What Really Divides America
For almost a decade, the West has been engaged in a deepening conflict. Sometimes it flares up as a political debate; sometimes as a culture war. But whatever form it takes, it is inevitably framed as a disagreement between classes, races or ideologies.
This is a mistake. Demography may be destiny, but it is geography that determines its political shape. The greatest division today is to do with place: in particular, three basic terroirs — urban, suburban and rural — which reflect a divergence in economic interest, family structure and basic values, particularly between big city economies and those on the periphery.
This fracture is widening at a time when the demographic balance between these regions is shifting. For much of the past two centuries, the overwhelming inclination was towards urbanisation, with dense cores serving as the prime engines of economic, cultural and social change. Today, however, that pattern is shifting, particularly since the pandemic, which saw two million citizens move out of big US cities. Even in urban-oriented Europe, 63% of cities experienced a population decline during the pandemic.
Does this mean “the era of urban supremacy is over”, as the New York Times put it? Quite possibly. But don’t expect the urban leadership to acknowledge it. Even as they desperately attempt (and largely fail) to lure workers back downtown, urban political interests continue to dominate the national conversation — even amid high levels of crime, street-level disorder and the resulting shuttering of businesses.
Largely ignored by the city-dominated media, the world’s urban core has been losing this battle for generations. This is not only evident in the United States, but also across Europe and Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, little more than 5% of growth from 1966 to 2021 was in the core cities. In Europe, barely 37% of people live in cities, with the rest in fast-growing suburbs, small towns and rural areas.
Of course, many cities have experienced some revival over the past decade, but that “boom” has largely benefited educated newcomers and their wealthy employers. Urban regions became both richer and poorer; according to Pew research, the greatest inequality in America now exists in “superstar cities”, such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and San Jose.
These shifts have, unsurprisingly, shaped urban politics. As middle-class families have left, the urban terroir has been gutted of the old urban bulwark of solid middle and working-class families; as Fred Siegel has observed, it is dominated by an “upstairs/downstairs” coalition of the affluent and dependent.
This demographic reality has driven a shift towards a more progressive politics. 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 each. Between 1998 and 2018, urban counties — which sometimes includes suburbs — went from 55% to 62% Democratic. Today, there is not a single Republican Mayor of a city of more than one million people. Recent victories of progressives in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, New York and Minneapolis, despite widespread social disorder and economic decline, suggest this pattern may well be inexorable.
Read the rest of this piece at UnHerd.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs 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.
Photo: David Clow Flickr under CC 2.0 License.