At first glance, it is a daunting imbalance. In the 2020 election, President Donald Trump won 2,497 counties across the United States. President-elect Joe Biden won 477.
But a new report from the Brookings Institution illustrates how the imbalance reflects a different disparity – one with important implications for North Carolina. While Biden won only 16 percent of U.S. counties, production in those counties account for 70 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). North Carolina reflects the same tilt. Biden won only 25 percent of the state’s counties, but they account for 68 percent of the state’s GDP.
N.C. State University economist Michael Walden said the percentages illustrate the state’s urban-rural divide. “Our urban and rural areas are split in terms of prosperity, education, age and also politics – the ingredients of a ‘purple state,’ “ he said.
But the Brookings report describes more than a contrast between economic bases. The report calls what we are seeing a “political-economic divide” that is increasingly pulling the nation apart. It says: “This economic rift that persists in dividing the nation is a problem because it underscores the near-certainty of both continued clashes between the political parties and continued alienation and misunderstandings.”
Lead author Mark Muro said that North Carolina, with its thriving urban areas based on research and banking and its rural areas that have lost manufacturing industries, reflects the national split.
“I think North Carolina is a very good example of something that is occurring almost universally. Any place that has a significant urban hub seems to be seeing this exact dynamic, which is a mix of (geographic) sorting but now coded through a sort of resentment machine,” he said. “So you have a face-off between an urban economy and a rural one.”
While cultural and religious differences contribute to the political divide, economic disparities also foster opposition in rural areas toward what drives the new economy in urban areas – globalization, immigration of skilled workers and advanced education.
Rural resentment may be understandable – and politically exploitable – but it will hobble the ability of states to focus on broad economic development that would benefit the very regions that feel left behind. “It’s hard to operate when you have such a stark fissure in the middle of your politics,” Muro said.
In North Carolina, that fissure is widening. According to figures provided by Brookings, Biden flipped two counties that went for Trump in 2016, New Hanover and Nash, the state’s 7th and 13th most-productive counties. Overall, the Democrat won the state’s top eight most-productive counties and 11 of the top 15.
North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers have relied on a rural base, mostly in the western part of the state, to take and keep control of the General Assembly. But once there, they – much like President Trump – have applied measures that have exacerbated the divide.
Rural areas need to share in the new economy either by developing their own tech hubs, or by developing stronger links to urban hubs. Nationally, Trump took the opposite course. He promised to bring back the old economy, to revive coal mining, steel mills and heavy manufacturing, promises on which he largely failed to deliver.
In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers have pursued an equally ineffective “trickle down” approach. They’ve used tax cuts that favor major corporations and wealthy individuals to make the state more “business friendly.” But what businesses want are strong public schools and a well-trained workforce. The tax cuts have led to the underfunding of public schools and the state’s university system, leading in turn to a less prepared workforce.
What North Carolina and the nation need are connections that serve people, not divisions that serve politicians. That means more public spending on schools, universities, transportation, broadband and health care. The rural-urban divide will be healed by closing it, not exploiting it.