The results of the 2016 presidential election in the United States illustrate a broader reality, which is that the gap between the cosmopolitan city and the economic periphery has become the new social class divide across the West. Where people live, as much as how they live, now increasingly determines their beliefs, values, and sense of tribal belonging.
As the researcher Will Wilkinson explores in a recent report, such a “density divide” is not exclusive to the United States. It can also be found in the results of the 2016 British vote on membership of the European Union, where support for remaining in the EU was largely concentrated around London and its extended commuter belt, and the 2017 French presidential election, where support for the left-center candidate Emmanuel Macron clustered around the thriving cities of Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse.
Changes in the global economy have spatially sorted voters into progressive urbanites with a large stake in a new technological future, globalization, and liberal values, and the left-behind who see their own identity and economic prospects threatened as never before. Rural areas and small towns may have always been more culturally conservative, but this divide, combined with the resentment generated by economic and wealth inequality, has triggered the most prominent recent political explosions across the West.
Yet here we are in 2019 with the current president. It's as though focusing only on appealing to urbanites without accounting for the influence of the electoral college might have meant that (even with beliefs that foreign elements tampered with the election) Clinton lost by a landslide in the electoral college vote. How could that have happened? In part because if you only aim to win over the people in the urban centers and explicitly disregard everyone not included in that scene the rest of the counties and districts might have gone red.
Foa and Wilmot point out:
While much attention has focused on differences in values between progressive cosmopolitanism and provincial conservativism, the fact remains that conservative values, at least on matters of lifestyle and religion (if not on matters of national identity), are either stable or in decline. This makes the populist insurgency an anomaly, for a constant cannot explain a change.
What has changed in the last generation, however, is the level of economic and wealth inequality between regions of Western countries. As Joan Rosés and Nikolaus Wolf have shown, regional divergence began in the 1980s with globalization and deindustrialization, and it has deepened in recent years.
If we are to understand the depth of populist anger, we must look to the economics of regional resentment. In the United Kingdom, for example, a person’s position on leaving or remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum was linked to the geography of the nation’s housing market, with research showing that property prices are one of the best predictors of whether voters supported or opposed Britain’s vote to leave the EU, even at the ward level (the smallest electoral unit, of around 5,000 to 6,000 voters). Estimates by Chris Hanretty, which we have mapped below, show that Remain constituencies were almost entirely concentrated around London and its satellite commuter towns, while Leave constituencies covered almost the entire rest of England.
It's doubtful the editors at The Stranger stopped to consider that given the economic and social trajectories of the urban vs the exurban regions there might be an electoral shift that would be a reaction to their "screw you" to everyone not in the blue-state cities.
Op ed pieces at The Atlantic that warn against a rejection of democracy itself might have to be read with a pinch of salt. What people may be rejecting is an Atlanticist American-centric EU-driven globalist order. Depending on how things go we might not even have a UK in the next fifty years but not necessarily because of ecological catastrophe. As Josephine Livingstone put it over at The New Republic, Brits can too easily forget how much raw power, force and coercion went into united the United Kingdom and it isn't necessarily going to last.
Had urban progressives made any effort to actually abolish the Electoral College system in the last fifteen years who knows if they would have succeeded and whether or not in some alternate universe we'd have someone besides the person we have.
As bad as I find the person to be I recall someone pointing out something as to why he supported the man. Short version, of all the candidates who threw their hat in the ring DT was the one candidate who went so far as to say explicitly that the globalist Atlanticist post-World War II pax Americana policies no longer benefited mainstream Americans. That in itself hardly seems like a reason to vote for the guy but a progressive once told me that DT gave voters a choice, someone who wasn't just variations on a Bush or a Clinton so people were going to back him. While talking about the 81 percent who did back him tends to revolve around theories of clan-based backwater racism that's merely part of the morass--it's hard to forget, living as I do in Seattle, what The Stranger editors decided to say to anyone not-blue-state-cities about whether or not they were even Americans, after all.
Some of the folks that come to mind who support Trump supported Nixon and there are jokes about how much things are similar. Some things are different. We've long since stopped having two parties in the two party system who are willing to lose. The Clinton impeachment was a dog and pony show that came across like cheap self-serving political theater in spite of the character issues of Bill. Claims that Bush 2 should be impeached were made and nothing happened. Absent a president willing to voluntarily resign rather than face impeachment there is no precedent for anyone being removed from office by impeachment.
The possibility that, since he somehow won before, he can win again, is on the table. That he comes across as a populist agitator with a mouth I don't feel much need to belabor. The "have you seen the other guys!?" approach to campaign slogans didn't work then and they don't give us reason to think they will work next year.
Here we are in 2019 and writers at The Stranger and editors are admonishing artists to LEAVE Seattle because it's getting expensive and hard to live in and is less and less arts-friendly. Had there been less electoral balkanization over the last twenty years ... but that's a pointless what-if.
Richard Florida was writing recently about the geographic winner-take-all aspect of arts and urban centers, pointing out that creatives are leaving the super-star cities.
In recent years, America has increasingly been defined by a winner-take-all geography, with coastal superstar cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., garnering a disproportionate share of high-tech startups, corporate headquarters, and innovation and talent. But surging costs and inequality in these places—elements of what I call the New Urban Crisis—may be shaping the beginnings of a shift in talent to other parts of the country.
The big knowledge and tech hubs which once had such a stranglehold on attracting talent seem to be losing their allure. Many places around the country now have bundles of amenities—renovated old buildings, coffee shops and good restaurants, music venues, and not least of all, more affordable homes—that can compete with the biggest cities. In other words, the amenity gap between superstar cities and other places has closed, while the housing-price gap has widened.
After a couple of decades of winner-take-all urbanism, talent may be shifting away from the established superstars to less expensive places, large and small, urban and rural.
If this urban sort merely eventually relocates people without creating long-term shifts in the electoral outcome at a cumulative district level there's not much reason to think that 2020 will necessarily go blue.
Sometimes it feels as though The Stranger articulated what in electoral and demographic terms was a manifesto that could be read as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Stranger has run with the idea that Trump's ground game was white supremacy. The black friend who surprised me by explaining why he was happy to vote for Trump told me that the Clinton legacy on black incarceration and banks and foreign policy convinced him that keeping on voting for Democratic candidates was not really worth it. It's not that there's no case to be made about white supremacists being drawn to Trump and his courting them, it's that The Stranger had already declared everyone that wasn't in their touted urban archepelago could go fuck off. The red district electorate apparently decided to say "same to you" in 2016. Somehow Clinton lost pledged votes between the election day and the electoral college vote.
It's conceivable that just saying Trump won because racism could become another self-fulfilling prophecy. When the people I've met who told me why they voted for Trump say it involves a rejection of the United States having be a world cop backing globalist policies that gut working class interests in most places except the urban centers; or that the Atlancist centric post-World War II pax Americana in which we protect the interests of Europe from Russia isn't worth it for Americans then it's possible that, okay, so there are racists who vote for Trump. But then Woodrow Wilson was pretty white supremacist and he somehow got us into World War I. Maybe we have an executive as bad as Harding and Nixon and Wilson combined but to interpret the political shifts strictly in terms of white supremacist pandering has me worried that that could, assuming he doesn't get removed from office via impeachment (which has never happened in the history of the republic so it's a big gamble to assume it will happen now with such a polarized two-party system) land him a second term.