Blue Dot America

- Richard C. Longworth, Distinguished Fellow on Global Cities

America’s cities are on their own.

Post-election maps show these cities – the great global cities, state capitals, and university towns – as blue dots in a vast red sea, densely populated atolls in an otherwise scarlet tide that sweeps from coast to coast and from Canada to the Gulf.

These cities – New York and Chicago, Columbus and Atlanta, Iowa City and Ann Arbor – all voted for Hillary Clinton, often by landslide margins. The red-sea hinterland, some 97 percent of the American land mass, voted for Donald Trump, again by a landslide.

But there’s more to this blue-red divide than politics. That election map is a proxy for an ever more profound split between these cities – not only Democratic but wealthier, more diverse, younger, more innovative, better-educated, more progressive, more open to the world – and their hinterlands, rebelling against a global economy that has left them behind.

“Blue-Dot America faces the future; Red-Tide America embraces the past.”

This is the urban-rural split in glorious Technicolor. It is not the nation we want. But it’s the nation we’ve got. Call it Blue-Dot America. The question now is: what do we do about it?

In the end, it comes down to values. Cities embody a set of values that clash – on election day and every day – with those of rural areas and the ruined old factory towns. Blue-Dot America faces the future; Red-Tide America embraces the past. Blue-Dot America is open to the world; Red-Tide America wants to raise the drawbridge.

Cities can sympathize with the plight of the hinterlands and the agony of good people caught in a declining economy. But it would be a tragedy if cities abandoned their values, rejected the future, slammed on the brakes, and waited for the rest of the country to catch up.

Cities are on their own in another way, too. Washington is almost literally in enemy hands, controlled by an ideology that rejects global openness, world-wide ties, immigration, trade, a rational reaction to climate change – the very life blood of cities. State governments are too often dominated by rural interests resentful of the power of cities. Cities that expect help from the traditional centers of political power will be disappointed.

If cities propose to create the future, they must do it themselves, by winning autonomy and power from the traditional centers, so they can build their own futures.

Easier said than done, to say the least. The Constitution recognizes states but not cities. Legally, power flows from Washington to the state capitals, where it stops. Cities are the political vassals of the states, which have traditionally used their power to squelch any uppity city that tried to write its own rules, from gun control to immigration to minimum wages to the sugar content of soda pop.

But any city that wants to thrive in a globalizing world needs to chart its own path to answer the needs of that world, without seeking approval of backwoodsmen in the state legislatures. As David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.” These divisions mark the front lines of the next big battle in American governance.

“Blue-Dot America is bleeding its red hinterlands of money and talent.”

Fortunately, cities bring heavy artillery to this task. By definition, they are big, densely populated centers of civilization. Already, more than 80 percent of Americans live in metro areas: the Blue-Dot cities themselves embrace more than half the nation’s population.

More important, these cities simply rule the American economy. The ten top metros account for 52 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product: all are Blue-Dot cities. In 30 of the 50 states, one or two big cities account for more than half of their state’s GDP. Many cities are bigger than whole nations: New York City out-produces Australia or Poland, Los Angeles out-produces the Netherlands or South Africa, Chicago out-produces Belgium or Vietnam.

Blue-Dot America has the international airports, the universities, the major media, the museums, the restaurants, the corporate headquarters, and trading floors. Theoretically, the digital revolution should scatter these assets across the landscape. In practice, it hasn’t happened. Cities and their metro areas remain magnets for talent and people. They draw immigrants, because that’s where the jobs are. More and more, young people are grabbing their diplomas and heading for the cities. Blue-Dot America is bleeding its red hinterlands of money and talent.

All this, of course, generalizes shamelessly. Not all Blue-Dot cities are thriving in the global economy: Detroit leads a list of cities that are both battered and shrinking. Not all city-dwellers are global citizens: the bluest of Blue-Dot cities contain a struggling middle class and vast numbers of semi-educated young people working two bad jobs to stay afloat. Millions of Blue-Dot citizens vote Republican, just as millions of Red-Tide citizens vote Democratic. Even the hard-hit, post-industrial outposts have pockets of prosperity supporting good lives.

But the dividing line, between the deepening blue and the deepening red, has become more vivid with every election. It is no generalization to say that the urban-rural split and the clash of values it describes is a reality describing two nations.

The hinterlands have real problems that cities cannot solve for them. So long as they embrace the past, they have no future.

Without question, the cities themselves have their own problems – big problems proportional to their power. Many are segregated and all are riven by class, racial and income inequalities that threaten their future. The glitter of global Chicago is tarnished by the crime and hopelessness of inter-city Chicago, barely five miles away.

But here’s the point: Chicago has the means to address and even solve its problems, even its racial problems, and shame on it if it doesn’t. Neither Chicago nor any other great city has the means to heal the pain of the post-industrial hinterland. The same global economy that stimulates the Blue-Dot cities has ravaged the hinterlands: turning it off would not enrich the hinterlands but it would impoverish the cities.

Which is why the cities are on their own.

But they aren’t alone. Other cities, especially in Europe, face the same challenge, mostly for the same reasons. London, which lives on openness and immigration, voted to keep Britain in the European Union: the rest of England voted to pull out, a reactionary vote that literally wrapped a tourniquet around London’s future. No matter how the French national election comes out this spring, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front will get most of its votes from the nation’s rural and clapped-out industrial areas, not from Paris.

Philip Stephens, a leading columnist for the Financial Times, even suggested that London secede from “Little England,” rejoin the European Union and keep both its immigrants and Queen Elizabeth II who, after all, lives there. Stephens may have been joking a little, but not much. The leaders of American cities – Gullivers lashed down by statehouse Lilliputians – can sympathize.

The cause of the split, between city and hinterlands and between the future and the past, is no mystery. In both America and Europe, systems of governments evolved in the old industrial era, to meet the demands of that era. The great cities, embedded in their nations, powered their national economies and lived off the trade with their hinterlands.

That era is gone. It’s a global era now. The economy has gone global and the global cities have led the charge, to places where national governments, by definition, cannot follow. This economy enriches the cities and impoverishes the rest. Western Europe and North America were the heart of the industrial era and the impact, for better or worse, has been most acute there.

Paris and London are as hemmed in by their national governments as American cities are by their state legislatures. Already, many of them are working together on the big issues – immigration, terrorism, climate change, inequality – through global alliances. Some of them are framing a sort of urban foreign policy, defining and promoting their global needs.

All this is new, and it’s just begun.

Richard Longworth is a distinguished fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of On Global Cities, an eBook published by the Council, and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest.