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.

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Triumph of the Woke Oligarchs

Like the rest of the country, although far less than New York, California is suffering through the Covid-19 crisis. But in California, the pandemic seems likely to give the state’s political and corporate elites a new license to increase their dominion while continuing to keep the middle and working classes down.

Perhaps nothing spells the triumph of California’s progressive oligarchy more than Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to off-load the state’s recovery strategy to a task force co-chaired by hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer. A recently failed presidential candidate, Steyer stands as a progressive funder. He is as zealous as he is rich. Steyer sometimes even found the policies adopted by climate-obsessed former governor Jerry Brown not extreme enough for his tastes. Read more

Unsustainable California

The recent rash of fires, like the drought that preceded it, has sparked a new wave of pessimism about the state’s future. But the natural disasters have also obscured the fact the greatest challenge facing the state comes not from burning forests or lack of precipitation but from an increasingly dysfunctional society divided between a small but influential wealthy class and an ever-expanding poverty population.

We are not addressing either the human or natural challenge. Once the ultimate “can do” state, California is morphing into one that is profoundly “can’t do.” Neither right nor left seems to have any program to confront the state’s worsening malaise on issues ranging from housing, education and the economy to the care of the environment.

To be sure, the right is correct to lay some of the blame for fires on green policies that have restricted brush clearance, and have prevented the thinning of the state’s forests, a finding shared by the state’s Little Hoover Commission. But it’s been years since Republicans have been able to present a coherent program — not surprising since vanishingly few in the state listen to, much less follow, the conservative agenda.

For its part, the progressive left controls the debate, the academy, most of the media, but has few answers to the problems plaguing our state. For many, scare-mongering about climate change defines and justifies even the most economically ruinous actions; activists even blame the recent power outages on climate, though the primary cause was lack of investment and maintenance by the state-regulated electrical utility.

Blaming PG&E, President Trump, oil companies, housing developers, car commuters or manufacturers for our problems is no doubt emotionally satisfying to the zealots in Sacramento and their media allies. But despite all this sturm und drang, California’s emissions over the past decade have fallen less than 39 other states and are essentially irrelevant on a global level. Even if the United States adopted the Green New Deal, the impact on climate, notes some recent studies, would be almost infinitesimal. The big emissions increases are almost entirely coming from China and other the less developed countries.

California needs to rediscover its magic

The natural challenges we face are, in fact, not so dissimilar than those in the past. From its inception, California has always been an “unnatural” place for intense urban development. Its lack of water, particularly in the populated parts of the state, long has been an endemic problem; drought and fire a constant theme dating back generations.

The great achievement of the state was to employ innovative engineering solutions that brought massive water supplies from the Sierra range to the water-deficient Bay Area, Southern California and the Central Valley. Elaborate schemes brought electricity and power to the state, sometimes from as far as Utah. Where there was no natural port, one was carved out at San Pedro and Long Beach, now easily the largest entry port in North America.

It’s hard to believe any of this could be done today. Under progressive governors as well as conservative ones, we have done very little to improve our water systems, much less make it more resilient in the face of much feared climate shifts. We talk boldly about going “all electric” but close down emissions-free nuclear plants, shutter efficient gas facilities while refusing to expand hydro-electric systems. No state imports so much of its energy, notably from the enlightened nation of Saudi Arabia, just to keep the lights on — at great cost to both consumers as well as soon to be unemployed California energy workers.

Who loses in the new California?

The future, if Sacramento gets its way, likely will resemble Jerry Brown’s old “era of limits” on steroids. It will become more expensive to get around, even in electric cars that rely on what are already among the country’s highest rates, almost twice as high as competitors like Texas, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, electricity that is rightfully seen as often unreliable as well. Our ability to buy housing, particularly the family-friendly variety, will also be restricted by a planning regime that seeks to cram most into small apartments.

