We’re all familiar with a certain political geography. Democrats win the cities, Republicans win the rural areas, and the battlegrounds are in the suburbs. In general, Democrats win the denser inner-ring suburbs where there are lots of professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers. Republicans win the sprawling outer-ring suburbs, where there are lots of office parks and midlevel corporate managers.
Northern Virginia has always embodied this familiar suburban divide. Democrats have done well in inner-ring towns like Arlington. Republicans have done well in outer-ring boomburbs like Loudon County. In 2004, for example, George W. Bush trounced John Kerry in Loudoun County by 55.7 percent to 43.6 percent.
But we’re living in an age of global populism, a historic transition as profound as those in 1848, 1905 and 1968. Around the world, the old political divides are being replaced, and political geographies are being redrawn. One way to capture the emerging divide is by using the British writer David Goodhart’s distinction between Somewheres and Anywheres.
Somewheres are rooted in their towns and have “ascribed” identities – Virginia farmer, West Virginia coal miner, Pennsylvania steelworker. Anywheres are at home in the global economy. They derive their identity from portable traits, like education or job skills, and are more likely to move to areas of opportunity.
Somewheres value staying put; they feel uncomfortable with many aspects of cultural and economic change, like mass immigration. Anywheres make educational attainment the gold standard of status and are cheerleaders for restless change.
This template for analyzing our politics is as explanatory as any. Recently, for example, Michael Kruse had a fine article in Politico about supporters of President Donald Trump in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The people he described are classic Somewheres. The steel mills are gone and everybody sort of knows that they are never coming back, but the people remain. The things they value are there, they don’t really have the skills to pack up and be an Anywhere, and they love Trump because he sticks his finger in the eyes of the Anywheres who have made their world worse.
The thing about this new set of battle lines is this: It redraws the political map. The cities are dominated by Anywheres. The rural areas are dominated by Somewheres. But the growing suburbs are no longer divided. They are Anywhere all the way through. Last Tuesday, exurban Loudoun County went Democratic 60 to 40 percent. That’s nearly the same as inner-ring Fairfax County, which went Democratic 67 to 31 percent.
These days, only a tiny percentage of Northern Virginia workers are government employees. Instead, the region is defined by the two big drivers of Anywhere culture: highly educated information age workers and fiercely energetic immigrants. In Bailey’s Crossroads, there are Korean grocery stores near Persian, Indian and Salvadoran restaurants. The Dulles office corridor is a hub of the global economy.
Trump’s party is not at home on this ground and can’t play on it. Trumpians just want to wall it off. “DC should annex NOVA and return the governance of Virginia to Virginians!” Jerry Fallwell Jr. tweeted, referring to Northern Virginia, after the election results.
Populism has made the Republicans a rural party and given the Democrats everything else. In Virginia, Democrats won by a landslide among anybody who grew up in the age of globalization. Among voters 18-29, they won by an astounding 69 to 30 percent. Among voters 30-44, they won by 61 percent to 37 percent.
We could be seeing the creation of a new Democratic heartland – exurbia – and this alignment could hang around for a while. The stain Trump leaves on the Republican Party will take some time to wash away. But this is bigger than Trump; it’s an alignment caused by the fundamental reality of the populist movement.
But does this mean Democratic dominance is baked in the cake? Here I would say, not so fast. It’s worth remembering that the Democrats don’t quite deserve this victory. It didn’t come about because of some masterly Democratic strategy. The Democrats won because the Republicans decided to shrink their coalition.
And it’s worth looking around the world and noting that center-left parties are in decline across Europe and beyond. These parties have lost touch with working-class voters and are finding they can’t simply replace them with a mixture of identity politics and faculty-lounge populism. What we’re seeing around the world is not the rise of left-wing dominance but the decline of major parties and the fragmentation of political parties across the board.
The crucial question going forward is what will the Democrats do? Will they make places like Loudon County their heartland, or will they amputate themselves the way the Republicans did, and retreat back to the cities?
Here’s how you can tell which way the Democrats are going. If they talk mostly about oligarchy and rich financiers, they are retreating to their base. But if they talk about mobility – geographic mobility, economic and social mobility, intellectual and spiritual mobility, they are talking the language of the suburbs. And if they have practical plans to enhance universal mobility, the age of Democratic dominance will be at hand.