Atlantic Cities

Why Urban States Need Their Rural Counties

Why Urban States Need Their Rural Counties

The idea of secession is an old one – obviously, in America, one that goes all the way back to the country's founding. Since then, we also have a formidable history of seceding from ourselves: the South from the North, Maine from Massachusetts, Vermont from New Hampshire, Kentucky from Virginia, and later West Virginia, too, from its eastern sister.

No one has been all that successful since, over the past 150 years, although plenty of people have tried. The last-ditch divorce tactic just never loses its allure. Lately, though, the idea has been back in the news across the country with some unusually intense popularity. Supervisors in the Northern California county of Siskiyou actually voted last week to try to pursue breaking from California (their ideal scenario: band together with several counties from Northern California and Southern Oregon into the new state of Jefferson).

A separate group of activists in Southern California is agitating to do the same (their state: South California). A Northern Colorado county will vote later this year to break with the Centennial State. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan wants to stop being... the upper peninsula of Michigan. And the western panhandle of Maryland is now rallying around the idea, too (they don't have a name yet, but they do have something called the Western Maryland Institute).

All of these secessionist efforts – from both coasts, the Midwest and Mountain West – share a common thread. This weekend, The Washington Post articulated it this way:

What’s different now is how the secession efforts illuminate a hard truth about the country: The rural-urban divide is increasingly a point of political conflict. The population boom in urban areas such as Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs near the District, the Boulder-Denver areas in Colorado, and in Detroit have filled state legislatures with liberal policymakers pushing progressive agendas out of sync with rural residents, who feel increasingly isolated and marginalized.

Red counties, in essence, are angling to separate from otherwise blue states.

Now, there are some pretty glaring reasons why this will never actually happen. A successful secession effort requires not just a non-binding referendum by the local rebels, but also the approval of state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. The logistics are also insane. The campaigns are motivated by a Tea Party-esque spirit to break free from overbearing liberal state legislatures, their high taxes and heavy regulation. But that's just the start of the story. How would these new states fund, tax and govern themselves?

Starting a new state because you're fed up with government regulation is actually a great way to wind up very deep in the weeds of dealing with... government regulation.

As a thought exercise, though, these secession efforts actually raise some important questions about the relationship between rural counties and their urban neighbors. Residents in rural Northern California have a point that state politics dominated by the interests of cities like Los Angeles don't share their deep concerns over issues like a rural fire prevention fee.

But rural and urban counties can also be as mutually beneficial as they are mutually antagonizing. Most rural counties are actually subsidized by urban taxpayers. And shared resources are geographic as much as financial. Los Angeles gets its water from far-flung rural parts of the state (as do Atlanta and New York City to name just two more major cities).

And just as cities can be harmed by perpetual one-party government, would blue states really be better off if they were even bluer? Their interests would certainly not be better served at the national level by a U.S. map that includes half a dozen new rural states. The U.S. Senate already (intentionally) gives massively disproportionate power to rural states. Only 0.2 percent of the nation's population—the citizens of Wyoming—have the same political voice in the Senate as 12 percent of the nation's population living in California (this political quirk helps explain why policies supported by 90 percent of the public can still get rejected in the Senate).

Currently, 46 percent of the vote in the Senate speaks for just 13 percent of the U.S. population (in the 23 least populous states). The remaining 54 percent (covering the most populous 27 states) speaks for 87 percent of all Americans. So you think you'd be happy to cut ties with your state's rural voters? Those numbers will skew even more (the sad, unrepresented District of Columbia, however, might more easily argue that it should get statehood, too, if we're just doling out new constitutions left and right).

This is a politically crass way of arguing for why cities should be opposed to secession, too, even though they often subsidize rural counties. More idealistically, though, do we really want to further divide the country into ever smaller pieces where we can each live without having to deal with people whose politics we dislike? The man rallying the Western Maryland campaign (who lives in a town of 1,200 people) reasons to the Post, "If we have more states, we can all go live in states that best represent us, and then we can get along.”

But here's the thing: Your town represents you, your county represents you, and your White House may even represent you even if the majority party in your state house does not. That's kind of how the system works, to the periodic frustration of all of us – conservatives in liberal cities, or red counties in blue states, or blue states living with a conservative U.S. Congress. So we're probably better off trying to deal with each other within the system we have.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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