For many years I’ve divided my time between the bright lights of the Twin Cities and the quiet countryside near the Iowa border. Each setting has charms.
But I must admit that after every sojourn amid the narrow intellectual confines of a community where nearly everybody thinks alike, it’s always a liberating pleasure to get back ... to farm country.
Last week’s Minnesota Poll is confirming evidence that political groupthink increasingly is a condition characterizing America’s big-city populations, debunking the familiar, flattering stereotype of urban areas as hotbeds of ideological diversity where cosmopolitan nonconformists dissent and dispute into the small hours of the evening.
On the contrary, what Voltaire is supposed to have said about England — a nation with 60 religions and one sauce — could be turned inside out to describe much of metropolitan America today.
Sauces have proliferated wonderfully, but philosophies have congealed.
This switch may be especially pronounced here in the urban heartland. I’m old enough to remember when Minneapolis had more political parties (two) than good ethnic restaurants. Today there’s likely a wok for every Republican in town.
Last week’s poll naturally revealed the divide in attitudes between metro Minnesota and the state’s more rural areas. These deepening differences of opinion between city and country have been well-discussed as a source of today’s political turmoil.
Less noted has been the different amount of variation within different communities — which shows where significant diversity of opinion thrives and where it doesn’t.
In the poll, on the basic question of approval or disapproval of President Trump, only 24 percent of respondents in Hennepin and Ramsey counties — fewer than 1 in 4 — said they approved of the president. Only 28 percent said he generally speaks the truth. And just 20 percent said they believe Trump has the right temperament for his job.
Trump is polarizing, of course. But these are remarkable levels of like-mindedness on any question — and they’re unmatched elsewhere in Minnesota. In metro suburbs outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties, 43 percent approve of Trump, while approval registered around 50 percent in the southern and northern Minnesota countryside.
Trump, in short, isn’t all that popular anywhere in the state. But outside the cities — and especially in rural areas — there is simply more of a mix of opinion to be found.
And it’s not just about Trump. U.S. Sen. Al Franken wins approval from a whopping 71 percent of Hennepin and Ramsey County respondents. He’s at or just above 50 percent everywhere else. Gov. Mark Dayton, too, scores 72 percent approval from the most urban respondents (and 62 percent in the suburbs), while slightly more than half approve outstate.
(Sen. Amy Klobuchar is impressively popular everywhere.)
The pattern largely holds as well on attitudes toward Obamacare and light-rail transit. Three out of 4 respondents from Hennepin and Ramsey counties support them both. On both, the suburbs and the countryside are more divided.
Now part of what’s going on here, of course, is that Greater Minnesota has a city-country divide of its own. Lumping together opinions from outstate cities like St. Cloud or Duluth with those from sparsely populated surroundings may create a mere illusion of diverse views dwelling side by side in outstate regions. Maybe, in fact, monolithic rural conservatism is simply being balanced out by a liberal consensus in midsize cities.
To explore this, I looked back at detailed voting records from the 2012 referendum on a same-sex-marriage ban — a culturally polarizing dispute if ever there was one. Statewide, the ban failed, with support from 47.4 percent of voters.
In Minneapolis, according to the Secretary of State’s website, just 22 percent voted “yes” to restrict marriage to one man and one woman. In the rest of Hennepin County, 41 percent voted yes. That was still a thumping defeat for the referendum, but the 86 percent higher support reflects much more philosophically diverse communities.
In Stearns County, outside of the St. Cloud city limits, 59 percent voted yes — about one-third more than the 44 percent who voted yes in St. Cloud itself.
In the city of Winona, 37 percent favored the referendum. It did around 60 percent better, at 59 percent approval, in the remainder of Winona County.
Such numbers suggest that Greater Minnesota’s town-and-country divide explains part — but only part — of its apparently richer diversity of opinion compared with the state’s urban center.
On the marriage vote, Minneapolis was much more monolithic than its own suburbs, more conformist than St. Cloud or Winona, and more homogenous than the country townships surrounding those cities. There were other places in Minnesota with lopsided views on the issue — but there were many with far more diverse views.
If groupthink has become the norm in urban life, while a greater variety of ideas thrive in the country, what could explain this? It’s tempting to partly blame today’s troubling spirit of punishing intolerance among some factions on the left — most visible in the plight of free speech on college campuses. But intolerance is a bipartisan plague.
One curious possibility to consider is whether the very narrowness of rural life might tend to broaden the mind, while the city-dweller’s freedom to customize life limits challenging encounters.
As often as not, when you find yourself politely enduring opinions completely obnoxious to your own, aren’t they coming from some weird uncle sitting beside you at Thanksgiving — or from an oddball neighbor out walking her cat? Our working lives and social choices generally place us with people rather like ourselves. It’s family and neighborhood that throw us together with characters we’d never seek out.
It may simply be that rural lives are more often lived among people who just happen to be nearby — whoever they are and whatever they think — while in city life we largely choose our companions.
If so, urban lifestyles may be a little like the wild proliferation of information and opinion sources on the internet today — a dazzling cataract of variety that ends up allowing people to find just what suits them and to avoid any ideas they disagree with.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.