the biggest issue of 2016: the urban future vs. the rural past

the biggest issue of 2016: the urban future vs. the rural past

Forget red states vs. blue states. The electoral showdown in 2016 is between where we've been and where we need to go.

Anyone who isn’t part of the media, but had to deal with it will tell you that journalists and pundits have a major weakness. They want stories to be easily digestible, yet fit within their narrative framework and generate views. When it came to the rise of Trump and right wing populism, they’ve tried to cast him as some sort of unprecedented conspiracy candidate, and as the avatar of the white supremacist vote. And while he attracts conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis, it’s very unlikely that he cares about any of them, or really cares about anything other than self-aggrandizement and how many times he sees his name in the media. So why would anyone ever vote for an incompetent, narcissistic blowhard or buy into his toddler-like tantrums that he can only lose if the powers-that-be are secretly cheating?

Well, sheer desperation is a big part of it. We’ve done an utterly atrocious job in preparing for the post-industrial economy and millions of people are feeling it in their wallets. Like comedy writer David Wong, who distilled the reasons for Trump’s rise into a handy listicle, I also spent a very long time in a red state, though while living in a blue city, and the contrast was so stark, that if one day while I visit there’s a customs checkpoint erected between the city and the surrounding countryside, it wouldn’t faze me at all. The city has been dealing with growing pains and gentrification, and trying to figure out where to put the next farm to table bistro. The country is trying to figure out how to keep the lights on after most of the factories closed and the farmland was bought out by enormous conglomerates.

Even if small towns saw it coming, there wasn’t enough time to diversify and save the local economy. Automation and deregulation take years to ramp up, while even small economies can take decades to meaningfully diversify, and need a steady bedrock of cash flow to fund new businesses, and public and private investments. If you suddenly took away the main employer which is providing most of that flow, the majority of that foundation goes poof pretty much overnight. Cities were big enough to absorb losing large employers in a crash or shedding thousands of jobs in favor of outsourcing because there’s always a recession proof industry like medical, insurance, or government in easy reach. Rural areas rarely have that, and now cluster around hospitals, universities, and whatever manufacturing did choose to stay. It’s precarious, but considering the circumstances, it’s their only choice.

The main takeaway here is that people have been told their entire lives that if they play by the rules, work hard, and show the world they’re self-reliant, good things will happen and they will have nice, content lives. No, they’re not going to be wealthy and live in a beachside mansion by their middle age, but they’ll never want for anything too badly. But now they’ve discovered in the worst possible way that you can play by the rules, do all the right things, work your every waking hour, and still end up with nothing. This is in direct violation with the Just World Theory, the most precious notion in American culture. How can the world be just and fair when paying by the rules doesn’t get you what you’ve been promised? And they’re right to be angry. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t predict the unfair, dehumanizing future.

toxic wasteland

But yet here we are. You’ve heard this all before, from how automation will put half the population out of work if nothing is done, to how the 1% use all sorts of financial snake oil to run up the score on those they’ve left behind in the figurative, and sometimes literal, dust, to how things are so bad, there’s a movement to basically give people don’t-starve-to-death money because as a society, treating healthcare and education as privileges rather than two of the most important factors in surviving in the future, left millions broke, stuck, and with no prospects. What’s being done about it? Even worse than nothing; politicians, especially those most responsible for this mess, are busy finding scapegoats and isolating those most in need of help further into the decaying local economies, by declaring all economics and politics zero-sum games benefitting the “others” they encourage their constituents to hate.

The problem for these politicians is that they’d need to reverse course on the mythology of trickle-down economics which is financial magic thinking at its best, and encourages rent-seeking behavior, deregulation, and job-shedding cost-cutting at its worst. There is no incentive for a business to invest into a community anymore, only to extract whatever resources it can use to make a profit as quickly and efficiently as possible to hit its quarterly numbers, and outsource whatever it can to cut costs on paper. Any proposed regulation or significant penalty for just parasitizing a city or a state are immediately shot down as “job killing class warfare” by Republicans and seconded by pundits pretending to be experts in finance, like Lawrence Kudlow, who stares at the camera and demands to know how Americans can possibly be unhappy with the economy when the GDP just added a trillion dollars.

In a way, the system is absolutely rigged against rural voters because they’re constantly implored to vote against taxation and regulation since “they kill jobs and hurt the economy” and when companies use the extra money and lack of regulations to close factories and send thousands of jobs offshore, an army of politicians comes out to blame taxes they just lowered and the high burdens of regulation they just repealed, and ask their constituency to keep doing the same thing next election because if they win a race to the bottom with developing nations, some factories may graciously decide to move back and pay minimum wage or just a little above. Oh, and that minimum wage is not to be raised because those companies will move right back out. The only choice these voters have left is to move to the city, an expensive proposition, but one that’s increasingly being undertaken by small town millennials.

