREN DONOVAN: Well, you know, they are East Coast academics from the North Dakota perspective. It’s not like we don’t respect academics, but on the other hand, that an academic theory just seems so removed from the manure on the bottom of a cattle truck or the–
FRANK POPPER: I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of people call my academic theories manure in the bottom of a cattle truck.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Well, maybe that was a pretty good description there. But I mean it was just, you can hardly even put them on the same page.
BRIAN: But at the bottom of all of these exchanges was something more primal, it was fear. Local residents believed that these two East Coast academics, believe it or not, actually had the power to evict people from their land.
ED: Aren’t they kind of overreacting, I mean, just a little bit?
LAUREN DONOVAN: If you were a North Dakotan, you would understand, first of all, we are sort of embarrassed about our standing in the country, especially 30 years ago. Our self respect meter was not all that high. We were out here in the middle of nowhere and kind of that big fly over country.
BRIAN: Donovan was raised in a small prairie town in North Dakota called Mott.
LAUREN DONOVAN: And if you look it up on the map, it says, Mott, the spot that God forgot. But we always thought it was more apt to say that– yeah, that’s exactly the word I’ve been searching for. Thank you. But we like to say it’s Mott the spot where the girls are hot, and the boys are not.
BRIAN: She grew up in a large family on their grandparents homestead.
LAUREN DONOVAN: And I grew up in a family of 12 children in a small town that flourished as much as a prairie town can flourish. And at the peak of our little town’s history, we had 1,500 people who lived there.
BRIAN: Every one of her siblings moved away. She’s the only one who stayed in North Dakota.
LAUREN DONOVAN: My little home town now continues to diminish every year and so right now there’s probably less than 700 people.
BRIAN: And that, she says, is why the Poppers made people so angry.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Because of the possibility that what they were proposing really would be the end of our story. I think that there was in those years, a bad drought, struggling agriculture, a population that continued to falter, small towns that were emptying out. We were closing schools, churches, you name it, we were closing it in North Dakota. And so, it wasn’t like this didn’t have that ring of possibility.
BRIAN: So it’s the very fact that they were right about a lot of the demographic trends that made the proposed solution such a threat.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Right. I think that’s exactly right. That they nailed what was happening to us quite accurately. But this is land that we owned. This is land that we nourished, we farmed, we ranched. And sure, it might be getting emptier by the minute, but it was our home.
BRIAN: There’s one more aspect of the Popper’s proposal that really rubbed people the wrong way. In your article, you said that the settlement of the plains was quote, “the greatest agricultural and environmental mistake in American history.” End quote. Is that something that you regret saying?
FRANK POPPER: No. No.
BRIAN: You don’t think that was the problem?
FRANK POPPER: I don’t think that– well, yeah, it was a problem. But I, well, we were prepared to defend that and I’d stick with that today.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Well, there’s some truth to that, and some of the truth is in the farming practices that have proven to be not the best practices for the Great Plains. But we felt like survivors in a way. How could we feel then that all of us were a mistake?
FRANK POPPER: I’ve got to say, this is something I’ve only realized recently. If the roles were reversed, I’d be against us.
BRIAN: Why? Because those people were standing up for something strong and patriotic and American. And they saw it that way and they saw us as just the opposite.
DEBORAH POPPER: I don’t know if I can let that stand. I can’t let that stand, because I’m standing tall for my part of the country where it’s OK that my ancestors made mistakes. They did make mistakes. And I’m allowed to say it. I’m glad to have them tell me to be quiet. But you say what you see and what you think. And that’s all right, and that’s patriotic.
BRIAN: 30 years have passed since the Poppers published their controversial article. Since then, a few areas in the Great Plains have actually bounced back. North Dakota for example, has experienced an oil boom. But for the most part, the Great Plains has continued to lose population. I asked the Poppers what, if anything, they learned from the whole exchange.
DEBORAH POPPER: We were a way to get a conversation that the community needed, and yet there was both a hesitancy to talk about the things and also lots of disagreements. Everybody has their own idea of what needed to be done or who was at fault. And so whenever they would bring us in, there was one thing they knew people could agree upon, they didn’t like us.
FRANK POPPER: We were a public service of a certain perverse kind. We could mobilize people against us. They could agree. We had it wrong. Let’s go find it right.
BRIAN: And guess what? Lauren Donovan agrees.
LAUREN DONOVAN: We have to thank them when we look back for holding up a mirror. It wasn’t like we were seeing somebody we didn’t recognize, but we needed to take a good hard look and they helped.
