As individuals, we all try to build on our strengths and work on our weaknesses, and it’s probably a good idea to balance these two activities. But as a country we are completely messing this up.
In this election we’ve been ignoring the parts of America that are working well and wallowing in the parts that are fading. This has led to a campaign season driven by fear, resentment and pessimism. And it will lead to worse policymaking down the road, since prosperity means building on things we do well, not obsessing over the things that we’ve lost.
The person chiefly responsible for this all-warts view of America is, of course, Donald Trump.
Trump has focused his campaign on the struggling white neighborhoods in the industrial Midwest. The prototypical Trump voter is an upscale man from a downscale place.
As Nate Silver has demonstrated, Trump voters are not poor. Their median household income is about $72,000, which is far above the national average. But they tend to be from former manufacturing hubs, which have been in decades-long decline. They tend to be from places like Kokomo, Indiana, which has had a 13.5 percent decline in weekly wages since 2000, and Saginaw, Michigan, which has had a 9.8 percent decline.
These areas enjoyed a brief resurgence four years ago, when manufacturing picked up. But the manufacturing economy has headed south again over the past 19 months, thanks to low foreign demand. People in such places are so desperate for any sort of change that they’re willing to overlook all the baggage that comes with Donald Trump.
Trump’s general election focus on the swing states of the industrial Midwest means that Hillary Clinton will have to focus her efforts there, too. The whole tenor of the fall campaign will be shaped by the pain of towns that are in long-term decline – where people feel economically adrift and culturally left behind.
Energy issues will play an outsized role. As Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic has shown, Republicans tend to do well in industrial places heavily reliant on carbon-intensive fuels. Democrats tend to do well in postindustrial places where carbon output is low. Trump will hit Clinton for supporting environmental regulations that hurt the manufacturing economy. Clinton will rally her people with efforts to address climate change.
This style of campaign could also pave the way for a longer-term realignment. Michael Lind of New America argues in an essay in Politico that Republicans are becoming a Midwestern, white working-class party that embraces economic nationalism – walling out immigrants and global economic competition. The Democrats are becoming a multicultural globalist coalition that will see national boundaries as obsolete.
But there’s another America out there, pointing to a different political debate. For while people are flooding out of the Midwest, they are flooding into the South and the West. The financial crisis knocked many Sun Belt cities to their knees, but they are back up and surging. Jobs and people are now heading to Orlando, Florida; Phoenix; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver and beyond.
There are two kinds of places that are getting it right. The first we might call Richard Florida cities, after the writer who champions them. These are dense, highly educated, highly communal places with plenty of hipsters. These cities, like Austin, Texas, Seattle and San Francisco, have lots of innovation, lots of cultural amenities, but high housing prices and lots of inequality.
The second kind of cities we might call Joel Kotkin cities, after the writer who champions them. These are opportunity cities like Houston, Dallas and Salt Lake City. These places are less regulated, so it’s easier to start a business. They are sprawling with easy, hodgepodge housing construction, so the cost of living is low. Immigrants flock to them.
As Kotkin and Tory Gattis pointed out in an essay in The City Journal, Houston has been a boomtown for the past two decades. It’s America’s fourth-largest city, with 35 percent metro area population growth between 2000 and 2013. It’s the most ethnically diverse city in America and has had a surge in mid-skill jobs. Houston’s diversified its economy, so even the energy recession has not derailed its progress.
We should be having a debate between the Kotkin model and the Florida model, between two successful ways to create prosperity, each with strengths and weaknesses. That would be a forward-looking debate between groups who are open, confident and innovative. That would be a debate that, while it might divide by cultural values and aesthetics, wouldn’t divide along ugly racial lines.
We should be focusing on the growing, dynamic places and figuring out how to use those models to nurture inclusive opportunity and rejuvenate the places that aren’t. Instead, this campaign will focus on the past: who we need to shut out to get back what we lost.
The future is being built right now. The prevailing sense of public despair is just wrong.