Flyover country is the name given to inland America. It conjures an image of empty, overlooked swaths between two metropolitan coasts. If a Silicon Valley executive goes to Washington to lobby Congress, he or she literally flies over flyover country. Ditto a Wall Street financier signing a deal with a Hollywood studio boss.
Of course, this geographical metaphor oversimplifies matters. For a start, the American mainland has three coasts (Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf) not two. Moreover, big city America is no more exclusively coastal than small town America is exclusively inland.
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Nevertheless, the evidence for the concentration of economic dynamism in the biggest (and mostly coastal) metropolitan areas is clear.
Does this economic phenomenon explain the political upheavals of the 21st century? Can the populist surge be interpreted as the revenge of flyover country, a rebellion of the ‘left behind’ regions of America?
Writing in the New York Times, Jonathan Rothwell challenges the “conventional wisdom” that “regions are diverging economically in drastic fashion”:
“It’s clear from census data that regional inequality contributes very little to total inequality. Within the same state or metropolitan area, inequality today is large and extreme, in part because of the continuing effects of racial discrimination. But across these places, gaps are relatively mild. In other words, the differences between people within a city like Los Angeles are a lot sharper than the differences between residents of California and residents of Mississippi.”
Rothwell’s particular focus is on education. He cites various studies showing that there isn’t a divergence of social mobility between children born in small town and big city America:
“Whether in big or small places, children raised in low-income families face about the same odds of advancing economically. In fact, those in smaller places have had a slight improvement in odds relative to children raised in large metro areas.”
Again, the deepest divides are to be found within, not between, different parts of the country. It is the micro-geographic advantage of attending a ‘good school’ in a ‘good neighbourhood’ that was found to be most important, not the macro-geographic advantage that populations of dynamic global cities have over flyover country residents.
While global cities like New York definitely allow workers to be more productive – and therefore earn more – research shows that this applies mainly to more highly educated ‘knowledge workers’ and not, these days, to manual workers. The notion that just about anyone can improve their prospects by heading for the bright lights no longer holds true.
And, as Rothwell points out, that’s not the only reason for ordinary working people to not make a beeline for the big city:
“In smaller places, it also costs much less to live in upwardly mobile neighborhoods. Being able to afford to live in a good neighborhood today is a stretch but possible for the median single mother. In large cities, it is seemingly impossible.”
Rothwell goes on to describe the various indicators that show the quality of life is often better in small town America:
“…measurements of social health tend to be higher in places that aren’t part of large metropolitan areas, using data from the Social Capital Project, which looks at things like the percentage of children born to married women; safety from violent crime; voter and Census Bureau participation rates; and charitable giving.”
So, if opportunities are more geographically balanced than we assume they are (especially for the non-high-flyers) and the sharpest inequalities are to be found within the big cities, then why is flyover country so angry with the metropolitan establishment? And why aren’t discontented urban populations the ones voting for disruptive populist politicians?
Here are five points that might help explain this state of affairs:
Firstly, urban electorates are voting for populists – just not the kind of populists favoured by flyover country voters (a case of AOC not DTJ).
Secondly, not all small towns are the same. While some are in crisis – devastated by the decline of old industries and/or consumed by social pathologies like the opioid epidemic – most are getting by. Big political upsets like Brexit or the election of Donald Trump are the result of some voters in some places tipping the balance, rather than wholesale rebellion.
Thirdly, as Henry Olsen explains here, populists can gain support not only from communities already damaged by globalisation and other forces beyond their control, but also from those who fear they’ll be next. Voters with something to lose can be every bit as angry as those who have lost everything.
Fourthly, the fact that many small town residents wouldn’t be any better off if they did live in the big cities arguably prompts a sense of alienation, not fellow-feeling. Even if flyover voters accept that the concentration of talent, investment and ‘open’ values contributes to the dynamism of the global cities, many cannot see how they themselves could benefit by moving there.
Fifthly, it’s not all about economics. Though much of small town America may be doing fine (by working hard) they witness the metropolitan elites monopolising political power and cultural influence. Furthermore, they fear that this power and status will be used against them – as in the case of the Covington schoolboys.
It is sometimes argued that Trump voters are protesting a loss of status – something their ancestors had obtained at the expense of others. However, while status is a zero-sum game, respect need not be.
Small towns don’t mind being small; flyover country can put up with being flown over; but no one wants to be looked down on.
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