BRIAN: But here’s the real surprise. Local environmentalists and conservationists have started to embrace the Buffalo Commons as a viable idea. They’re creating smaller versions of the Commons throughout the plains. And Native American tribes are working hard to restore buffalo herds.
ED: So it sounds as if this scholarship did what scholarship was supposed to do. It’s sort of advanced the conversation with some clearer understanding.
NATHAN: Or It’s got a couple of professors in trouble.
BRIAN: I don’t think that the scholarship ever was intended to shed light on the huge gaps in perception between urban types and rural types. But I actually think that it did more to enhance both sides’ understanding of people who are quite different than themselves. Lauren Donovan wishes she’d been less suspicious of the Poppers back then she even called Frank and Deborah Popper a few years ago and said–
LAUREN DONOVAN: I am really sorry that I was such immature twit.
DEBORAH POPPER: You know, when I go back and look at what we wrote, we were young and dumb. And they brought us in to teach us something. We kept going because we kept meeting interesting people and learning and learning and learning, and being part of a discussion that mattered to people.
LAUREN DONOVAN: It must’ve been very interesting for Frank and Deborah Popper to come out from behind the numbers and the data and meet us. But they were brave and they came out and they spoke with us and I admire them very much.
BRIAN: Thanks to Frank and Deborah Popper for sharing their story. Frank is a professor at Rutgers University. Deborah is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island City University of New York. Thanks also to Lauren Donovan. She’s a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune.
ED: Coming up, we’re going to talk about the origins of this feud between country and city people. But first, a word from today’s sponsor.
BRIAN: Nathan, Ed, I think you could hear in that last story a certain amount of reconciliation that occurred over time. But this tension between urban and rural is certainly a matter of very different perceptions on the part of each party. What I want to know from you is, is it just perception or are there real fundamental, maybe even structural differences between urban populations and rural populations that run throughout American history?
NATHAN: Well I think one of the critical kind of pillars of American identity is this notion that the country began as a kind of rural republic, right? But if you go back to the colonial period, it oftentimes makes more sense to think about early America as really being the hinterland of an urban Europe, I mean particularly of London. You have the goods and services moving between London and places in Virginia and in Massachusetts. So there was, from the very beginning a kind of connection between urban life and what we would call kind of rural life in colonial America.
BRIAN: Well, if that’s the case, how do we get what certainly seemed to me one of the fundamental divides this debate between Hamilton and Jefferson, a more urban looking, manufacturing political economy and Jefferson’s really worshipping the rural yeoman farmer.
ED: In many ways is a projection of what Nathan was talking about before, in the sense that America imagines itself as a rural country from the beginning, even as it is actually pretty darn urban. And so, if you imagine yourself as the rural hinterland to the corrupt English empire, then you emphasize your rural roots, your independence from these markets.
NATHAN: Even as you’re urbanizing.
ED: So the hinterland America becomes a lot more rural before it becomes more urban. It expands across the north and the South into vast new areas, displacing American Indians and creating farms and plantations that are then flowing back into the cities that they resent so much.
NATHAN: So it sounds like you’re drawing a distinction between the rural and say the wilderness.
ED: Yeah, the wilderness is where the American Indians lived, Nathan. And what makes the difference? White Americans realize that the Indians cultivated the landscape. They could see it with their own eyes. And they overran those villages and those that landscape to take it.
But what they did not do was enclose it in fences. They didn’t mark off as rural areas that are bought and sold. And so what becomes rural in the American imagination are places that are not cities, but that are tied to the cities, first of Europe, and now to ourselves. So Jefferson and Hamilton are imagining different centers of the economy.
Jefferson wants to focus on the places where things are grown to feed the cities. Hamilton wants to focus on places where the food is being consumed, where the money’s being made, where manufacturing’s being made. So they’re both emphasizing productivity, but they’re imagining different anchors of the economy.
NATHAN: And there’s a certain kind of assumption that goes with that divide, that somehow the kind of corrupt bankers in a America’s cities are leading the country down a potentially dangerous road.
ED: They’re not really making money. They’re just skimming it off other people.
NATHAN: Absolutely and that the independent kind of yeoman farmer or even the planter as a kind of a patriarch, a moral patriarch of the household are that the real heart of the country’s well-being.
ED: Because they are making something out of nothing. They’re literally planting seeds in the soil, and things that would not be there otherwise are growing. Whereas bankers are just moving paper around.
BRIAN: So Nathan, you’re saying that the slave-holding planter was more productive than the banker?
