Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Heartland Isn’t Anymore

In my April 20th blog - Robust Urban Clusters - I addressed the new reality: most of the economic power in developed countries all over the world, and the United States is no exception, is concentrated in the major urban clusters where most of the wealth is kept and where most of the people live. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 80.7% of the American population is urban. Urban with increasingly urban values, home to diversity including the racial, religious and ethnic “minorities” that are slowly becoming America’s new majority.
The 2020 Census is going to come as a big bad shock to those in the so-called “Heartland,” who think their values still rule this country. The Heartland still exercises disproportionate political power in the U.S. because our constitution accords voting power to “districts” that are based on rural land vs. people (states vs. cities). Restrictive voter ID laws and gerrymandering round out this vestige of days long gone. But the tsunami of demographic change will not be stopped.
Time and demographic reconfiguration have changed the notions of the American “average,” the “mean” and “what constitute predominant contemporary American values.” When journalists and politicians try to ferret out the trends of average Americans, you will still hear fading references to “down on the farm” (while fewer than 1% of Americans have farm jobs today) or what’ll they think in small town America or the so-called Heartland. They’ll reference those good old “American values” inherent in our “Bible Belt,” thinking that any of these places remotely reflect what is now the new “normal”: highly diverse cities now represent the American “average,” the “mean” and “what constitute predominant contemporary American values.”
The reference to that Heartland definition of America was probably last accurate in the 1950s. We’ve been undergoing massive demographic changes ever since. What is amazing is how many people, including journalists and presidential candidates, don’t really understand that reality. Jed Kolko, writing for the April 28th, explains: “Jim VandeHei, a former executive editor of Politico, [recently] wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal accusing the Washington political establishment of being out of touch with ‘normal America.’
“‘Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption,’ he wrote, citing his regular visits to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine, as his credentials of normality.
“It’s a familiar accusation in a year in which most presidential candidates are trying to pretend they have nothing to do with the coastal elite, and after one — Ted Cruz — spent weeks attacking ‘New York values.’ Even PBS, a standard-bearer of the media elite, recently featured a quiz designed to assess in-touchness with ‘mainstream American culture’ with questions about fishing, pickup trucks and living in a small town.
“But that sense that the normal America is out there somewhere in a hamlet where they can’t pronounce ‘Acela’ is misplaced. In fact, it’s not in a small town at all.
“I calculated how demographically similar each U.S. metropolitan area is to the U.S. overall, based on age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity. The index equals 100 if a metro’s demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall.
“By this measure, the metropolitan area that looks most like the U.S. is New Haven, Connecticut, followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. All of the 10 large metros that are demographically most similar to the U.S. overall are in the Northeast, Midwest or center of the country, with the exception of Tampa. Two of them — New Haven and Philadelphia — are even on Amtrak’s Acela (that’s “uh-SELL-ah”) line. None is in the West, though Sacramento, California, comes close at No. 12…
Looking across metros of all sizes, the places that look most like America tend to be larger metros, though not the largest ones. The similarity index is highest, on average, for metros with between 1 million and 2 million people. The metros that look least like America are those with fewer than 100,000 people…
“[P]laces that look today most like 1950 America are not large metros but rather smaller metros and rural areas. Looking across all of America, including the rural areas, the regions that today look most demographically similar to 1950 America are the portion of eastern Ohio around the towns of Cambridge and Coshocton and the Cumberland Valley district in southeastern Kentucky.
“These misconceptions affect our politics: an outdated view of ‘normal America’ is baked into the presidential election process. Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote first in the primary season and therefore have disproportionate influence, rank 37th and 41st, respectively, in their similarity to the U.S. overall. The states that look demographically most similar to America are Illinois and New York, followed by New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia. (Downstate Illinois and upstate New York are worlds apart from Chicago and New York City, as native Rochesterians like me know well.) The states that look least like America are Hawaii, New Mexico, West Virginia, Maine and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia.”
The vision of Main Street, USA, which you can still find as you first enter Disneyland today (pictured above, designed and built in 1955 to mirror small town America – the predominant view of what the country was at the time) is a standard reference to what too many people believe still represents contemporary America. It doesn’t anymore.
It’s time to update our vision of America and who we really are. This politically weakening Heartland will have to console itself that it is still vastly better armed than urban America, and their belief in a very distorted view of the Second Amendment (they never mention the opening “well regulated militia” phrase) seems to be their insurance policy should America veer too far from this increasingly minority view of the United States of America. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but then change is really hard for many to accept.
I’m Peter Dekom, and finding a balance in the understanding of who we really are starts with an understanding of who we really no longer are.

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