MIDDLEBURG, VA --- In his most famous and celebrated painting, View of the World from 9th Avenue, artist Saul Steinberg captured, as one wag said, a New Yorker’s provincialism.
Published on the cover of its March 29, 1976 issue of The New Yorker magazine, Steinberg’s
art caught the fancy and imagination of people around the world. Over the years, the magazine published more than 1,200 drawings and paintings by Steinberg, many with variations on his 1976 classic “View of the World.”
That original cover art suggested that Manhattanites see the rest of America only in vague outlines, and see the rest of the world, from Canada to China, as a series of tiny empty shapes.
As with all great satire, there is both humor and truth in Steinberg’s painting.
Many people on the American East Coast see everything between New York and Los Angeles (or San Francisco) as “fly-over” country. The great middle swath of America from western New York to the eastern California border almost entirely voted for Donald Trump in the November election. Indeed, Steinberg’s painting captured in many ways what the Democrats felt in their hearts, but didn’t in the end understand --- that America is more than Coastal Elites.
And, though he lost the popular vote by nearly three million, the Electoral College allowed Trump to prevail by carrying nearly the entire South, Midwest, Great Lakes, Mountain region and Southwestern states.
“All of a sudden, rural is on everyone’s mind,” Kai A. Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State, said recently to The New York Times, adding that last November’s vote amplified the plight of people who had heretofore been “pretty systematically ignored, dismissed or passed over.”
That’s partly because, while the federal government labels 72 percent of the nation’s land area “rural,” it is home to only 14 percent of the population, and rural schools educate just 18 percent of the nation’s public-school students.
Locales designated as rural have higher poverty rates and lower education levels than those labeled urban, suburban or town.
Across the great swath of the Midwest, and further across the Rocky Mountains, from Western Pennsylvania all the way to Nevada, Americans overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.
Many in the Democratic Party are asking the hard questions as to why and how this happened. In various Democratic conclaves in Baltimore, Atlanta and Texas over the last two months --- even after electing a new head of the party -- Democrats are asking hard questions about how they can again become relevant in the central part of America. In effect, how to play well again in Peoria, Des Moines, Dubuque, Springfield, Athens, Madison, Johnstown, Topeka and Salt Lake City.
How can Democrats appeal to voters in what is often called “The Heartland of America”?
After the collapse of Wall Street in 1929, the Democratic Party put together a string of five consecutive successful presidential campaigns, from 1932 until 1948. FDR and Truman were elected with a coalition of labor, farmers, intellectuals, liberals, financial elites and minorities. This historic combination of voters allowed Democrats to dominate.
The Kennedy-Johnson administrations in 1960-68 featured more of FDR’s New Deal elements, but added Civil Rights, thus gaining ground with minority voters, although losing a large swath of so-called Southern Democrats, who moved to the Republican Party slowly but effectively under Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan.
Today, organized labor has been greatly diminished, particularly in Northern and Midwestern cities. As the advent of technology and a displacement and fractionalization of the American manufacturing and automobile base have occurred, Roosevelt’s traditional coalition has been split apart.
Throw in a burgeoning service and information economy, and the model shifts even further. And, as more efficient agricultural technologies have become more commonplace, large farm combines have formed, reducing the need for many farm workers.
The result of all this change has been a painful and far-reaching series of seismic shifts in jobs and financial stability, and wrenching economic stress for many workers in the middle and southern parts of the country. Effectively, where Trump was victorious and Mrs. Clinton was not --- essentially, the “fly-over” states.
But as Detroit has moved south, and it has -- to Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina -- those who didn’t migrate with the new auto factories or supply chain companies for the automotive industry are left to try to manage the remaining dilapidated pieces.
Two weeks ago in Greenville, South Carolina, I saw the New Detroit, featuring an enormous BMW plant. The town in booming. Its housing, airports, hotels, shops, restaurants and highways were all packed. Driven by BMW’s state-of-the-art manufacturing plant, Greenville is happening.
In Tuscaloosa, AL., Mercedes Benz is making cars. Toyota, Kia, Honda (and soon the Chinese) all have facilities that are modern, growing, and for the most part non-unionized throughout the South. Major transportation hubs like Memphis, New Orleans and Houston are also hopping. And there seems to be no end in sight.
For the foreseeable future, the jobs that support these companies will remain outside the Rust Belt states. Jobs will be harder to find in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Kentucky. It doesn’t mean there won’t be manufacturing jobs. There are many still there. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be agricultural and emerging new technology jobs in rural areas. There will be.
Towns like Pittsburgh, Louisville, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Nashville are having an enormous renaissance. And cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City are all roaring back, stronger than ever as the post-2008 American economy picks up steam.
I was in Florida last week. The housing market is very hot. In Orlando, Tampa and Miami, properties are selling very quickly; often in days, not weeks. This is a housing market that is much hotter than it is in many older, Northern cities.
If they are going to be part of this dynamic shift, then in effect, a new coalition will be needed for Democrats to be able to win back the White House, and both the House and Senate.
So far, these new ideas haven’t been seen yet.
How the Dems will formulate this new coalition -- perhaps with younger, more educated and more financially challenged (in many ways) than any generation since the 1930s – may be where they are headed. Clearly, minorities are more drawn to the Democratic Party than ever before. How this coalition will be organized and rolled out, is however, yet to be seen.
But until urban elites and slick data driven teams from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington can tie together something more than just California and Chicago, the Republicans will continue to dominate our national politics.
In the age of Trump, at least for the moment, rural rules. That means more conservative, more defense spending, a strong investment in domestic infrastructure, lower taxes, less government intervention and strong patriotic, ethical requirements. More of a voice for Midwesterners and Southerners has been promised. These are not all bad things.
How to appease Coastal Elites, and gain enough ground with minority voters to continue to remain in power, that will be the challenge for the GOP.
But for the moment, Hayseeds rule. And while Donald Trump is no Hayseed, his appeal to the conservative, libertarian and hawkish right remains steadfast. Liberals and Democrats are left on the outside looking in. They’re trying to formulate an effective response.
So far, it’s been a struggle.
Safe to say that it’s going to be an interesting year.
We shall continue to write and observe from our perch here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just an hour’s drive from the White House.
You know, in fly-over country.
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