NATHAN: Well, this is exactly the problem with that formulation, right? Because it’s not as if the planter’s making something out of nothing. It’s that the slaves are actually working this land. And abolitionists who are throughout America’s cities, especially recognize this. And so they see in fact, not a kind of moral planter, but the great evil, the great moral evil of the country, which could have been eradicated during the Revolution and during the founding of the country, but it wasn’t because you had planters essentially writing the country’s founding documents.
So the moral divide between rural and urban really does get heightened around this question of abolition and who in fact should be the ones who make the country’s prosperity move. Should it be slave labor in places like Virginia or in Georgia? Or should it be free labor in places like Pennsylvania and New York?
ED: Yeah, that’s an important distinction there, Nathan, is that the antidote the abolitionists imagine is not the city however. It’s the family farm in the North. And so there’s a case where the moral bonus points don’t necessarily accrue to the people who are making the arguments, but rather they’re projecting it onto a rural landscape that still has that Jeffersonian productivity on it.
And the enemy of free farms is slavery. Think about what the Civil War is actually about. It’s actually controlling the rural landscape. And so, that’s the important divide, is that slavery obscures for a moment that urban-rural divide. But as soon as the war is over and slavery destroyed the urban-rural thing reasserts itself.
BRIAN: But surely, by the time we get to the populist era and the farmers rise up and attack those bankers in the city, we’ve really got a real urban-rural divide, right?
ED: And for those of you who may have forgotten who the populace were, they were the last unified effort on the part of rural interests to take America. In the 1890s, they grew up and tied together the farmers from the East and the West and the North and South and Republicans and Democrats, and said, you know who should be running the country? The people who feed the country.
We are literally making less every year on what we grow, and the cities are growing rich at our expense. So if people want to see a real urban-rural divide in American politics, it’s in the 1890s. And it’s very explicitly urban and rural, and it’s not unlike today, when people look around and say where is the majority of the population? Who controls most of America? It’s the farmers, and yet those fat cats in the cities seem to be taking all the spoils of our work.
BRIAN: Although the difference would be is the nation was predominantly rural at the time and the economy was still largely driven by agriculture.
ED: Yeah, Brian, in their eyes there were the people who actually made real things. The people they hated were people who just moved paper around. So in the 1890s, the populous rise to enormous power and it looks to them in and to a lot of countries that they’re going to win the presidency. But they don’t. And they lose, and after they lose then they’re basically seen as rubes and hicks. They’re seen as the places where people just can’t keep up with the rapidly changing world.
BRIAN: So here’s my question.
BRIAN: Is this urban-rural divide real, or is it simply a way that America from its very founding has authorized a legitimate discussion of differences, a discussion that might not be as legitimate as pitting white people against brown people, as pitting free labor against slavery? Is this a convenient way that Americans have always talked about some of their differences?
NATHAN: Well, I think that there’s a real divide for people who were migrating from one space to another. So you think that African Americans who are migrating to American cities and are fleeing say lynch law in the South. They’re certainly feeling that there is a difference between living in a wooden shack in Greenwood, Mississippi and having a kind of community block that is protecting them from say police brutality on the south side of Chicago or trying to. So in the minds of many people there is a real divide.
But I think it’s also worth saying that this is a narrative. It’s a narrative in American history that we rolled out again and again and again to try to understand how there might be perceived differences or political divides or any number of other kind of segments of the population. But you know, rural America is absolutely full of Native Americans, of Latino migrants, African Americans. Cities obviously are full of any number of different variations of white, right? But we have these kind of hard boxes that we put people into as a way to explain election cycles, to explain culture wars in kind of popular commentary. And sometimes these comparisons can be a little bit overblown.
ED: I would say, Brian, to answer your question two things. One, to start with the current day and think back, think about what we call urban music, which is a euphemism for African American, and what we call country, which–
BRIAN: –is listen to by suburban white people, by the way.
ED: But it’s labeled urban as black and country as white. But I think the main way this is built into American history is how do people, North and South and East and West explain the Civil War? It’s industrial versus agrarian, which is just freaking crazy. It was not industrial-agrarian in any way. But it’s a way of not using the S word when we’re talking about the main courses of American history.
NATHAN: Would that be slavery, Ed?
ED: It would be the slavery word. But if you make it urban-rural precisely because of this interpenetration we’re talking about, so it’s not to say that urban-rural is not real, it is to say that we like it because it’s a shorthand that allows us to obscure lots of other divisions that are a lot more divisive in American history.
