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The emptying of MAGA America


The general contours of the population shift reflected in the last census have been fairly widely discussed, but the acceleration of the exodus from rural America is really striking:

Donald Trump and the Republican Party he shaped represent the fading face of the United States, winning over an older, more rural, and overwhelmingly caucasian bloc of voters that reflected the country’s past more than its more urban and diverse future.

The latest data from the 2020 census, which the government released on Thursday to kick off the congressional redistricting process, illustrate that fact in incredibly stark terms. It shows that the white population fell for the first time in history during the last decade, and that Americans continued to cluster in growing cities and suburbs, whether in Texas, Georgia, Virginia, or New York.

Perhaps most strikingly, while metro areas grew, vast stretches of the country continued to bleed population. About 53 percent of all U.S. counties shrank between 2010 and 2020. You can see them in the sea of burnt orange on the graph below, rural regions and small towns that often have few residents to begin with. In total, they were home to about 50.5 million people in a nation of more than 331 million.

This isn’t a new story per se. Rural America and small towns have been losing residents for decades. But the trend seems to have accelerated. From 2000 to 2010, for instance, only around one-third of all counties lost residents.

Given what we already knew about Trump’s base of support, it seemed likely that most of these emptying counties voted Republican in the last election. But how many, exactly? Mark Muro of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings ran the numbers for me.* He found that, in the 1,636 counties that shrank during the 2010s, the former president won a majority of votes in 90 percent of them. (Muro’s team had to exclude Alaska from its numbers because of a technical glitch.) If a corner of America is depopulating, it is almost certainly part of Trump country.

One upshot of this is that the Senate is about to become even more egregiously undemocratic than it already is.

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