If next year’s election is a referendum on Donald Trump, you can hand power to the Democrats now. But fortunately for the president, and the Republican Party, politics remains more about interests than personalities.
More than by cultural memes touching on race, gender, and even taste, the United States are divided by where we live and how we make our living. America, after all, is a vast country and its remarkable economic diversity is what makes it so dynamic and capable against all competitors.
In much of the country, the economy still relies on tangible things—agricultural production, energy, manufacturing and logistics. But in the Northeast and on the West Coast, the economic drivers are intangible—technology, business services, tourism, financial services and real estate.
This has come at a steep cost to the remaining working- and middle-class people of those regions, even as it has inflated the self-esteem of those who are making it in super-star cities. The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo claims that dense urban centers are “the real America.” That’s not so. In reality, most of our economic activity takes place in smaller and mid-sized metropolitan areas, and most of the recent growth, notes demographer Wendell Cox, has not been in places like Manhattan but sprawling, low-density cities of the sunbelt, as well as some in the Heartland. All together, 90 percent of our GDP generated in metropolitan areas is generated outside the densest regions.
The once celebrated American heartland, as Jon K. Lauck notes in his book From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, is now viewed by the great cities as a bastion of narrow-mindedness, religiosity, sexism and racism. To curb the rubes’ political influence entirely, progressives now seek to undermine the electoral college, which would guarantee, among other things, that no presidential candidate need visit the Great Plains.
Generally, the urban upper class see the hinterland as deficient, with no place in the modern world economy. As economies built around traditional industries like manufacturing, energy, agricultural, home construction and basic business services struggled during the first decade of this millennium, the progressive clerisy at places like Slate crowed that these often higher-paying blue collar jobs were never coming back. Generally obsessed with issues of gender or race, many progressive whites—an increasingly radical group— have little more than contempt for the working-class whites who inhabit our smaller towns and cities.
Unlike the tech oligarchs and the financial giants, people working in the tangible economy had little influence under President Obama and, in the case of energy, seemed slotted for a radical downsizing. In contrast, since Donald Trump’s election, growth in the Heartland and southern region has outstripped that of the Democratic base of big cities and fancy suburbs.
Similarly, Trump’s emphasis on restraining China’s industrial juggernaut may be unpopular with gentry politicians in both parties, including Joe Biden, but it’s resonated in the Heartland, which suffered the bulk of the estimated 3.4 million jobs lost since 2001 from China trade. Perhaps if China took the jobs of media personalities, academics and tech oligarchs, we might expect similar concerns in Manhattan, Boston, LA or the Bay Area.
New York City had one million industrial jobs in 1950. Despite its stunning resurgence in the last decade, it now has less than 100,000. The picture is much the same in California.
Yet in other places the industrial economy has surged, adding nearly 500,000 jobs over the past two years. This growth may now be slowing, in part due to trade tensions, but the geography of industrial growth continues to tilt towards less regulated states such as Nevada, Arizona, Indiana and Texas. If Trump’s bumptious tariff policy brings back American jobs—for example with the return of Black & Decker from China announced recently or the possible shift of iPhone production—the beneficiaries likely will not be in Manhattan, Los Angeles or San Francisco, but in Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin or Michigan.
The remarkable resurgence of American energy has tilted the economic momentum further, to the point where barbers in places like Midland, Texas can earn close to $200,000 annually. In the last years of the Obama administration, California, Washington, Massachusetts and New York all experienced rapid GDP growth. But now the most recent Bureau of Economic Advisors report shows that at the end of 2018 income growth is now strongest in the pro-Trump states, with Texas registering six percent GDP growth while states like North Dakota, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania outpace—often by a wide margin—California, Massachusetts and New York.
If you read the established media, or listen to the current gaggle of Democratic wannabe presidents, there’s a giddiness about the party’s leftward lurch, most evident in plans relating to climate change policy. Yet to broad swaths of the country—including in more peripheral parts of blue states—demand to rapidly eliminate all fossil fuel poses something close to its own existential challenge.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can speak about going on a war footing to “fight” global warming in part because there’s not much industry, or for that matter energy generation, in her district spanning parts of Queens and the Bronx. It’s a different matter if you work in the fossil fuel business or at a nuclear power plant. This is already stirring concern among private sector unions who predominate in these sectors, as exemplified by the labor protest at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco in 2016. (Public unions, on the other hand, tend to favor GND since it would expand government employment and power).
In California, 400,000 people worked in the conventional energy industry as recently as 2012, but many of those jobs now seem slated for elimination. Nationally, a fossil fuel wipeout could eliminate roughly 10 million jobs with the impact strongest in Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Alaska and Louisiana, and increasingly Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Even broader would be the impact of high energy prices on manufacturing-based economies. Every place in the world— Germany, Australia and California—that has embraced GND-style policies endures sky-high energy prices. Ever higher electricity rates in California are now roughly twice those of neighboring states (despite the Golden State’s huge energy reserves) and one reason why factory jobs are headed elsewhere and “energy poverty” is on the rise.
Simply put, the GND as presently conceived would decimate much of the country’s mid-section, turning it into the long-cherished green dream of a depopulated “Buffalo commons.” That’s not the best way for Democrats to win over those blue-collar, Heartland voters who went to Trump in 2016.
So what geography will determine the election? It won’t be the big coastal cities, which would happily vote for Raúl Castro against the hated Trump. Nor will it be the countryside, and the Deep South states, where residents have no intention of backing a Democratic party they see as determined to destroy both their livelihoods and their traditional values.
The key will lie, as usual, in the suburbs, home to the majority of Americans, where the Democrats did surprisingly well in 2016. Suburbs are increasingly multi-racial (even as some cities move in the other direction). It is likely many of their new residents are culturally liberal and might well favor some rational shift to the left, for example on health care, preservation of open space and measures to strengthen economic security. This includes suburbs in the Midwest, where Trump appears to be behind.
What could save Trump from himself is the Democratic party’s shift further leftward on a host of issues, including immigration, abortion and taxation along with the GND and, crucially, housing. Even as people under 35 continue to prefer detached single-family homes—including four in five young buyers—planners and pundits in blue states, notably California, increasingly seek to force people into small, dense urban apartments that young people often abandon as in their thirties and as they start families.
Driven by high prices and ever more intrusive regulations, millennials are headed towards precisely those suburban areas Trump won in 2016. The new hotspots for millennial home-buyers, according to a recent National Homebuilders Association report, include reddish places like Grand Rapids, MI, Omaha, NE, Durham, NC, and Bakersfield, California.
These newcomers may push these communities leftward, as many may prefer Democratic positions particularly on social issues, particularly in preference to the far right. But they may be less than enthusiastic about plans to densify their leafy new neighborhoods, worsen commutes by imposing “road diets”, and indoctrinate their children in public schools. This is proving true even in California, as recently political battles have revealed, and could prove more so in the less dense suburbia in the sunbelt and Midwest.
Given the challenges of providing for their family, the multi-trillion-dollar expenditures Democrats are now advocating may repel otherwise receptive voters there.
The Green New Deal, with its aversion to cars and roads, looms as the ultimate potential deal-breaker. It may play well in the media and the urban hothouses, but perhaps not so much with millennials starting families and moving to the periphery. Suburbanites may well endorse general environmental goals, after all having open space is a primary motivation for moving out of the city, but perhaps not the idea of spending long hours on the bus to get to work.
Ultimately the way for Democrats to win is to assure and convince suburban Heartland and sunbelt voters that they don’t intend to destroy their jobs and way of life. If the Democrats can’t do that, we may all have to suffer watching Donald Trump take the oath once again a year from January.
This article first appeared on This piece The Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.