This future appeals to some predictable voices, like The New York Times and The Atlantic, which see the fires on the urban edge as a reason to pack more people into our already congested, unaffordable cities. But these observations fail to distinguish between the heavily wooded areas on the hilly fringes of the metropolis — which are indeed fire-prone — and largely flat expanses of rangeland adjacent to both the Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin. If we don’t find safe places to build the kind of housing most people, notably families, need, our diminished housing choices will accelerate the rising tide of people and companies leaving the state.

These ruinous policies are not necessary. They are based largely on intense “virtue-signaling,” which might also provide the basis for Gavin Newsom’s eventual run for the White House. But he may consider what the rest of the country might think about the kind of bifurcated, dystopic society California now presents; it certainly did not help the failed presidential candidacy of Kamala Harris and was bad enough to keep the disaster that is L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti out of the presidential sweepstakes.

To be sure, not everyone is suffering from the state’s mismanagement. The oligarchal firms of Silicon Valley, their venture funders and some of their unicorn offspring continue to rack up billions. They plan to house their young employees in glorified dormitories until they decide to leave.

But the path for the rest of Californians is not so clear. Over the past decade, most California metros, notes Chapman University’s Marshall Toplansky, are creating, on a per capita basis, far fewer mid- and high-paid jobs than the rest of the country, particularly places like Dallas, Charlotte, Austin and Salt Lake City. Higher-paid industrial jobs, critical to the working class’s progress, have grown well below the national average over the past decade; last year it was fifth from the bottom among the states.

What lies ahead

This economic disparity in the state, not climate change, as Newsom and his allies insist, remains the biggest challenge facing California. As much or as quickly as it manifests itself, climate will impact every part of the country and the world. The compelling issue should be not how California can heroically address climate issues, but how to do so without engendering a truly unsustainable social transformation.

In terms of fire and drought, there are practical steps to be taken, including allowing more extensive elimination of dead trees and brush as well as building extensive fire breaks, particularly near transmission towers. Potential water shortages can be best addressed with more storage and water-catchment systems as well as conservation and desalinization.

California could choose to reduce emissions in ways that, as longtime environmentalist and author Ted Nordhaus says, eschew “utopian fantasies” and “make its peace with modernity and technology.” There are proven, less economically intrusive ways to reduce emissions without skewering the middle class and turning them into permanent renters, like expanding hydro-electric, nuclear and, most importantly, increasingly abundant natural gas in favor of ruinously expensive renewables.

But efficiency and saving the middle class are not priorities for Sacramento’s empowered bureaucracy. Every time regulators impose more restrictions on home construction and force electricity and water rates up, impacting factories, farms and households, they contribute to the outrage that this richest of states also suffers the country’s highest poverty rate, and hosts many of the country’s poorest metros. A huge percentage of the population — over one third of the population, according to the United Way — are barely making ends meet. California is also home to roughly half of the country’s homeless.

The consequences of staying on this course are far scarier, at least in the short term, than anything that can be ascribed reasonably to climate. Despite the good intentions of some, misplaced environmental policies are building a society — already evident — that will restrict the trajectory, in particular, of the young and minorities, who are faced a declining number of well-paying jobs and ultra-inflated rents and housing prices.

We need is policies whose prime goal is not making the already fabulously rich, like Tom Steyer, or ambitious politicians like Newsom, feel better about themselves. We require an approach that offers hope to middle- and working-class Californians by improving housing choices, expanding industry and jobs, particularly in the poorer areas. New sustainable, and cost-effective, water, power and transport infrastructure constitute a critical part of this solution, as is an education system that teaches skills and practical training for students rather than fashionable “woke” ideology.

If we don’t reverse course, this bifurcated social structure, exacerbated by state policies, threatens something far more unsettling than any natural disaster. A society torn by seemingly unbreachable divisions represents the greatest, and most pressing, sustainability challenge before us.

This piece first appeared on The Orange County Register.

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. His next book, “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism,” will be out this spring.

Photo credit: Scott L via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

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