The 1973 Time magazine cover story about “The Good Life in Minnesota” focused primarily on the Twin Cities: its robust and diverse economy, generous business leaders, progressive and innovative politicians, sophisticated arts-and-culture scene and overall quality of life.
Time’s glowing review made only passing references to trademark Greater Minnesota features such as Rochester’s Mayo Clinic, the Iron Range/Duluth mining and shipping complex and the rich farmscape that placed the state near the top in rankings for total value of agriculture production and food processing.
The article also took note of a continuing economic transition away from the dominance of mining, logging and agriculture in rural regions and toward a “brain-industry” sector centered in the Twin Cities. Nary a word suggested deep rural resentment or political and cultural separation between the Twin Cities region and the rest of the state. In fact, 1973 was a peak year for farmers and many were enjoying sharp increases in commodity prices and land values.
Nowadays, an allegedly intractable rural-metro divide – political, cultural and economic – is one of the dominant narratives among the national and state media punditry.
This divide is too often exaggerated and less pronounced in Minnesota than elsewhere. But to the extent it is real, this separation stands as one of our more significant changes since 1973. The chasm is real enough that Gov. Tim Walz chose “One Minnesota” as the slogan for both his 2018 election and 2022 re-election campaigns, and as a central theme for his administration’s policies.
Walz grew up on a Midwestern farm, served with distinction in the National Guard, coached a high-school football team in Mankato and represented rural southern Minnesota for four terms in the U.S. House. DFL primary voters in 2018 saw the strategic advantage of Walz’s rural bona fides in choosing him over an urban legislator, Erin Murphy, who had won the DFL endorsement in the 2018 primary.
Those credentials helped provide credibility with rural voters as Walz argues that practical progressive policies are good for Greater Minnesota, which remains somewhat more dependent than the Twin Cities on tax dollars, public sector investment and economic security programs.
Tracing and defining the divide
Tension between city urban and rural people goes back at least as far as Aesop’s fable 2,600 years ago about the country mouse and the city mouse. The division was there at the origin of our liberal democracy. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia farmer and slave owner, and Alexander Hamilton, a New York City lawyer and banker, disagreed on whether the United States should be an agrarian nation of yeoman farmers or a more urbanized commercial-industrial power. Hamilton’s vision proved to be more accurate.
Divisiveness was percolating the 1970s and a revolt by northern Minnesota DFLers against federal wilderness protections favored by Twin Cities environmentalists was a key factor in the Republican sweep of 1978. As efforts to remedy social injustices and to address environmental degradation intensified over the next half-century, and as increasingly older white rural populations slipped further behind a more diverse and richer Twin Cities, this cultural gap widened. National polling and surveys in Minnesota reveal how rural voters have diverged in attitudes toward racial diversity, abortion rights, the LGBTQ+ community, climate actions and immigration policy.
Volumes have been written in recent years about the emergence of white rural discontent in the United States and the increasingly geographic nature of the separation between liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans. A national ranking by the polling organization FiveThirtyEight shows a strong correlation between urbanization and political preference. Minnesota ranks near the middle on overall urbanization and is one of a cluster of blue states that also has a significant rural and small-town population.
- More than 50 years of pendulum swings but a persistent center-left consensus
- Examining political shifts by the decade
- Environmental activism runs strong as ever, reinforced by climate and equity movements
Many observers have marveled that a sketchy New York City real-estate hustler and Hollywood celebrity with zero claim to authentic rural experience has been able to galvanize a stronger base of white rural rage. And the data suggest rural Minnesotans, who have always had higher education attainment levels than rural people in other states, were less universally mesmerized than their counterparts in Appalachia, the Deep South, West and Midwest.
Minnesota has consistently differed from other states in the speed and intensity of this drift toward conservative ideology in rural areas. DFLers held all three of the most rural congressional districts – the First, Seventh and Eighth – well into the 2010s. As recently as the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama captured 24 of Minnesota’s 80 counties that surround the seven metro core counties. In 2020, Joe Biden carried only nine of those 80 counties, but the rural margins were not as large for Trump as in other states. And flipping counties with a small and declining population didn’t make much difference in the statewide popular vote; Obama won by 8 percentage points in 2012 and Biden by 7 percentage points in 2020.
