Why the 2020 Election Will Be Decided in Suburbia

American politics is increasingly about dueling geographies. Democrats have become the party of the nation’s cities, while the Republican Party finds its base in rural, small town and low-density exurban America, places of less extreme class divisions than the big cities, but also with less diversity and a smaller share of the population.

Yet the political fulcrum of 2020 won’t be found in these competing universes — but in suburbia.

Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs account for about 90% of all metropolitan-area growth. Home to over 80% of residents of the nation’s 53 largest metro areas, the suburbs have nearly half of all voters. Florida has long been the ultimate swing state. As one political analyst put it: “Suburbs are the new Florida.”

In recent years, both cities and rural areas have become more politically monolithic. In 2008, Barack Obama won nearly one quarter of the country’s non-metro counties. Eight years later, Hillary Clinton won barely 10%.

At the same time, voters in big cities have become more rigidly Democratic. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan won 31% of the vote in San Francisco and 27.4% in Manhattan. In 2016, Donald Trump won only 10% of the vote in San Francisco and Manhattan.

In sharp contrast, suburban areas remain remarkably well-divided. For the past 20 years the Republican-leaning suburban voters have held steady at 47%, with Democratic leaners at 45%. Successful presidential candidates need to win the suburbs. In 2008, Obama, with many suburbanites under water from the financial crisis, won the suburban vote and the election.

Though suburban voters are evenly split, they can also be fickle, sensitive to immediate economic challenges and less politically ideological. Of the 41 congressional districts that flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2018, 38 were suburban, fueled by a rejection of Trump’s policies such as harsh immigration rules and limiting deductions on taxes — particularly important in diverse high-cost states like California — as well as his personal behavior.

Joe Biden currently holds a big edge with suburban voters, including in key states like Ohio. But there’s time for Trump to shift those voters to his side with pragmatic policies that speak to their needs. Instead, he is using the suburbs as a mythical backdrop for a white suburban identity, even as the suburbs become more racially and economically diverse.

So, he has called out to “the Suburban Housewives of America,“ telling them that “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” To show that he has a suburban-centered policy, he recently repealed a 2015 Obama-era regulation, created under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, directing local governments to look for patterns of de facto discrimination or segregation in housing and address them. For that, Trump is casting himself as a defender of the suburbs from an invasion of low-income people.

Trump’s instinct to exploit fear and anxiety is usually quite effective. But that alone is unlikely to win back suburban women, who are abandoning the GOP as never before. One recent national poll found that 68% of suburban women disapproved of the job Trump is doing overall, and 55% said they “strongly” disapprove.

One trouble with Trump is that he’s clueless about who lives in the suburbs now — they are not “housewives” for the most part. This blindness makes it hard for him to come up with policies that actual suburbanites would embrace. But he is right about one thing: The Democrats aren’t necessarily addressing those desires either.

First of all, many people moving into suburbs are millennials, those in their mid-20s to late 30s, who were ditching big metro areas even before the pandemic. Since the coronavirus outbreak, less dense areas, like the suburbs, are growing much faster than denser ones, according to a forecast report from the American Enterprise Institute. And millennials seem increasingly to have the housing preferences of their parents.

Secondly, the suburbs are more diverse now than ever. From 1990 to 2010, the white share of suburbanites fell from 81% to 65%, according to Brookings. More than a third of the 13.3 million new suburbanites between 2000 and 2010 were Hispanic, with whites accounting for a mere fifth of suburban growth. The share of Black residents living in the suburbs of large metro areas rose from 37% in 1990, to 44% in 2000, to 51% in 2010.

People seek out the suburbs because they are relatively affordable, compared with housing in bigger cities, and offer more space, better schools or less crime. Even suburbanites who are “woke” on issues of the environment, race or gender still have economic and family interests, and prefer to control their own communities.

The real issues for suburbanites are those neither party seems capable of addressing — such as improving public education (not simply less or more money), promoting housing programs that would appeal to families eager for single-family developments and affordable homeownership, encouraging remote work and creating economic incentives that could draw higher paying jobs to suburbs, which would in turn reduce long-distance commutes.

For Democrats, the conflict between the desires of millennials for space and safety and the urban-centric policy goals of many party leaders could prove troublesome.

Progressives in California, Oregon and Minnesota have pushed bans on single-family zoning, with many on the left arguing that single-family zoning promotes racial segregation, worsens the housing shortage and increases traffic and pollution.

