As an American, I’m currently suffering from Trump fatigue. It gets so bad that sometimes, I tell strangers I’m Canadian to avoid it all together.
I grew up on Main Street as a middle-class Smith in an average sized Midwestern city where the laughter, rise and ultimate win of the Presidency by Trump has been a topic of real conversation. At no point after the results were finalised was I surprised – disappointed and upset, yes, but never shocked. I’ll join in and say I’m here in England “to avoid Trumpism”, but I’ll fall silent when I hear classmates, professors or strangers proclaim how “fucked up” America is because of the idiots that voted for Trump. While I didn’t vote for him, those idiots are my best friends, favourite teacher, and people in my family.
The number of articles I’ve read or news stations I’ve listened to describing why Brexit and Trump happened in 2016 is beyond belief. Yet I can’t stop, as if I’m waiting to hear something that calls out the bi-coastal and urban interpretations that alienates and angers most of these two countries. Even when I told people what I was writing about today, I was laughed at and told: “Of course you’d write about that – you’re from Missouri.”
Residential location doesn’t predict everything, but it irrefutably did in the 2016 U.S. Election and the EU withdrawal referendum, both in the exit poll and end-result data.
Democrats and those with liberal views won urban areas, as usual. Brexit was laughed at in London: “who would even think of leaving the EU?” Californians and New Yorkers mocked Trump on every social media platform available, because “who in their right mind would vote for him?”
This idea got me thinking about how one’s spatial identity is at play on both sides of the pond. What are the differences in mobilisation between a person from the “city” different from a “rural town” to show up and vote?
Is there something about cities that makes people who are born or move there become more liberal minded, something in the air pollution maybe? Do urban areas disproportionately attract left leaning voters? Perhaps the liberal-minded are conveniently born in metropolitan cities, or they leave their small towns behind and head to the Big City for more opportunities.
The New Republic interviewed Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, who touched on why cities lean liberal: “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good,” he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially.” Cities are founded on the idea of public goods while the fiscally conservative towns see public spending as a waste of money – and illegal immigrants profiting from welfare as a hindrance to their own livelihood. Maybe it is more of the impact of government good is easier to see in the city? In the city, the local government controls the way of life – water, sewer, trash, clean sidewalks, public transportation, etc. These tools are required to make a city function while in the small towns, government services are far away and sometimes of no practical use to a culture built on self-reliance and “pulling oneself up by the boot straps.”
But it takes a certain socio-economic or academic background to be able to pick up and move. Maybe even the self-selecting city-bound individual turns into a converted liberal from all the open-minded thinking and progressive tendencies stewing in the corporate and international communitycrammed into overpriced flats…
Leading sociologists have a field a day with this question, and simply explain that people who live in cities are relatively insulated from how difficult and challenging it can be to produce all the things that city dwellers enjoy – food production, energy, manufacturing, equipment, etc. Educated urban liberals see no downside to stricter regulations or higher taxes for the energy sector where they are far away from the consequences of their policy decisions.
This self-sorting mentality of educated urbanites is studied by Neil Gross, sociology professor at Colby College. He has researched the increasing homogenous atmosphere in cities happening among the post-grad set. He says that highly educated Americans are increasingly clustering into cities and neighbourhoods with people who are like them politically. Educated elites seeking out jobs that use their highly educated skill sets, which ends up sorting them into more homogenous urban communities. It’s obvious to see how this could be more polarising and easy to get pulled further towards one end – in either direction. Is it really educated vs. uneducated though? This just exemplifies the national news stations and their covering of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and EU withdrawal referendum by the ignorant rural people showing up to the polling stations – alienating an entire region and calling them uneducated doesn’t seem to help the underlying problem of young people going away to university and not coming back to where they are from.