Moreover, the county maps don’t tell the whole story. A more granular zoom-in over the last four elections – with a gradience between deep blue, baby blue, pink and deep red – reveals a more complex pattern and one that belies a simplistic metro vs. Greater Minnesota polarization.
Increasingly lopsided DFL majorities have created a deeper blue in the St. Paul and Minneapolis urban core and inner-ring suburbs, while lighter shades of blue are spreading outward ever farther into outer suburban rings. And while a greater percentage of the 80 Greater Minnesota counties now vote red, precinct detail reveals a range from light blue to light pink in larger regional centers, college towns and counties with agribusiness processing centers and increasingly diverse Latino and African immigrant populations. The state’s smaller or “micropolitan” regional centers – Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, Mankato, Winona, and the Moorhead side of Fargo-Moorhead – have become both more diverse and bluer in recent elections.
Greater and rural Minnesota better off than peers
Rural resentment is easier to foment when there’s a strong case for deep decline, and that case in Minnesota is weak relative to other states. Minnesota actually ranks fifth highest in median rural income, far above rural folks in other Midwestern states or any comparable state with a large rural population, according to the American Community Survey for 2021. Minnesota accounted for 12 of the 100 healthiest rural counties in a recent ranking by U.S. News. That’s more than 10% of the total rural counties, even though Minnesota contains only about 2% of the nation’s total rural residents.
Minnesota has a long history as a progressive and at times radical island in the Midwest, more communitarian and egalitarian and better off economically than rural cultures in the South and Appalachia. The success of the Farmer-Labor Party, dominant a century ago and still visible in today’s DFL Party, united underpaid urban factory workers and struggling small farmers. To this day, most white Twin Citians have rural roots and maintain personal connections to Greater Minnesota, vacationing in the woods and lakes and small towns. Most white rural Minnesotans live within a few hours drive of metropolitan kinfolk and value the Twin Cities and enjoy its amenities.
Minnesota also has been exceptional in the degree to which it redistributes resources, not only from top to bottom, but between communities and levels of local government. The 1973 Time article marveled at a breakthrough bipartisan 1971 overhaul, later called the “Minnesota Miracle,” that raised taxes and equalized school district revenue between rich and poor districts. And this basic principle was replicated through a Local Government Aid formula that has long benefitted both the two core cities and rural local cities and towns, as well as a fiscal disparities policy that spreads revenue more evenly between and among metro governments.
One difficulty in generalizing about the divide is there are several distinct varieties of Greater Minnesota and Metro Minnesota. A 2017 report by the Minnesota State Demographic Center sorted the state map into 10 Rural Urban Commuting Areas, from urban core and metropolitan to micropolitan, big town and small town, to deep rural. By this typology, three-fourths of Minnesotans live in or commute to urbanized areas and less than 10% live all their daily lives in truly rural landscapes.
Behind the drumbeat of despair that suggests deep division and polarization, many responsible civic leaders and nonprofit organizations in Greater Minnesota present a more nuanced and constructive narrative. They advance themes of rural-metro similarity, welcoming immigrants and people of color, embracing climate action and reaping economic growth from renewable energy, expanding internet access technology and other physical infrastructure, improving educational attainment, and cultivating arts and cultural amenities.
State of the State for Greater Minnesota
Cautious optimism and encouraging factual context are the prevailing themes of the latest report, “The State of Rural 2023,” by the Center for Rural Policy and Development, a nonpartisan research center based in Mankato, and one of the most authoritative voices for Greater Minnesota.
Among the big-picture highlights are an uptick in migration to rural areas and an improving farm economy, with land value prices increasing sharply on the western border and steady population growth in the Central Lakes region. The report also focused on similarities to the Twin Cities, including an abundance of job openings and a shortage of workers, and a lack of affordable housing and day-care options. The report emphasized the overlooked fact that while median incomes remain considerably lower in Greater Minnesota, so does the cost of living. In many counties, average wages as a percent of the average cost-of-living are on par or better than in Twin Cities counties.