Cities are where businesses flock because they’ve become one stop shops for both startups and multinationals. There’s impressive looking office space, easy access to financing, direct access to international and domestic routes, plenty of college students and experienced workers for functions that can’t, and shouldn’t, be automated, and plenty of cash flow to sustain businesses that cater to those working for the large cast of primary employers. And this is why just 20 major metro areas generate more than half of the entire GDP, and many keep on growing. Of course the future isn’t just a handful in vast megacities, but it will be much more concentrated in large urban hubs. But instead of preparing people for the upcoming changes in work, family, and culture, the media most often consumed by rural voters feeds them a steady stream of outrage, panic, scapegoats, and distractions.

domo over la

This is the message rural voters need to hear. We’re sorry, you’ve done no wrong, and we know things aren’t going well for you right now. We want to fix them, but it will involve some major changes. The forces at play have grown extremely wealthy and powerful and trying to punish them by closing off borders, swearing off economic alliances, and refusing to make changes to approaches we know didn’t work is akin to protesting Big Ag by starving to death, or Big Pharma by swearing off all medication, or thunderstorms by breaking your umbrellas and flipping off the tornado in the distance. You’re not going to be able to punish the economic elites that can move to virtually any country they want to get the most bang for their buck/yen/pound and no one seems to have the intestinal fortitude to put some teeth in regulatory agencies and met out real punishments for fraud and corruption.

If you don’t want a social safety net, raise minimum wage, introduce a new set of regulatory agencies to oversee outsourcing and tax shelters, or expand social safety nets and government programs, your only choice seems to be to move to the big cities and try your fortunes there. And even with all that, it may still be your best bet in the long run. Yes, they’re pricey. Yes, they’re full of people you’ve rarely had to see or deal with before. Yes, a lot of them will not share your exact life story and yes, you’ll probably know almost nothing about your neighbors. But you will have more places to go, more things to do, more options for employment, and hopefully make enough to offset the higher cost of living. Even better, you could well settle in a suburb or exurb that’s still close to the city but is tighter knit, cheaper, quieter, but still have most of, if not all, the benefits of the nearby big city. The future won’t wait for you, so you need to make some tough choices and challenge your traditions.

Yet this is not what they get. Instead they get a tsunami of fear, venom, and outrage. Big city liberals (read: anyone who disagrees with one or more of the complaints on Fox News that day) are coming for your guns, your soul, your money, and will convert your kids into genderqueer foxkin addicted to drugs and alcohol to participate in their dark Satanic orgies at night! Dialogue is thoughtcrime, agreement with them is treason. Real America is small towns and maybe medium suburbs, cities are for fake Marxist anti-Americans who want job-killing regulation and outsourcing, high taxes and tax shelters for the rich, porn in middle school, and federal funding for abortionplexes! Oh and all cities are crime-infested dens of liberal corruption bankrupted long ago by hordes of welfare queens. Don’t pay attention to statistics that say anything else, they’re all government lies to trick you.

At a time when the country needs to work together, the right wing is busily recasting anyone who disagrees with ever more extreme agendas meant to drag the nation kicking and screaming back into the nostalgic picture of the past sold to them on Fox News and talk radio, as traitors to be defeated in pitched political battle, not as fellow citizens with whom they can work. I’m sure that not every liberal idea will solve all our problems and there needs to be some back and forth on many proposals. But that’s how politics really gets done. One side offers an idea, another counters, there’s a healthy and spirited debate, and ultimately we reach some sort of useful consensus. Except when one side of the debate commits to obstructionism and nostalgia as a viable governance tactics, and loudly screams that it refuses to listen to anything in any way different, blasting its followers with hateful caricatures of anyone who disagrees with it, and preventing any meaningful change for the better because straying from party orthodoxy makes them politically impure.

abandoned graffiti

And in this atmosphere, Trump makes sense. He clumsily cranks just about everything in the right wing media’s outrage theater to 11 and throws away all the facets of a typical politician so people who believe that any compromise with urban America heralds the death of the country, but who know full well that the cards have been stacked against them can follow a candidate who’s not the usual politician. He at least voices their fury at the broken system directly instead of in coached euphemisms they’ve heard for the last 30 years as things got worse and worse. Now populist rage and the disgust at the un-American urban society daring to change anything about the nation’s culture, quickly fills the Republican platform. Once again, the positions have become more extreme and compromise more untenable.

Unfortunately, however, the Republican party and its rural base has backed itself into a corner. No matter how much they may deny the data, the new economies are built in large, dense, urban centers doing engineering and research, and the’s little economic incentive for businesses to reopen their old factories, build enough new ones, or move to small towns to revitalize the rural landscape. No amount of spiteful bathroom bills, or gay marriage protests, or tax cuts are going to help that. We need big changes and new ideas that profoundly rethink how America functions. But the right is trying to make all of this impossible by simply refusing to work with the other side and praising obstinance punctuated by Norman Rockwell-styled fantasies of life “back in the good days” as the virtuous saving of America from liberal elites who are supposedly just the worst sort of evildoers.

Have you ever tried working with or helping someone who absolutely hates you? Even if you’re completely open to hearing their every complaint, the steady stream of invective gets old quick and you quickly see that they have absolutely no interest in accomplishing something together, they only want compliance and praise. When it’s a few people, it’s easy to just write them off and let them figure it out themselves. But the tragedy of this election is that doing this today means writing off nearly half the country that has been victimized by the very policies they’re urged to support, and given many a bogeyman to blame for their predicament. And in picking an unstable crank as their avatar, they’ve more or less threw down the political gauntlet and left no doubt that when they’ve written off urban America as Public Enemy Number One. It’s sad, but that’s what we’ve finally come to.

# politics // 2016 election / future / urbanism


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