Coming up, we’re going to hear how politicians have used the urban rural divide to their own advantage. But first, a word from today’s sponsor.
BRIAN: We just talked about how the urban-rural divide may be exaggerated or misleading, but in one respect it’s all too real. These days it maps directly onto one of the longest running fault lines in America, between Republicans and Democrats. Just look at an electoral map from the 2016 election.
It shows a sea of red, rural voters punctuated by small islands of blue voters. They represent voters in America’s metropolitan areas. Many liberal commentators, including MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell have complained about the unfairness of the electoral college.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: Making those rural votes 20 times more powerful than urban votes.
BRIAN: Yeah, and there’s another thing something that’s used by both political parties that can tilt the scales in favor of white rural voters. That’s gerrymandering. That’s when political parties carve electoral districts that favor their own party at the expense of the others. So you have the electoral college and gerrymandering. Those are well-recognized features of our electoral system.
But 50 years ago, rural voters enjoyed a political advantage over urban voters for another reason malapportionment. That’s when certain residents have more political power than their numbers would suggest.
DOUG SMITH: And we could point to almost any state in the nation, by the mid-twentieth century virtually every state in the United States was malapportioned.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: This is historian Doug Smith. He says malapportionment emerged from the belief that rural voters somehow were just better than urban voters. That attitude was captured perfectly by a delegate to New York State’s Constitutional Convention in 1894.
DOUG SMITH: “I say without fear of contradiction that the average citizen in the rural district is superior in intelligence, superior in morality, superior in self-government to the average citizen in the great cities.” We can certainly see this as a extreme manifestation of it but that was a mindset or an attitude that was quite prevalent in many citizens of rural and small town America who saw the cities growing rapidly. It’s immigration, people of darker skin colors, different religions are flooding the United States. Corporations are growing by leaps and bounds, factories, it’s a whole different way of life. And on many different levels, it can be unsettling.
BRIAN: Smith says even though malapportionment violated the principle of one person, one vote, it was actually perfectly legal.
DOUG SMITH: The constitution only requires that representation in the House of Representatives be based upon the census. But the Constitution doesn’t specifically say anything about state legislatures. So in California, for instance, where I live, you have the State Senate which was set up in such a way that residents of Los Angeles County, 6 million people had one state senator and 14,000 residents of three rural counties up in the Eastern side of the Sierra Mountains also had one state senator. So literally if you are a voter in rural eastern Sierra, you would have essentially 450 times the amount of political power as a resident of Los Angeles County in voting for the state Senate.
BRIAN: Let me ask you, Doug, you know we’re talking today about the urban-rural divide. Is one of the reasons that this notion that rural people are good people and honest people prevailed for so long, the fact that they had a louder voice in pretty prominent places like state legislators?
DOUG SMITH: Well, I think that for a long time, they had the power because they had the numbers.
BRIAN: It was a rural country.
DOUG SMITH: It was a rural country and we often talk about how it’s the 1920 census that showed for the first time that a majority of Americans lived in urban areas. But at the time, you know, urban area and that was defined as 2500 people or more. I don’t think a lot of us today would think of a community of 3,000 or 5,000 people as urban.
You know the point being that for a long time they did have the numbers and they did have the political power. And as a political historian to me at the end of the day what malapportionment really is about is about political power. And it’s about maintaining it, holding on to it, doing everything you can to try to maximize it.
BRIAN: Were there other interests that came to support malapportionment?
DOUG SMITH: Well, I think certainly over time, business groups, chambers of commerce, manufacturing associations, all of those sorts of folks, very much supported malapportionment in so far as it left control of the legislature in rural and small town folks who were seen as being more conservative on issues such as labor laws, taxation, et cetera, et cetera.
BRIAN: So even though those businesses largely were located in urban areas, they wanted a pliant rural dominated legislature.
DOUG SMITH: Absolutely.
BRIAN: What are some examples of the consequences of malapportionment.
DOUG SMITH: So if you think about it for a minute, the states that were most malapportioned, you essentially created a situation where a minority of residents, as few in some cases as 12% to 20%, could actually control the majority of a legislative body. And so when you have that sort of form of minority control, it means that you can essentially veto almost any measure put forward before the legislature. So for instance in Michigan, there was constant efforts at sort of laws that would be seen as more favorable to workers, labor law, that business interest fought, or fair housing laws.
