Rural areas are conservative electoral strongholds in the United States and other advanced capitalist economies. But this was not the case historically. What explains the rise of rural conservatism?
This paper explores the role of technological and economic change in political change. It studies a historical natural experiment: the post-war introduction of petroleum-powered groundwater pumps and center-pivot irrigation, which enabled farmers to profitably irrigate otherwise arid land in the Great Plains. Difference-in-differences analyses – exploiting the timing of the new technology together with cross-sectional variation in aquifer coverage in a spatially matched sample of counties along the boundary of the Ogallala aquifer – indicate that technological change played a large role in the region’s long-term conservative electoral shift. This was plausibly due to the emergence of upwardly mobile farmers and agribusiness interests with preferences for conservative economic policies.
The findings highlight how technological change can shape political development: by generating rent-seeking economic interests which exert influence on elections.
Discussant: Bryan Leonard (Arizona State University)