The center’s report also tells an inconvenient truth for conservatives who spread the myth that Greater Minnesota folks are more self-reliant or worthy than others and that the tax obligations of their own governments are their worst problems. Health care and education are now the largest rural economic sectors and public-sector employers, and economic security programs are a larger source of income than in metro regions. Social Security and Medicare serving a disproportionately elderly population are a bigger piece of the pie for rural areas than in the Twin Cities. For example, Social Security payments brought an average of $5,209 per capita to the economy of northern Minnesota’s Itasca County but only $3,243 per resident to the economy of highly urbanized Ramsey County.
Other constructive and responsible voices for Greater Minnesota are its six regional Initiative Foundations, established during the 1980s to address one of the state’s worst farm crises. Each serves its geographic region with grants, business loans, programs and donor services, as well as collaborating on statewide initiatives. A prime example of emphasis on racial equity and inclusion is the “Grow Our Own” initiative for the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which focuses on equalizing opportunities for children in a region with the large and growing Latino and African immigrant population, and which has accounted for most the population stability or growth in a few southern and western rural counties.
Another constructive force is the Minnesota Association of Development Organizations, nine regional agencies that help with grants and coordinating public and nonprofit services. The association has been working in recent years to create a “dashboard” for tracking progress toward equity and inclusion, affordable housing, educational attainment and renewable energy.
Still other creative and constructive voices for rural renewal include Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota rural sociologist who has documented a “rural brain gain” from an increase in well-educated adults aged 30-49 and their 10- to 14-year-old children who have moved into rural towns and regions; Chuck Marohn, a Brainerd native and author of the influential book “Strong Towns,” who has been a leading voice for rethinking an unsustainable and inefficient suburbanized development model that has damaged the quality of life in rural and exurban areas; Aaron J. Brown, an Iron Range writer and college instructor, whose columns and books about northern Minnesota’s economy and politics provide illuminating insight and common-sense solutions.
One of the most comprehensive efforts to address geographic and demographic disparities is the “Minnesota Equity Blueprint,” a 165-page manifesto produced in 2020 by Growth & Justice and OneMn.org. The “Blueprint” seeks to find “common cause between rural and urban communities’’ and offers case studies of successful community building in rural areas. The “Blueprint” also produced 141 specific state-and-local policy recommendations, including public investment in broadband and renewable energy, child-care and health-care access, and transit and mobility options for seniors and others. (Disclosure: The author of this series is a former president and senior policy fellow for Growth & Justice and was co-editor of the document).
State of the State for ‘MetroSota’
Sore spots in the Twin Cities these days can’t be wished away.
Major problems are undeniable, especially those affecting the downtowns and poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Seismic dislocation caused by the COVID pandemic and the righteous indignation and chaos following the murder of George Floyd have forced all Minnesotans to confront these maladies.
The list is all too familiar: homicides and gun violence among youth in the poorest neighborhoods, homeless encampments, spikes in carjacking and catalytic converter theft, unsafe light-rail stations, too much panhandling and harassment, street racing and the decline of once vibrant neighborhoods such as Uptown come to mind. Lacking credible or rational Republican alternatives, a new divide within metro politics has arisen between traditional liberals and a zealous younger ultra-left attracted to the Democratic Socialists of Minnesota.
This context is supremely important: Almost all American cities are undergoing similar trauma. Crime and poverty rates remain high in red state cities, as they have for decades. The United States continues to pay a high price for inattention to racial injustice, de facto segregation and widening overall inequality between the rich and everyone else in the American economy since the early 1980s.
Despite it all, most of the standard socio-economic indicators for the Twin Cities region remain surprisingly high or rising, more exceptional in many ways than they were in 1973. The Twin Cities ranked an enviable seventh highest in the nation among 280 metropolitan areas for per capita income. Labor participation rates remain high, and the unemployment rate in the Twin Cities region was an astonishing 2.2% in February 2023, the second lowest in the nation.
Key entities that provide both data and policy direction for the larger metro area are Greater MSP, a relatively new alliance of business and metro governments formed a decade ago to promote the Twin Cities region and track its competitiveness with 11 other peer metro areas; and the Metropolitan Council, an intergovernmental agency designed to coordinate and plan for the entire region and which now runs both transit and combined water-sewerage systems for seven counties and 181 municipalities.