This drive for density, however, as Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argues, could prove “political suicide” for the Democrats. “The whole point of living in the suburbs is that it’s not the big city,” he notes. “This means that trying to convince suburbanites to become more like big cities is simply hopeless.”

These policies could threaten long-term suburban gains for Democrats — even while millennials, who tend to have very liberal views on race, gender and climate issues, settle into the suburbs. These voters do not react as well as their country cousins to Trumpism’s nativism and were widely considered the cause of the 2018 Republican losses in places like northern Virginia, Orange County and the suburbs outside Houston.

To keep a grip on the suburbs, Democrats cannot count on conservative cluelessness forever, nor can Republicans think that racial dog whistles will bring in the voters on the periphery. Today, both parties still fail to understand the changing demographics and fundamental appeal of the suburbs. Ultimately, the party that best figures out what suburbanites want — and do not want — will likely be the one that prevails in the decades ahead.

This piece first appeared on the Los Angeles Times.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Blackouts and Fires: California’s Summer Attractions

In the soft warmth of spring the swallows famously return to Capistrano, but in recent years they are followed by what seems inevitable summer power outages and fires. This is not as pleasant an experience for Californians as the return of our favored feathered companions.

Every summer, usually around this time of year, we get our inevitable heat waves. In the past, we used to endure them without fearing our lights — and computers — would be shut down, and our houses left in ruins. Read more

How Race Politics Burns Out

No future awaits those who rage against family, work, and community.

Where there is no bread, there is no Law. Where there is no Law, there is no bread.
— Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah

Racial identity politics has become the rage in the media, entertainment, and political worlds. You cannot read a mainstream publication, attend a sporting event, or browse a new educational curriculum without running a gauntlet of admonitions about America’s “systemic” racism and how it must be addressed, including through violence.
Read more

Chinese Science Fiction’s Disaster Dystopias

In Ma Jian’s new novel, the protagonist, Ma Daode, may be a corrupt, womanizing local official, but he is a corrupt, womanizing local official with a mission. His goal is to develop a drug that will allow President Xi Jinping’s vision of a glorious Chinese future to dominate not only citizens’ daily lives but their sleeping hours as well. This is his utopian quest. The China dream, Ma Daode suggests, “is not the selfish, individualist dream chased by Western countries. It is a dream of a people, a dream of the entire nation, united as one and gathered together into an invincible force.” This mindless worship of hierarchy and control permeates his thinking.

China Dream was published in 2018, three years before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and it provides insights into the Middle Kingdom that are becoming harder to find as control of local media tightens. It is a product of the “golden age” of Chinese science fiction, notes the New Scientist, that has been able to transcend the controls increasingly imposed on most non-fiction writing and public discussion. Author Liu Cixin has argued that, unlike the earliest days of the genre during the last days of the Qing dynasty, Chinese science fiction no longer fits a science-based optimism underlying the Communist vision. Such views, he observes, have “almost completely vanished.”

Contemporary Chinese writers are continuing the tradition of anti-totalitarian science fiction. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We explored the dangers of a Soviet regimented society dedicated to erasing the individual; the works of the Polish author Stanisław Lem identified the various underlying hypocrisies of the old Soviet Empire. Other classics, like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, presaged developments still evident and threatening today.

Ma Jian now lives in London and sees his task as similar to that of Orwell. In his introduction to China Dream, he writes that Orwell “foretold it all.” Xi’s “national rejuvenation,” Ma adds in the Afterword, reprises the horrors of the last century—it requires complete control of the population’s thoughts and the elevation of the leader himself to demigod status. China’s race towards the perfect state, he warns, will produce the same result as the Soviet experiment: “Utopia,” he reminds us, “always leads to dystopia.”

The new global vision

Critically, the “Chinese dream,” like that of the late Soviet Union, is not only meant for local consumption. “If we meld traditional Chinese values with Marxist ideology,” Ma Daode’s party superior suggests to him, “the China dream will be embraced by every nation. The world unity so desired by Genghis Khan will be accomplished by our generation of Party leaders.” As China Dream suggests, the Middle Kingdom now represents the most profound philosophical challenge to liberal values since the end of the Cold War. And they are not without their Western admirers. Standard Chartered Bank, for example, predicts that China will surpass the US as the world’s largest economy as early as the end of this year.

This sense of China’s inevitable preeminence has been bolstered by the Western decline after the Great Recession, convulsions over climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic, now thought by some analysts to have been a “triumph” for President Xi. “Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” predicts Jørgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. “Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.”

Some prominent Westerners even see China’s rise as the product of a system that is in some respects superior. As two law professors recently argued in the Atlantic:

In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.