BRIAN: So these would be laws for instance on safety regulations–
DOUG SMITH: Safety workplace, overtime, minimum wage, I mean literally anything, any issue that comes before a state legislature, or before the House of Representatives, in the case of Congress is affected. In California, there’s issues of water rights and whatnot that are affected. And we haven’t talked at all about the role that malapportionment plays in the perpetuation of segregation and Jim Crow, but certainly in Virginia, when Virginia passed its massive resistance laws–
BRIAN: Massive resistance to ensure that the schools were not integrated.
DOUG SMITH: Correct. So when those laws were passed, you know, it’s the rural areas of Virginia that were most conservative, most committed to maintaining segregation. They were overrepresented in Richmond. As opposed to members of the legislature from Norfolk and Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia, who were underrepresented.
BRIAN: Doug, I have a funny feeling the courts are going to break this logjam.
DOUG SMITH: Absolutely. The issue really does begin to metastasize almost in the post World War II period as urban areas continue to grow by leaps and bounds, and urban officials become increasingly frustrated with the inability to get adequate funding from the state legislature, whether it’s for education or for roads or et cetera, et cetera.
In November of 1960, the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case of Baker v. Carr, which comes out of Tennessee. The Court was divided four to four. Potter Stewart, who was one of the newer justices, couldn’t make up his mind and asked for it to be put over for reargument. It was reargued in October of 1961.
It ultimately was a six to two decision. But Baker v. Carr only went so far as to say that the federal courts may consider whether or not apportionment violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. It did not set a standard. It did not address the specifics. But it did open the floodgates to a raft of lawsuits. And then finally two years later, in June of 1964, the Court announced its decision and the principle of one person, one vote must govern apportionment of all state legislative bodies.
BRIAN: Yeah, Doug, I could read about malapportionment all day. But most people would say, this is boring. Did people actually care about this?
DOUG SMITH: Oh, absolutely, and when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in June of 1964 requiring population equality in both branches of the legislature, this was headlines in every newspaper, every news show, and it remained in the national consciousness for five years as states did begin to reapportion under court order. And eventually by the late 1960s, virtually every legislative body in the United States was based on equal population.
BRIAN: And does malapportionment still exist?
DOUG SMITH: Literal malapportionment, in terms of the way it existed prior does not. One thing that has happened in the 50 years since is that legislative bodies within a state, or congressional districts within a state, do have the same or almost the same number of people, the same number as you can reasonably draw. No doubt though, gerrymandering is linked.
The New York Times in 1965 wrote this editorial where they referred to the twin evils of apportionment and gerrymandering. And one of the things I like to point out is that at the time, in the late ’50s, ’60s, the lawyers for plaintiffs and the Supreme Court, they weren’t naive about gerrymandering and they understood that gerrymandering was an issue. But malapportionment was seen as being the far greater obstacle to democratic government.
So once malapportionment is taken care of, then gerrymandering of course, which had been around for a long time, becomes ever more important. So now you have to draw districts that don’t make any sense in order to get the result that you want. Whereas before, you could just lump 10,000 people into one district and 100,000 into another. You didn’t have to draw funny shapes.
BRIAN: When The New York Times discussed the twin evils of malapportionment and gerrymandering, should they really have talked about triplets with the third child being the electoral college?
DOUG SMITH: Well, that’s a great question, and obviously one that is especially prevalent today. The New York Times did not. But just a couple of years before that, and I think in January of 1961, Edward R. Murrow on CBS did an hour long special called The Election Day Illusions. They spent 30 minutes talking about malapportionment and 30 minutes talking about the electoral college.
Certainly there was a sense that these were two entities which stood in the way of true democracy. Now of course, the one place, and it is important one, where the electoral college is different from malapportionment or gerrymandering, is that the electoral college is specifically written into the Constitution. And no matter how you feel about it, you can’t get around the fact that that is very clear.
BRIAN: Doug, you’ve told such a compelling story. But could you step back and just explain to us what the greater significance of these legal cases is?
DOUG SMITH: Earl Warren, at the end of his very distinguished career–
BRIAN: Chief Justice.
DOUG SMITH: Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided over the Court from 1953 to 1969, he always said that the reapportionment decisions were the most important of his career. Most people expected him to say Brown versus Board of Education. And he said, no, even more than Brown, even more than any of the other major cases that he handed down.
The reapportionment cases were the most important because at their root they addressed fundamental issues of democracy, who is going to participate in our democracy. How much is each person’s vote going to count? Does my vote count once and yours count 10 times? At its most fundamental basic level, malapportionment and correcting malapportionment was about asserting a principle of majority rule, in which every person has an equal vote.
