Published August 9, 2022
The aftershocks of the earthquakes of 2020—a pandemic, riots, and unprecedented political polarization—continue to reshape not merely American culture and politics, but our very geography.
Over the past two years, millions of Americans have voted with their feet, moving away from the urban cores of some of America’s great cities and setting up shop in suburbs, booming Sun Belt metros, and even small towns in rural so-called “flyover country.” The data is complicated, and the trends could reverse, but some patterns are clear. Between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, New York State’s population declined by 365,000, due chiefly to people moving out of New York City to states such as Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina. California also lost population for the first time in its history, with San Francisco taking the biggest hit. The biggest beneficiaries were already-growing small cities in the South, like my own Greenville, S.C., which in 2020 saw huge surges in migration from metro such areas as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
Several factors are driving these trends. Stricter Covid lockdown measures in major liberal cities may have saved lives, but they lost citizens, as parents sought out school districts with less masks and more in-person learning. Urban riots throughout the summer of 2020, followed by a decline of law enforcement by demoralized police departments, drove people to seek safer towns with greater commitment to law and order. At the same time, a huge surge in remote working opportunities allowed many professionals to swap out small homes in expensive, high-tax markets for larger homes in less expensive and less regulated areas. Some of what we are seeing, in other words, is a sorting along political lines: conservatives are giving up on deep-blue metro areas and moving to more congenial red states. Some, however, is just old-fashioned supply and demand, as people search for more affordable places to live. Both trends present opportunities and challenges.
The shifting political geography of the post-pandemic landscape could intensify polarization, especially in a post-Dobbs America. The blue states are liable to get bluer, as conservatives who can move out do, while the red states get redder, as states like Idaho and Texas welcome political refugees from Oregon and California. For conservatives eager to find like-minded neighbors and looking to band together to fight the culture war in local politics, this great geographical sorting may be a blessing. On the other hand, we must be careful. Every good pastor knows it’s a warning sign when a new family shows up full of complaints and grievances about their last church. Just so, while we might enjoy cracking jokes with our new neighbors about the terrible liberal mayors or governors they’ve just escaped from, we should remember that a healthy relationship to new authorities begins with a healthy relationship to old authorities. We should encourage one another to be grateful for the blessings of new homes without stoking bitterness about the places we’ve left behind.
While the political-refugee trend means that many flyover-country conservatives might find themselves with like-minded new neighbors, the economic-refugee trend can have the opposite effect. In many cases, small towns in the South and Midwest have found themselves swarmed with new residents who are simply searching for lower prices and more space to spread out, now that they have the freedom to work from anywhere. Indeed, far and away the greatest pandemic-era migration took place among young, highly-educated urban dwellers, the stereotypical “yuppies,” who are statistically least likely to share family-friendly conservative values.
These pose a very different challenge for families in historically conservative communities, as many find themselves for the first time regularly rubbing shoulders with neighbors pursuing radically different lifestyles and very liberal politics. For some of us, the post-pandemic migrations offer a chance to learn how to have hard conversations over fundamental disagreements, or how to offer a grace-filled witness of the transforming love of Christ to new neighbors who may have moved to the Bible Belt, but who have no use for the Bible.
Whether it’s over-zealous like-minded new neighbors we’re dealing with, or neighbors who couldn’t be more different, both movements can contribute to a revival of the small-town cultures that were once a key source of our nation’s moral fiber and work ethic. Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed how much these tight-knit smaller communities contributed to the strength of American life, and our nation has suffered deeply from the steady drain of population toward more densely-packed, but paradoxically more isolated and atomized, urban centers. The pandemic-era migrations offer an opportunity in the years ahead to make flyover-country America great again. Let’s take the lead as Christians in making these communities not just temporary oases, but sources of national renewal.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.