The New York Times’s journalist Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, embraces the Chinese notion of granting more power to credentialed “experts” for societal problems, arguing that they are too complex for elected representatives to address. The similarly minded economist Jeffrey Sachs denounces what he calls “an evangelical crusade” against the Chinese regime, pointing out that America’s own repressions disqualify any presumption of superiority.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo credit: VOA via Wikimedia in Public Domain. (image modified with symbols that represent facial recognition technology).

Green Policies Won’t Keep California Truckin’

No state advertises its green credentials more than California. That these policies often hurt the economy, driving up housing costs and narrowing opportunities for working-class people while not even doing much for the environment, has not discouraged the state’s environmental overlords.

Consider the state’s insistence on electrifying transportation. Even as California reduces its reliable sources of power, notably nuclear and natural gas, it is mandating a statewide shift to all-electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks starting in 2024, with the goal of reaching 100 percent of all new sales, wherever feasible, by 2045. On top of other electrification mandates for light-duty cars and buildings, the new truck rule will further increase the state’s demand for electricity and raise rates, already among the nation’s highest. Since 2011, electricity prices have increased five times as fast as the national average. In 2017 alone, they increased at three times the national rate.

These policies have been devastating to poorer Californians, particularly in the less-temperate interior, where “energy poverty” has grown rapidly. Alternative energy sources like recycled natural gas and nuclear could lessen the pain, but the climate purists who dominate California policymaking find only wind and solar acceptable. Even some climate-change advocates caution that overreliance on intermittent, weather-dependent energy will push costs so high and lead to such massive land and environmental impacts that the public will turn against such policies. Time will tell.

Tragedy at the Port

The impact of forced electrification on working people, who have been rightfully praised for their critical and even heroic efforts during the pandemic can be glimpsed at California’s three major ports—Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland. International trade, including exports and imports, supports nearly 5 million California jobs, nearly one in four of the state total. Yet the new electrical truck mandate will threaten the competitive advantage of these ports, and the jobs of the tens of thousands of blue-collar Californians who work at them.

Compared with very low-emission natural gas vehicles, large electric trucks are far more expensive, not yet readily available, and less capable of carrying loads for great distances, notes Weston Le Bar, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association trade group. An electric truck, he notes, can cost four times that of a “near-zero” natural gas truck. The electric trucks can go at best 80 miles without stopping; a less expensive gas one can cover 500, greatly increasing efficiency.

Challenges including a lack of electric-charging stations, notes Jack Khudikyan, principal owner of Compton-based MDB Transportation, also make such vehicles impractical for longer hauls. He estimates the cost of running an electric truck is as much as seven times as high per mile than a near-zero vehicle.

The electric-truck mandate—California’s latest in a series of green strictures—will work to the benefit of rival ports such as Houston, which make no such demands on haulers. Over the past five years, California’s ports have lost a substantial portion of their North American container-market share, dropping from 35.5% to 30.2%, as shippers take advantage of the greater capacity of the upgraded Panama Canal to reach more user-friendly ports on the Gulf Coast. Current volume numbers are down 30% from 2018 levels.

Such losses could prove troubling in the future. Past experience shows that once supply chains are rerouted—as they have been during escalating tensions with China and the ongoing pandemic—they are notoriously hard to reverse. East Coast ports lost out to California on Pacific trade in the past, for example. And California greens shouldn’t delude themselves that the exodus to other ports will make any net difference in greenhouse-gas emissions—it will merely shift demand to new locations.

The biggest losers in California’s green port policy are minority entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers. Most of the roughly 18,000 drivers working at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are Latino, while the 4,500 in Oakland include large contingents of Indian-Americans. Some 1,800 small and sole proprietors, who dominate the trade, have little wherewithal to absorb the huge costs associated with electric trucks, forcing them out of business, in favor of larger rivals.

“Regulation like this drives consolidation,” Le Bar suggests. “One of our biggest fears is that the entrepreneurial character of the business is being destroyed…The regulators don’t care about the working class.”

Read the rest of this piece at Real Clear Energy.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

How to Rebuild the Republican Party After Trump’s Disasters

The COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 Americans is likely to end the woeful presidency of Donald Trump. With the economy, once his strongest suit, in tatters, and two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his handling of the pandemic as well as broad disapproval of how he dealt with recent racial unrest, both Trump and his Republican Party may face a harsh reckoning this fall. Read more

California’s Woke Hypocrisy

No state wears its multicultural veneer more ostentatiously than California. The Golden State’s leaders believe that they lead a progressive paradise, ushering in what theorists Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca call “a new progressive era.” Others see California as deserving of nationhood; it reflects, as a New York Times columnist put it, “the shared values of our increasingly tolerant and pluralistic society.”

