The 2016 election exposed deep economic discontent in flyover country — or did it? Either way, many places are falling further back in the Digital Gilded Age.
According to one theory, the presidential election of 2016 was an economic phenomenon.
As a new report from the Brookings Institution puts it, “Few can now deny that the geography of America’s current economic order has brought economic and social cleavages that have spawned frightening externalities: entrenched poverty, ‘deaths of despair,’ and deepening small-town resentment of coastal cosmopolitan elites.”
That means you, Seattle.
The authors continue: “It is baleful realities like these that caught many politicians, academics, and journalists off guard in 2016″ as they pored over post-election red-blue maps. “In a very real way, the 2016 election of Donald Trump represented the revenge of the places left behind in a changing economy.”
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The report lays out some constructive responses, such as improving digital skills, ensuring improved access to capital, reducing gaps in access to broadband, federal investment in promising localities (“growth poles”) and federal support for people who want to move for economic opportunity.
These are all worthy contributions — I especially like aiding mobility for opportunity, which has fallen off in recent years. Add them to other efforts, especially billionaire Steve Case’s effort to get companies to move from pricey Silicon Valley to the heartland.
Yet I’m not sure they can bridge the enormous gap between “superstar cities” and “left-behind places,” much less address the major causes of our Cold Civil War.
America’s economic landscape is complicated.
The report states that metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people accounted for 72 percent of U.S. employment growth since the financial crisis. On the other hand, these metros make up 55 percent of the total U.S. population in an increasingly urbanized nation.
Among those confounding, assumption-defying larger metros is Oklahoma City. As the song says, it looks mighty pretty, especially after years of public investment to revive its downtown and turn the old warehouse district into an entertainment hub. OKC is prosperous, rich enough to grab a certain NBA team and voted 65 percent for Donald Trump in 2016.
Economic resentment didn’t motivate these Oklahoma voters, but rather historic conservatism. Oklahoma City doesn’t want to be like Seattle, the Bay Area or the destinations of Amazon HQ2. The reasons aren’t a fear of more traffic or mushrooming housing prices, but socio-cultural.
Indeed, the economic narrative of Trump’s victory has been under pressure from other scholarship. For example, one study indicated that his voters were driven by a desire to preserve white majoritarianism in a fast-changing country.
Bolivar County, in the Mississippi Delta country, has been left behind and impoverished for decades. Yet in 2016, it voted for Hillary Clinton by the same margin as OKC went for Trump. Bolivar County is 64 percent black. Oklahoma City is 14 percent black.
All the broadband in the world won’t change this cleavage.
To be sure, the rewards of the digital economy have been highly concentrated, not only in a relatively few metros but also in relatively few hands of our Digital Gilded Age.
The Brookings report says, “For much of the 20th century, market forces had reduced job, wage, investment, and business formation disparities between more- and less-developed regions. However, in the 1980s, that long-standing trend began to break down as the spread of digital technology increasingly rewarded the most talent-laden clusters of skills and firms.”
This is not quite true.
Unfettered market forces created the first Gilded Age. These were tamed somewhat by the Progressive Era early in the 20th century. But real change came with vigorous federal intervention from the New Deal in the Great Depression. It brought, for example, rural electrification and job-creating infrastructure projects.
After World War II, a balance between capitalism and regulation — along with other mediating elements such as progressive taxation and organized labor — created the widespread prosperity that Americans older than 50 remember.
This was indeed upended in the 1980s, but by deregulation, union busting, tax cuts, and mergers and “rationalization” of companies that ravaged the prime employers of countless heartland cities and towns. The effects of globalization and the digital divide were icing on an already baking doom-cake.
How to unmake this long decline is beyond anything I can realistically propose. Breaking up the financial, industrial and transportation giants and cartels while returning the pieces to their historic homes is a nice daydream. But it won’t happen.
And don’t forget, the 1960s summit of the American middle class and shared prosperity also saw the persistent crisis of impoverished Appalachia and growing economic distress of inner cities.
Finally, the land of the left-behinds — especially the white Trump voters — is not all victims.
Sure, laissez-faire, bad luck, and, in some cases, globalization handled them roughly. But many of these places hurt themselves. Including at the state level, they cut funding for education, savaged higher-ed, slashed other public investments and left their city and small-town centers to rot amid Wal-Mart sprawl. They didn’t cultivate the many other intangibles that allow for reinvention.
They can hardly complain that superstar cities did this to them. They won’t complain about the damage from Trump’s trade war or lack of economic boost from Trump’s GOP tax cuts.
My hometown of Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the country, wants an economy based on land speculation, retirees, resorts, call centers and warehouses. At least the people in charge do. They look down on the “anti-business” locales of California and the Pacific Northwest. So what if wages are low, poverty high and opportunity limited?
To be fair, the heart of that vast city is blue. But in 2016, despite a recovered economy, Phoenix’s Maricopa County went for Trump. So did Arizona, a state notorious for the ruling Anglo political elite’s antipathy to Hispanics.
It’s hard to save places that don’t want saving, unless that means a return to 1965 demographics. But keep the ideas coming.