Whole Foods Effect: Urban-Rural Culture Shift Defines American Political Climate

Originally written for The Keating Center to explore the changing political climate in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Differences have always existed between America’s rural and urban cultures. We generally recognize that conservative Republicans come from the rural, agriculturally driven and faith-based Midwest and liberal Democrats from urbanized, densely populated cities on coasts, other waterways, or at the apex of some convergence of trade or traffic.

Until recently, the distribution between Republicans and Democrats was noticeable but not overwhelming.  But the gap is widening, writes Laura Meckler and Dante Chinni in “How Where We Live Deepens The Nation’s Partisan Split”.

Meckler and Chinni point to an examination of electoral votes as evidence of this increasingly pronounced disparity.  In the 1992 election, for example, Clinton carried traditionally liberal states and Bush conservative, but the split was not necessarily between urban and rural population (Clinton won Montana and Bush Florida, for example).

In 2012, however, Romney took virtually every state with a large rural or agricultural base like Idaho, Oklahoma, West Virginia, etc., and Obama predictably California, Colorado, New York, etc.  Consider this:  Bush won the 50 least dense counties in the nation in 1992 by 25 percent, but Romney did it in 2012 by 38 percent.

Electoral Votes 1992


Electoral Votes 2012


Even as recently as 1993, notes Meckler and Chinni, rural Americans were part of the Democratic base with over half of them represented by a House Democrat. The emergence and development of issues like abortion or same sex marriage may have estranged many rural conservatives from the Democratic Party.  It seems, then, that the polarized shift in rural and urban politics is largely based on cultural geography.

“Politics hinges on culture and lifestyle more than policy”, said David Wasserman, a political analyst at Cook Political Report.  He measures the distribution by counting the number of Whole Foods Market stores in a city and Cracker Barrel restaurants in a county to determine that community’s political tendencies.

 “Politics hinges on culture and lifestyle more than policy”

-David Wasserman

According to Wasserman, the presence of these chains mirror the values of area consumers.  While Whole Foods is an upscale grocery store specializing in organic foods, Cracker Barrel is a homestyle restaurant that serves dishes like biscuits and gravy or chicken n’ dumplings (and the waitress will probably call you “honey” or “sweetie”).  A community that supports Whole Foods is likely to subscribe to a more Democratic political doctrine than those who eat at Cracker Barrel.

The Whole Foods effect exists due to culture reinforced by religion and the local economy. Rural individuals are more likely than their urban counterparts to claim religion as important in their life (a clear cultural definer and one statistically associated with other conservative values like supporting the military and owning a gun) and companies strategically place their stories in communities based on complex marketing and socioeconomic data.  Rural and urban residents have different choices as consumers.  As Experian Marketing Services discovered in a survey, “rural residents are 47% more likely to shop at a Dollar General store than is an average American”.  An urban shopper probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a Dollar General, but it is often one of the only choices for rural consumers.

Like New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College director Neil Levesque concluded:  “the difference in this country is not red versus blue, it’s urban versus rural.”

In Oklahoma, the urban-rural political gap is becoming more evident. Historically a red state through and through, the political climate around urbanized areas like Tulsa and Oklahoma City is now turning blue.

The difference in this country is not red versus blue, it’s urban versus rural.

-Neil Levesque

Tulsa, for example, is politically landlocked within uber-conservative, rural constituencies.  But the city maintains a cosmopolitan culture and Democratic base as well as two Whole Foods Markets. Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton even made an appearance to promote “Talking is Teaching”, a new initiative through Educare Schools with goals to increase brain development in children from birth through age five.

Although the visit seemed relatively nonpartisan or campaign related, some may postulate on any other motives the visit may have satisfied.  During her visit, Clinton thanked George Kaiser, the Tulsa billionaire and Democrat, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation for their partnership with the “Talking is Teaching” initiative.  The day also included a meeting with the billionaire and director of George Kaiser Family Foundation, and a discussion between the religious, medical and retail communities and spiritual and government leaders to focus attention on Tulsa’s early childhood education.

So when is the next Tulsa Whole Foods opening?

Cover image via U.S. Department of Labor.  Electoral illustrations via boundless.com and Wikipedia Commons.


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