Professor James Gimpel's research focuses on the effects of geography and locality on voting behavior, public opinion, and various forms of political participation. (Photo courtesy of Gimpel.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

James Gimpel is a Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, where he studies political behavior and its geography. This week, I had the pleasure of picking his brain about his recent work. 

Enjoy his perspectives on benevolent social studies teachers, rural poverty porn, and conservatism borne of contentment, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What originally drew you to political geography? How did you come to view place as an important part of American democratic life?

James Gimpel: I grew up in a small town in a remote part of the Great Plains where we had to travel long distances by car to get anywhere. So over-the-road travel was a regular and interesting part of childhood.

National Geographic magazine’s amazing maps played a role, as did my inspiring social studies teachers. They had all traveled, and had great stories to tell and slides to show.

When you grow up in a small enough town, there is substantial equality among citizens, and everyone gets to participate if they want to. Same with a small town school. You don’t cut players from the teams. Some players play more than others do but everyone who wants to be on the team can be. It is a low bar for involvement. Everyone also goes to the same schools, the same churches, the same stores. There isn’t one set of community institutions for the wealthy and an inferior set for the poor. There is no ghetto, per se. The scale of settlement is small enough that those kinds of socioeconomic differences aren’t so glaring as they would be in a large city, where dozens of square blocks are neglected, whereas the other side of the city is crisply maintained, bright and new.

That’s not to say small towns are problem-free, of course. But the problems are of a very different kind than the ones you see in areas of dense population concentration.

DY: You’ve written for the Yonder about the fact that rurality seems to have an effect on voting behavior even with all else held equal. In other words, if you look at two people who are demographically identical except for the fact that one of them lives in a rural place and the other in the city, the former is more likely to vote for Republicans. What is the problem with reducing geography to its component parts, aside from the fact that it doesn’t bear out in the data?

JG: Well, the whole winds up being more than the sum of the mere parts. So the quality of interaction and life in a place leaves an imprint of its own, independent of the particular characteristics of the people who live there. So you can scatter 100 people in a sparsely settled area, say, maybe in Western Kansas, and 100 substantially similar people in, say, Los Angeles County, or Brooklyn, and after a while, they will wind-up thinking and behaving very differently. Much of that is who they come into contact with, who they live around, who they become friendly with, and how those friends come to influence them. But it also has to do with the very different opportunities and life trajectories that unfold after they land there. Same people at the start, very different outcomes later.

This seems obvious, upon reflection, but you would be surprised at how many social scientists think that all you need to understand people is an inventory of their individual traits and characteristics, and that the places they live don’t really add much.

DY: In 2019 you co-authored a paper on migration and party-affiliation which found that people often move to suit their altered political views. Does this seem related at all to the loss of working-aged people in many rural areas? Are there connections between brain drain, population aging, and political polarization?

JG: Well, lots of young people do leave small towns, and some small towns are in decline. But others are doing just fine. They just can’t grow much because there isn’t enough economic opportunity to provide for a larger population. These towns are still stable, and pretty prosperous. Just because a place isn’t growing like a fringe suburb doesn’t mean it’s depressed or dying, for goodness sake. I can point to dozens of small towns, perfectly lovely places to live, that have remained about the same size over the course of 50 years. Of course many of the children leave because the town can only afford to keep the numbers that can replace the current retirees. So only some fraction stick around, specifically that portion that can move into positions that are vacated by their parents and grandparents. But just because a town can only provide jobs for 20% of its high school graduates at a time doesn’t mean that it’s dying.

The Main Street business district in James Gimpel’s hometown, Chadron, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Gimpel.)

The death of small town America has been greatly exaggerated. People read the rural poverty porn pieces written about some terribly sad-sack dying place in coal country and think all of rural America is like that. But get out a little. There are lots of small towns that are doing quite well.  That doesn’t mean they are booming. But you don’t have to be booming to be doing well. And some, by the way, are booming.

DY: What is your research focused on these days?

One of the amazing things about rural and small town America is how much the residents actually like living there. Even when there are hardships, they basically really like the places where they live and will make great sacrifices just to stay there. Sure, many move out of necessity, but moving was never an easy or first choice. Social science has observed this for many decades—so it’s nothing at all new. Place attachment and place satisfaction is much higher in small towns than it is in large cities. Many reputable surveys have reported this fact. And it might be this very tendency to be content and happy with where you live that lends itself to a more conservative viewpoint on political and other matters. You want to protect and preserve the life you have.

Where does the pressure for progressive change come from? From the places where there is deep discontent and unhappiness with the way of life—large, dense, core cities. We have seen this over the last 18 months. Repeatedly. Much of this country’s recent social unrest has happened in cities. Their politics are radical too, after all, they have so much they want to change. So out with the status quo, in with something new. If you live with such unhappiness all around you, it makes you want to try a radical new solution. So this becomes an important fount of progressive thinking, and liberal political culture.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about—how fundamental satisfaction or dissatisfaction with place of residence gives rise to the type of politics a local population winds up drawn toward.

Once again, perhaps this is obvious upon reflection. I’d say good! It should be. There are certainly lots of other explanations that have been offered for why people move in liberal or conservative directions with their politics—those explanations seem to make sense too. But I’m not sure they can all be right. So that’s why we continue to do research.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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