Stir­rings in the heartland

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­man@ post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­man PG. NEA Con­trib­u­tor By David Shrib­man

Memo to Democrats who think the Don­ald J. Trump phe­nom­e­non in the Amer­i­can heartland is a pass­ing fancy: The lat­est cen­sus fig­ures re­leased this spring sug­gest fresh growth in the Mid­west, the sea of Repub­li­can red that swept the Man­hat­tan bil­lion­aire into the White House.

The move­ment isn’t ro­bust, and a good por­tion of the growth is in cities that cus­tom­ar­ily help bol­ster Demo­cratic num­bers, but this pe­riod may be an im­por­tant mo­ment in the sun for places out­side the Sun Belt — par­tic­u­larly the very places where Trump mopped up scores of elec­toral votes.

In­deed, at the very least, the parts of Amer­ica that com­plained of be­ing ig­nored now are mer­it­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion from de­mog­ra­phers and al­most cer­tainly soon will be stud­ied in more de­tail by po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als. For tucked in­side those cen­sus fig­ures are signs of a come­back that could re­shape the coun­try just as Trump’s tri­umph re­shaped the po­lit­i­cal world.

“The middle of the coun­try is show­ing signs of re­viv­ing,” said William Frey, a pi­o­neer­ing de­mog­ra­pher who now is a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion scholar. “It is a good thing, es­pe­cially since so many peo­ple in the middle of the coun­try have felt that they’ve been left out of things for a while.”

No longer. There are dis­cernible pop­u­la­tion gains in Detroit, Day­ton, Akron, In­di­anapo­lis and Scran­ton — all in states that Trump car­ried in 2016. Ru­ral ar­eas, also a Trump strong­hold, are grow­ing na­tion­ally for the first time in a decade. And there re­main big gains in the Sun Belt, yet an­other Trump re­doubt, though the gains are less now than they have been in the re­cent past.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics the cen­sus fig­ures re­veal is an as­pect of Amer­i­can life that had disap- peared for sev­eral years: pop­u­la­tion dis­per­sal. The re­sult is a spurt of growth in heartland cities that Frey be­lieves “could call into ques­tion the sharp clus­ter­ing of the na­tion — in large met­ros and their cities — that char­ac­ter­ized the first half of the decade of the 2010s.”

One likely rea­son for this, as for so much in our cul­ture to­day: the mil­len­ni­als.

They’re in­ter­ested in set­tling in lo­ca­tions where hous­ing costs are lower than they are in the es­tab­lished cities, where life is less for­mal, traf­fic is less op­pres­sive and work-life bal­ance is pos­si­ble. The mi­grants, Frey sug­gested, “are ben­e­fit­ing from the re­vival of the econ­omy, as they now be­gin their ca­reers and fam­i­lies and look for a more long-term lo­ca­tion that is af­ford­able and pro­vides a good qual­ity of life.”

That is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a theme in those ar­eas.

“That’s be­cause there’s a re­vival of op­por­tu­nity in the Mid­west, where there has been so much re­vi­tal­iza­tion,” said Sen. Rob Port­man, the Ohio Repub­li­can who was born in Cincin­nati. “There’s the lower cost of liv­ing, but also more and more tech jobs, and peo­ple are re­al­iz­ing they can af­ford a bet­ter qual­ity of liv­ing in these places.”

Mean­while, for the first time in this decade, pop­u­la­tion gains are be­ing recorded in ru­ral ar­eas. These are the kinds of places that Prince­ton so­ci­ol­o­gist Robert Wuth­now, in his strik­ing new book “The Left Be­hind,” de­scribed as “moral com­mu­ni­ties,” places where “peo­ple in­ter­act with one an­other and form loy­al­ties to one an­other,” adding that the “moral out­rage of ru­ral Amer­ica is a mix­ture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are dis­ap­pear­ing. The anger is that they are un­der siege.”

And while there may be pre­ci­sion in cen­sus fig­ures, there are great un­cer­tain­ties in pol­i­tics, and one of them may be whether growth in pro- Trump ar­eas nec­es­sar­ily means strength­en­ing the hold the pres­i­dent has on those ar­eas.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to know whether these move­ments are mo­ti­vated by pol­i­tics,” said Bar­bara Trish, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Grin­nell Col­lege, lo­cated 60 miles east of Des Moines, Iowa. “And things could work in un­ex­pected ways. To the ex­tent that Democrats worry that they have fallen way be­hind in those ar­eas, they may find the new­com­ers vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing picked up by their can­di­dates.”

The lat­est cen­sus fig­ures show that the small­est pop­u­la­tion growth rates are in the ur­ban cores and ma­ture sub­urbs, two ar­eas car­ried by Hil­lary Clin­ton in the last elec­tion. The two ar­eas with the high­est growth rates, emerg­ing sub­urbs and ex­urbs, were car­ried by Trump. As the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, Trump ac­tu­ally car­ried ex­urbs by a mar­gin of 36 per­cent­age points, about the same mar­gin by which Clin­ton pre­vailed in the ur­ban cores. But the ex­urbs grew at a pace 3.5 times as fast as the ur­ban cores.

Ur­ban dis­sent has been an im­por­tant el­e­ment of Amer­i­can life for a half-cen­tury now; we are ap­proach­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of the slay­ing of Martin Luther King Jr. and the up­ris­ing of blacks in cities across the coun­try, in part in anger, in part in heart­break. Ru­ral dis­con­tent has waxed and waned over the years, hit­ting crescen­dos dur­ing the last decade of the 19th cen­tury (with the growth of the Pop­ulist Party, which won 22 elec­toral votes in the 1892 elec­tion) and again in the agri­cul­tural credit crunch in the 1980s.

Now ru­ral Amer­ica is in re­bel­lion again, though spe­cial- forcelevel teams of jour­nal­ists are comb­ing the back roads and hol­lows in an ef­fort to lis­ten to the voices of those who say they have not been heard — ex­cept per­haps by Trump and by the Cen­sus Bureau, spe­cial­ists in mea­sure­ment and, this time, in iden­ti­fy­ing the Amer­i­cans whose views no longer are be­ing ex­pressed in voices that are mea­sured.

David Shrib­man

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