The 2020 election presents an important data point for local, national and international politics: a deep concentration of Democratic votes in cities and a shallow but broad spread of Republican votes everywhere else. We are not a nation of red versus blue, but of city versus rural — two bubbles with divergent economic foundations and a different language describing our reality. The foundational challenge confronting us is what political scientist Ted Gurr called “relative status deprivation” between urban wealthy and the rural and suburban. Relative deprivation, where one group perceives their status diminished relative to another group, is one systemic “ball of yarn,” with one strand running from City Hall to the District of Columbia through global diplomacy and trade.
Cities are hyper-connected with the process of globalization and capital intensive industries — the lawyers, CPAs, startups, tech and financial services are transnational, yet deeply embedded in the lifeblood of cities. Whether aware or not, city residents have a vested interest in diplomacy, trade, climate action, responsibly dealing with a pandemic and social equality because such policies reward the city-global networks.
On the other hand, rural Americans see the compounding of wealth and talent in cities and yet live in a different world. The feeling of being left behind and taken for a ride embodies the relative status deprivation at the heart of our politics. “Globalists” are the meme villains in this story and the plot is a diffusion of jobs abroad. Rural Americans see stagnant wages and farming prices fall to global competitors. They see college as a risky investment and public-health orders as business killers, rather than a ticket to economic freedom. Rural America has resorted, as have many right-wing populists around the world, to grievance politics, manifest in cultural chauvinism, white supremacy and xenophobia. These outcomes are not conscious drivers for most folks, but they are incidental outputs from a much deeper structural grievance that constructs identity, values and narrative.
Yet some in cities are also struggling. Even in these leviathans of wealth, neighborhoods struggle to capture the benefit that global investment brings in. Entire neighborhoods like mine in Clairemont, San Diego, are neglected because we’ve disciplined cities to build for wealth, cut the floor out from social services, and threaten that business will leave if we raise wages or corporate taxes. The federal government has, over my lifetime, divested significantly from city infrastructure, namely housing. From tax incentives for business relocation to land giveaways, our cities are trying their best to compete for business as the basis of propping up their budgets abandoned by Washington. Opportunities to create inclusive public wealth through taxes on corporations (e.g., Proposition 15) are met with threats of capital flight.
Unfortunately, the tactics aimed at luring a bigger tax base to cities actually undercut that very purpose and chips away at public welfare. Wealthy areas become increasingly privatized through business improvement districts or homeowners associations to provide services, while real estate speculators hold luxury property vacant with homeless encampments below. Clusters of economic exclusion emerge around downtowns, universities and tech centers. As resources shrink, fewer efforts are made to revive neighborhoods, and just like that, our middle neighborhoods are both starved of public services and lack the means to privately purchase better quality of life. Simultaneously, we undercut workers: The casualization of labor through the gig economy deflates wages, concentrates laborers at the physical margins, separates workers from protections and destroys economic opportunity that cities are supposed to provide.
The struggle is worldwide, too. It is a story of extreme wealth and government that promotes that wealth, juxtaposed with economic decline and social isolation of the middle class, rural state and forgotten neighborhoods. The resentment from rural Americans is mirrored in the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) party in Germany, Brexit, Euroskepticism and growing populist authoritarianism. All are a function of relative deprivation, largely on the urban and rural fault line. NIMBYISM is frankly a strain of the same frustration: the feeling of the world passing our neighborhood by and taking advantage of us along the way.
Who are our cities for? Who is our county for? These are the governing questions for our time. To truly realign the electorate and address drivers of relative deprivation, in both cities and rural communities, we need leaders who understand the political economy of inclusive growth. We have so much work to do to put equity and public welfare at the center of the American project.