Sunday, 13 November 2016

A little bit of country life - political lessons from the US elections

The election of Donald Trump has led to a veritable stampede of chicken lickens rushing wildly about crying that the sky has fallen in. I'm pretty sure they're wrong and that, for all Trump's manifest failings, we aren't heading towards nuclear war, chaos and depression. What's interesting is why, faced with the election of Trump, we are getting this reaction. Partly it's not a new phenomenon - my sister reminded me that in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president they (Frances was a student at the Royal College of Music back then) held an 'End of the World Party'. But mostly it's quite simply a fear of 'them', of 'others' - just the same fear as we point to in people supporting Trump.
“You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.”
The comment comes from Kathy Cramer, who is a professor from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and reports her meeting people in rural Wisconsin as part of a long term study leading to her book "The Politics of Resentment". Just before this comment, Cramer had said:
Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?
And here we have the first glimpse of our problem - not just the resentment of rural communities towards urban elites but the belief among urban professionals that such resentment will play out like the less savoury scenes from 'Deliverance' complete with a sinister banjo soundtrack. Here's David Wong from Cracked talking about how half of America lost its mind:
Every TV show is about LA or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in. When they did make a show about us, we were jokes -- either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (Parks And Recreation, and before that, Newhart) or filthy murderous mutants (True Detective, and before that, Deliverance). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away.
Many Americans only ever fly over or drive through rural America and their image of the communities out there come from books, from films and above all from TV. The image of the thick redneck, the hypocritical preacher and the associated sneering put down of Christianity all play to a belief that the values of folk out there in the backwoods just ain't the same as good progressive folk in the cities. But what are those values? Here's David Wong again:
Basic, obvious truths that have gone unquestioned for thousands of years now get laughed at and shouted down -- the fact that hard work is better than dependence on government, that children do better with both parents in the picture, that peace is better than rioting, that a strict moral code is better than blithe hedonism, that humans tend to value things they've earned more than what they get for free, that not getting exploded by a bomb is better than getting exploded by a bomb.

Or as they say out in the country, "Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining."

The foundation upon which America was undeniably built -- family, faith, and hard work -- had been deemed unfashionable and small-minded. Those snooty elites up in their ivory tower laughed as they kicked away that foundation, and then wrote 10,000-word thinkpieces blaming the builders for the ensuing collapse.
And the sad truth is that, as Kathy Cramer found out when she talked to them, people in rural America aren't so very different from those living in the cities. Cramer also talks about the nature of that resentment - things like:
All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.
This still makes sense to me if I switch the words Madison and Milwaukee to Bradford and Leeds. As a local councillor serving a ward called Bingley Rural for 21 years, I've heard this sentiment time and time again especially in the most rural, most working class parts of my ward. A sense of 'being done to', a belief that other people (and, yes, there's a racial element to this in Bradford just as there is in Wisconsin) are getting the benefits of decisions, spending and attention. Some of this is true - always and everywhere, governments are most fearful about how people living in cities will respond so give them more attention - but much of it is either a function of isolation or the cost of service delivery in remote rural areas.

The problem is compounded by the economic decline of those rural areas. Some, and we see this in the UK, become places of rural retreat and second homes for that urban elite (creating a whole new set of resentments) but the places that aren't pretty enough or accessible enough simply decline. The best and brightest depart of the city leaving behind the old, poor and ill. And, as Aaron Renn - one of the best and brightest who left rural Indiana - describes, the result isn't pretty:
In Medora we see not only poverty, but nearly complete social breakdown. I don’t recall a single player on the team raised in an intact family. Many of them lived in trailer parks. One kid had never even met his father. Others had mothers who themselves were alcoholics or barely functional individuals. They sometimes bounced around from home to home (grandmother, etc.) or dropped out of school to take care of a problematic mother.
This is the stark picture of rural America's failures but we also see - reported by Kathy Cramer and described by many others - a bunch of rural folk doing what Americans always felt was the right thing: working hard, looking out for the neighbour, sticking by the family. Problem is that, for too many such folk, this doesn't seem to be working quite so well these days:
28.3% of poor families receive child-care subsidies, which are largely nonexistent for the middle class. So my sister-in-law worked full-time for Head Start, providing free child care for poor women while earning so little that she almost couldn’t pay for her own. She resented this, especially the fact that some of the kids’ moms did not work. One arrived late one day to pick up her child, carrying shopping bags from Macy’s. My sister-in-law was livid.
Again, any English politician with ears will have heard the same resentment. I remember a colleague - and I worked for a charity helping people into work at the time - angrily condemning some of her relatives because they'd a car that worked and a foreign holiday but were "on welfare" whereas her and her husband, both working, felt they were barely scraping by.

There's nothing new in all this, it has been gently simmering away in places too many commentators choose to patronise as "left behind" but what has happened over the last ten years or so is an accentuation of the difference and the 'othering' of those communities as, well, just a bit backward. Worse urban-driven, progressive policies actively damage the economy of 'fly over ' USA.

Geographer, Joel Kotkin, describes two Americas - urban 'Ephemerals' in the Democrat-voting coastal states dependent on new media, software and moving money about, and a 'New Heartland' that depends on tangible goods production. Assertive climate change policies, for example, directly impact the economy of this 'New Heartland':
Climate change increasingly marks a distinct dividing line. Manufacturing, moving goods, industrial scale agriculture, fossil fuel energy all consume resources in ways many progressives see as harming the planet. Progressives threaten these industries with increasingly draconian schemes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gone are the days of supporting moderate shifts -- which could work with some Heartland economies -- from coal to gas and improving mileage efficiency.