The Metropolitan Council was hailed as a nation-leading model of urban innovation and collaboration when it was created in 1967. Recent cost overruns for the expansion of light rail and opposition to a principal development plan focused on racial equity and climate action have plagued the council in recent years. Some of the critiques are valid. But long before the pandemic and George Floyd, conservatives were mounting a relentless assault on both the urban core and the Metropolitan Council, the former often portrayed as a dystopian hellhole and the latter as a nefarious socialist government.
Predictions about the imminent demise of urban America, especially its inner-city core, have been with us forever. Similar apocalyptic warnings about cities were exaggerated in the 1970s, and popular movies starring Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson promoted the idea of police brutality and white vigilantism or flight from urban darkness. Time and again, cities keep coming back, reinventing themselves and proving the critics wrong. And that’s what has been happening to metro areas in Minnesota over the past three decades as cities become more populated with permanent residents and less dependent on office workers and commuters.
Contradicting the “urban doom loop’’ theory is the fact of phenomenal population growth in Minneapolis and St. Paul since low points in 1990. Suburban flight, also known as “white flight,” was accelerating when the Time article was written and continued for the next 20 years. Together, the population of St. Paul and Minneapolis population has soared since 1990, increasing by 90,000 people, about equal to the population of Duluth. That growth appears to have levelled off since the pandemic or even slightly declined, but new housing is going up and filling up all over Minneapolis and St. Paul. Making more of that housing truly affordable for middle-income households is one of MSP’s greatest current challenges.
Urban progressives need not cave in to rural white backlash against racial equity and irrational opposition to climate action. But urbanites do need to get out more, curb the condescension, and pay closer attention when laws and regulations need to be adapted for less populated areas.
Folks in Greater Minnesota often do know what’s best for their communities and should continue to fight for their share of resources. But Trumpism, blaming others and demonizing urban people and undermining faith in democracy and the public sector, will not improve conditions on Main Street.
Harping on the problems, exaggerating the divide, and cynical snickering at the notion of “One Minnesota” are not a recipe for long-term mutual improvement. Country mice, city mice and suburban mice do have more in common than each may realize, and our interdependence should be obvious to all. All Minnesotans do better when each of its regions do better.
Rankings for Rural/Metro Minnesota
#4 Best Metropolitan Area (Twin Cities) Market for First-Time Homebuyers, 2023, Best And Worst Cities For First-Time Homebuyers 2023 | Bankrate
#5 Highest Median Income for Rural Residents, 2021 American Community Survey, Bing Chat with GPT-4
#6 Best Metro Areas to Live, 2019, U.S. News (before George Floyd unrest, see below for 2021 ranking) U.S. News Unveils 2020-2021 Best Places to Live, Best Places to Retire (usnews.com)
#7 Highest Percentage of State Population Living in its Largest Metropolitan Area, Landgeist, 2021
#7 Per Capita Income among 280 metropolitan areas in the U.S. List of United States metropolitan areas by per capita income – Wikipedia
#8 Arts-Vibrant Ranking for Large Metro Areas by Southern Methodist University, 2023 The Top 20 Large Communities – DataArts (culturaldata.org)
#11 Metro Areas Ranked by Best Transportation Systems , 2023, Cities With The Best Public Transportation | HireAHelper
#22 Best Metro Areas to Live, 2023, after George Floyd U.S. News Unveils 2020-2021 Best Places to Live, Best Places to Retire (usnews.com)
#24 Most Rural (Percent of population living in jurisdictions with less than 2,500 people, Minnesota at 28 percent) World Population Review, 2023
#27 Metro Areas Overall Quality of Schools (out of 50 largest), Thomas Fordham Institute, Fordham metro rankings (fordhaminstitute.org)
Other Links and Sources
Greater Minnesota, Refined and Revisited, Minnesota State Demographic Center, MN Refined & Revisited, 2017
Minnesota is Valuable, Vulnerable and Worthy of Investment, Rural Minnesota Journal, 2010, Volume 5 RMJ5-10smith.pdf (ruralmn.org)