BRIAN: Doug, thanks for joining us on BackStory today.
DOUG SMITH: My pleasure.
BRIAN: Doug Smith is the author of On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought One Person, One Vote to the United States.
ED: You know that was a really interesting interview, Brian. It certainly occurs to me that in the same way that we have political gerrymandering, in which basically people are talking to people just like themselves all the time. And in some ways social media encourages that, it’s almost as if we have cultural gerrymandering.
I mean when’s the last time you heard anything on major league talk show that suggested anything other than urban, the whole thing feels like an inside joke, that if you’re a rural person, you’re sometimes the butt of the joke. So I guess it seems to me that they’re gerrymandering principle of like being bounded off from like, seems to be spreading across the country an urban-rural divide one more example.
BRIAN: Ed, that’s a terrific phrase, cultural gerrymandering. But I want to push back a little bit, because first of all, gerrymandering of course is a political term. And it means that the parties are intentionally drawing district lines to advantage them in partisan terms. I think in the last 20 or 30 years, what’s really changed about political gerrymandering is, it’s become a lot easier because Americans, more and more are choosing to live with ideologically like-minded people. And this is real change that’s been documented by social scientists.
To turn to cultural gerrymandering, I think the same phenomenon is going on. I live in a farming area, rural area. And people are self-selecting, choosing churches, choosing the kind of Christian music stations that they listen to. And this is not being imposed upon them. I get the farmers only dot com commercials. I haven’t subscribed because I’m happily married. But I understand that I’m targeted by Madison Avenue because I live out in the country. But that targeting is responding to real cultural preferences on the part of rural people and in turn, on part of urban people.
NATHAN: Well, I don’t know how much you can talk about it in terms of preferences separate from these structures of space and of community. I mean so much of what made rural, rural and urban, urban, was this massive amount of space between communities, these crossing of the miles. And those miles weren’t accidents. You had red lining.
You had the distribution of land through homesteading that was certainly done on a racially asymmetrical basis, you know, so even the divides that we take to be kind of nature, are largely man made. And I think the same is true of these kind of social divides. Our communities are still kind of pre-selected in terms of our buying practices, our educational preferences, our cultural practices, in these larger clusters.
ED: Yeah, Brian, Nathan, it strikes me that what we’re seeing here is a mutually reinforcing system in which politicians are dividing things up that suit their purposes under the guise of suiting the purposes of their constituents. Markets are dividing things up saying, we’re giving you exactly what you want, which conveniently also makes it easier for us to find you with exactly the kind of advertising that we want.
So you have this situation where it feels like OK now finally, I find something that tells me exactly what I want to hear about myself. But the thing is that there are people benefiting from that, whether it’s a church congregation that no longer has to really worry about representing a broader point of view, or it’s an XM radio station that doesn’t really have to worry about diversity on its playlist. So I’m afraid that this just plays to too many people’s advantage to really go away too easily.
BRIAN: So Ed or Nathan might there be something even more sinister here? That’s the possibility that should rural people and urban people come together around something they share in common? That’s the divide in income between the 1% and the rest of the nation for instance. Should they do that they might challenge a number of these established institutions that you’ve been talking about, whether it’s the political party structure or marketers.
NATHAN: I mean that’s one of the things that I think really is a kind of common predicament for people who live in rural or urban America, is a sense of aggrievement. I mean, rural people feel that they’re being ignored by the sophisticants constituency or New York. You have people who are living in downwardly mobile suburbs or in urban areas that are impoverished, who certainly feel like the government is not on their side.
And that sense of marginalization does a lot to keep people feeling isolated. It certainly creates a kind of us versus them approach, even within the country itself. And I think it’s sad to say, that even if there aren’t kind of smoke filled rooms with people twirling their mustaches, that there are a number of companies and political interests and lobbying groups that benefit profoundly from poor or even middle class Americans being divided along this division of urban and rural.
ED: That’s going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of this episode or ask us your burning history questions. You’ll find us at BackStoryradio.org. Or send an email to email@example.com. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. at BackStory radio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger
BRIAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, and Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner our technical director. Diana Williams is our digital editor and Joey Thompson is our researcher. Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Greg, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spagna, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach.
ED: Our theme song was written Nick Thorburn. Other music in this episode comes from Podington Bear and [INAUDIBLE]. Special thanks this week to Christopher Merritt and to the studios at Johns Hopkins University.
NATHAN: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.
JOANNE: Brian Balogh is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is a Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.