Undeniably, more and more individuals, especially millennials, are leaving passé, post-industrial towns for international, new-economy cities. This departure leaves behind those that don’t think like they do, heightening the already delicate spatial division that increases the competitive environment of the hostile small-town job markets. The individuals leaving the small-towns continue “a multigenerational pattern of young adults preferring more expensive urban areas over lower-cost rural ones because the lifestyles and opportunities in such places make the extra burden of cost worth it,” says Robert Lang, professor of urban growth and population dynamics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This leaves these towns even more uncertain about the 21st century just over the horizon – immigration, deindustrialisation, globalisation, consumerism. Vacuums don’t create themselves. The path of deindustrialisation is already affecting these communities in devastating ways, maybe it’s finally having an impact on our electoral systems too – something that could’ve been predicted even before Trump and Brexit were on the ballot.
The success of the conservative Republican party is seeing what the liberal Democratic Party missed – the spatial identity of those abandoned towns crying for attention and help. During my study at the University of Arkansas, I witnessed the final goodbye of a Southern community (that raised Bill Clinton) exchanging the Democrats for an angry Republican embrace, crying out to those confused towns left behind in the wake of global expansion. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton clearly calls on this at the annual Republican Party fund-raising dinner, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in late August of 2017 saying:
“Go home tonight and turn on one of the night-time comedy shows. Tomorrow morning, turn on one of the cable morning-news shows. This Saturday, watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’ … All the high ridicule him. They make fun of his hair, they make fun of the color of his skin, they make fun of the way he talks—he’s from Queens, not from Manhattan. They make fun of that long tie he wears, they make fun of his taste for McDonald’s… What I don’t think they realize is that out here in Arkansas and the heartland and the places that made a difference in that election, like Michigan and Wisconsin, when we hear that kind of ridicule, we hear them making fun of the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we think.”
Exploiting these spatial constructs have now filled the political rhetoric that pronounces a “we” and a “them” in an already poisonously partisan and bi-coastal atmosphere. Cosmopolitans have become alienated from the economic reality of their hometowns.
When we look at policy, sometimes we miss the mark on what we’ve limited our understanding of the world to. We need to move beyond our own comfortable echo chambers – creating a spatial identity that blurs our vision of who we are and what matters. It’s easy to believe we are the lone voice of sanity and ignore an entire region we can’t be bothered to understand. Liberally-minded people huddling around others with similar views leaves little room for improvement in the backyards they probably came from.
There must be meeting point, a coherence in a way. Can cities be more patient in accepting the hardships passed down to rural towns? Can rural towns become a nuanced version of global acceptance on a national level – reinvesting in education or the arts. Innovation, public education, redevelopment, public transportation, renewable energy are national and international issues that both metropolitan and industrial towns are tackling on a level that require a conversation. The policymakers of today are faced with the consequences of this spatial identity (of superiority or sanity or educatedness) that only strengthens the voices not being heard, the geographic segregation inhibiting a conversation to be had. Instead of mocking at the current political affairs of our world, maybe just a simple conversation could go farther than imaginable. A decisive time is a head of us that shouldn’t be filled with hatred but compassion for the other side, regardless of which you are on.
Mallory Smith is a first year Master of Public Administration candidate at the London School of Economics. She really did grow up on Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri and earned her Bachelor’s degree in French and International Relations from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Prior to pursuing her graduate studies, Mallory worked at an oil and gas contract drilling company in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a Trade Compliance Specialist in the legal department.
Badger, Emily. “The Real Reason Cities Lean Democratic.” CityLab, 15 Nov. 2012, www.citylab.com/equity/2012/11/political-map-weve-been-waiting/3908/.
Dure, Beau. “Millennials Continue Urbanization Of America, Leaving Small Towns.” NPR, NPR, 21 Oct. 2014, www.npr.org/2014/10/21/357723069/millennials-continue-urbanization-of-america-leaving-small-towns.
Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Why Are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?” NPR, NPR, 30 Apr. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/04/30/475794063/why-are-highly-educated-americans-getting-more-liberal.
Nunning, Loey. “6 Big Differences That Turn City Dwellers Into Liberals.” Cracked.com, Weird World – Blog, 18 Feb. 2017, www.cracked.com/blog/6-ways-big-cities-turn-you-liberal-converts-perspective/.
Toobin, Jeffrey. “Is Tom Cotton the Future of Trumpism?” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 8 Nov. 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/13/is-tom-cotton-the-future-of-trumpism.