In response to the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to defund the police—a move applauded by Senator Kamala Harris, a prospective Democratic vice presidential candidate, despite the city’s steep rise in homicides. San Francisco mayor London Breed wants to do the same in her increasingly crime-ridden, disordered city. This follows state attorney general Xavier Becerra’s numerous immigration-related lawsuits against the Trump administration, even as his state has become a sanctuary for illegal immigrants—complete with driver’s licenses for some 1 million and free health care.

Despite these progressive intentions, Hispanics and African-Americans—some 45 percent of California’s total population—fare worse in the state than almost anywhere nationwide. Based on cost-of-living estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of California’s African-Americans live in poverty, compared with 22 percent nationally. Fully one-third of Latinos, now the state’s largest ethnic group, live in poverty, compared with 21 percent outside the state. “For Latinos,” notes longtime political consultant Mike Madrid, “the California Dream is becoming an unattainable fantasy.”

Since 1990, Los Angeles’s black share of the population has dropped in half. In San Francisco, blacks constitute barely 5 percent of the population, down from 13 percent four decades ago. As a recent University of California at Berkeley poll indicates, 58 percent of African-Americans express interest in leaving the state—more than any ethnic group—while 45 percent of Asians and Latinos are also considering moving out. These residents may appreciate California’s celebration of diversity, but they find the state increasingly inhospitable to their needs and those of their families.

More than 30 years ago, the Population Reference Bureau predicted that California was creating a two-tier economy, with a more affluent white and Asian population and a largely poor Latino and African-American class. Rather than find ways to increase opportunity for blue-collar workers, the state imposed strict business regulations that drove an exodus of the industries—notably, manufacturing and middle-management service jobs—that historically provided gateways to the middle class for minorities. As a recent Chapman University study reveals, California is the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to creating middle-class jobs; it tops the nation in creating below-average and low-paying jobs.

Following Floyd’s death, even environmental groups like the Sierra Club issued bold proclamations against racism, but they still push policies that, in the name of fighting climate change, only lead to higher energy and housing costs, which hurt the aspirational poor. Many businesses, including small firms, must convert from cheap natural gas to expensive, green-generated electricity, a policy adamantly opposed by the state’s African-American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific chambers of commerce.

Meantime, California’s strict Covid-19 lockdown policies, imposed by a well-compensated (and still-employed) public sector, have imperiled small firms. “There’s a sense that there was major discrimination against local small businesses,” said Armen Ross, who runs the 200-member Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce in South Los Angeles. “They allowed Target and Costco to stay open while they were closed. Many mom-and-pops may never come back.” Many restaurants—roughly 60 percent are minority-owned—may never recover, notes the California Restaurant Association.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit Charlie Nguyen via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Podcast Episode 6: Beyond Feudalism: Addressing California’s Inequality Crisis (Live Event)

On July 14, Joel & Marshall held a Virtual Town Hall, discussing California’s inequality crisis and how changes in state policy could restore the middle class.

Joel Kotkin Q&A on ‘The Coming of Neo-Feudalism’

By: Carl M. Cannon
On: RealClearPolitics

Let’s start at the beginning, Joel. In talking about your new book, “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class,” do you literally fear that liberal capitalism is losing out to economic “feudalism”? And please put that word feudalism in a modern context for our readers.

The parallels are striking. In the long centuries after the feudal era — let’s say starting around 1200 ACE — there was a slow, but gradual rise of upward mobility and growing power to the middle class. In the 20th century this progress was extended to the working class. Despite its many crises, liberal capitalism provided a better way of life and higher expectations not only for Americans, but also Europeans, Japanese, east Asians, including China, Canada, Australia and even some developing countries. Read more

How the Virus is Pushing America Toward a Better Future

The peak globalization bubble has finally burst and America has a chance to reinvent itself and realign how things work here with the best parts of our national identity.

Pessimism is the mood of the day, with 80 percent of Americans saying the country is generally out of control. Even before civil unrest and pestilence, most Americans believed our country was in decline, Pew reported, with a shrinking middle class, increased indebtedness and growing polarization.

It’s a dark hour, but the United States has a way of coming back, after struggling with itself, stronger than ever. As it did in World War II and the Cold War, America retains enormous sokojikara, or “reserve power,” as Japan political scientist Fuji Kamiya described it decades ago. Read more