Instead the demand from the left is for a radically rapid de-carbonization, which will reduce jobs in the Heartland and lower living standards everywhere. In California, Jerry Brown is fretting about ways to curb cow flatulence, an obsession that is unlikely to be popular in Kansas, Nebraska or Iowa.
The result of this is that more small towns lose their reason for existence more quickly - it all feels a bit like 'Other People's Money', the 1991 Danny DeVito, Gregory Peck film about a declining business in small town American. Back then it was an attack on heartless, uncaring capitalism but looking at the film now, it has the same concerns as Trump has hit on in rural America - loss of community, unemployment, off-shoring and wealthy untouchables swishing out from the cities to dump on struggling communities.

But it's no so simple as looking back to a golden age through rose-tinted glasses however much the progressive want to believe. People living in the rural and small town places are looking to a troubled future:
Economic anxiety is about the future, not just the present. Trump beat Clinton in counties where more jobs are at risk because of technology or globalization. Specifically, counties with the most “routine” jobs — those in manufacturing, sales, clerical work and related occupations that are easier to automate or send offshore — were far more likely to vote for Trump.
This reminds me of a recent post of mine asking what we'd do about 'proper jobs for proper blokes' - those routine jobs that are crucial to places like Bradford but which will be the ones our digital, robot-run age will kill off first. But in the city we've the chance to catch up with ourselves - as David Wong points out, this is pretty tricky in a small place:
See, rural jobs used to be based around one big local business -- a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been. The roof of our high school leaked when it rained. Cities can make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs with service jobs -- small towns cannot. That model doesn't work below a certain population density.
The thing is that, while there's plenty of displacement, poverty and loss of work in urban areas, it feels like we can fix that problem, indeed that the government is trying to do just that. Up in the hills away from those big cities is doesn't look that way. Tatty boarded up places linger on and the only change seems to be the buddleia colonising every untended nook and cranny. For some places there's a roll of sticking plaster - the UK's coalfield communities (unlike America's - another argument in the Trump camp) got a load of regeneration cash and this has smartened such places up. But the problem's still there - just as Aaron Renn described above, anyone with any get up and go, got up and went, leaving behind a community in a place with no purpose.

None of this represents the whole reason for Trump's election (any more than does accusations of racism, xenophobia and general horridness) but it has thrown a light on a challenge facing every developed nation - in a time of economic change how do we protect the idea of community and can we create purpose for places that, right now, are losing their reason for existing. And, even if we recognise that places must die if they have no purpose, are we doing enough to ease the transition for the people who're from those places:
The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called "Cost of Living."
Cities are expensive places that we've chosen (for reasons of keeping them liveable and not too big - or so we claim) to make even more expensive. And perhaps the Trump Presidency is the price we're paying for the selfishness of making the city too expensive?
I have a new explanation for Trump's win that does not involve Weiner or talking about Deplorables or emails. California's zoning codes caused the win. If California had Texas style housing regulations, then 80 million people would live in California and the state would have 100 electoral votes. The state would still vote Democrat (because of the composition of these new voters) and Clinton would have won.
There's some truth in this. Planners - of all stripes - helped created the sort of divided world that made Donald Trump's election possible. And if you think this is a problem, ask how you bring on side those who are victims of those planners, folk patronised by left-wing academics, sacked by climate change policies, and insulted as racists or xenophobes day in and day out by the punditry. What I fear is that you won't do this, you'll call them 'morlocks' and punish them for having an opinion you didn't like.



Henry Kaye said...

I won't quote the pieces early in your piece that captured my attention other than to say how well the author captured the essence of what has gone wrong. The abandonment of a 1,000 or more years of learning what is important and what serves humanity best. There's hardly a political leader today who understands what we have lost in the art of living.

Henry Kaye said...

In my comments I was referring to what is attributed to David Wong.

Curmudgeon said...

Excellent stuff, Simon. And that's a brilliant song, as is "Roots" by the same band.

Anonymous said...

A very good summary and explanation of the state we're in. I live about 40 miles south of you in what used to be the Notts and Derbyshire coal field and recognise so many parallels with the US. There are a lot of people who are steadily and actively made worse off by the actions of our 'great leaders', personilfied by, but not limited to, the EU, albeit with mostly good intentions.

Perhaps they'll listen now? Or maybe not. This is a very impressive and vigorous explanation from the left that you might not have come across.

Pam Nash said...

On Reagan: He, at least, had experience of elected office and the responsibilities that go with it, having been Governor of California for 8 years.
On Trump: All else aside, his cavalier and misogynistic attitude to women, evidenced by his comment "Grab 'em by the pussy" is to many women deeply disturbing. As is his, and Pence's, attitude to abortion.

Dr Evil said...

I live in a village. During the summer I was in a country pub about 4 miles from home. I was listening to and talking with a group of farmers and some of their families. Someone mentioned the coming referendum. Everyone present said they were going to vote to leave the EU. Everyone. And some of them get EU subsidies. I think the rural votes clinched it for the leave campaign.