Opinion: Navigating a nation of metro and rural viewpoints

Joe Walton / SCAD-Atlanta

Credit: Joe Walton / SCAD-Atlanta

Credit: Joe Walton / SCAD-Atlanta

In this moment of social, cultural, demographic, and economic realignment, what it means to be “metropolitan” has emerged as a critical fulcrum for charting the nation’s political future.

Moscow’s School of Higher Economics convened a commission of international specialists a decade ago to consider that city’s future. Immediately, the academic specialists in the room launched into endless debate over the very subject of the inquiry. What was Moscow? Finally, after hours of wrangling, the leading Russian urbanist Alexander Vysokovsky took out his laptop and projected a satellite image of Moscow at night. Where there was light, there was Moscow. Where there was darkness, there was something else. Fundamental change deeper than any single event on such a scale, he continued, becomes visible only from a distance.

This year’s election returns reminded me of the conversation in Moscow. As each state map opened, we saw islands of blue in seas of red. Those blue patches had grown over the past several years to embrace suburban voters as well as those of the urban core. Any regional process repeating itself multiple times over is something more than local. The simultaneous transformation of Georgia and Arizona from red to blue suggests somehow shared fates.

Blair A. Ruble

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

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Such results indicate deeper structural change in American life now becoming visible in our politics. Enmity towards President Trump undoubtedly accelerated the build up of Joe Biden’s vote count; antagonism is unlikely to have carried the day had it not rested on a more fundamental realignment of parties and politics.

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Despite any number of differences, Phoenix and Atlanta have ranked among the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan regions for many years. As they have expanded, economic, social, cultural, and political life have integrated across old political boundaries. Both are major immigrant gateways, for example, with majorities of immigrants settling in their sprawling suburbs. If Moscow may be discerned from a plane window at night, American cities reveal the footprints of sports teams and media markets.

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As humans have become an urban species – with our global population becoming more than half city dwellers about a decade ago – cities around the world have exploded on steroids. Most of us on the planet inhabit a miniscule corner of vast carpets of medium-density regions stretching for hundreds of miles punctuated here and there by a town or a city. Think Atlanta, rather than Manhattan.

The American self-image has not kept pace with these adjustments. President Trump’s appeal to suburban voters based on a vision of Ozzie and Harriet cowering behind their suburban white picket fences could well have cost him the election. We are a divided nation, two communities that live side by side: one in metropolitan regions, and the other in exurban and rural surroundings. Old definitions of “urban,” “suburban,” and “rural” no longer hold up. Our new reality is the American version of the great urban realignment that has become a 21st-century hallmark. If we think of “urban” as “metropolitan,” Americans too have become urban animals.

One attribute of the American system has been that we never have been particularly adept at reconfiguring political institutions to match the economic and demographic transformations of the day. In many ways, this cautious impulse has been to our benefit. We turn to political institutions for stability rather than innovation. Cities capture their new suburbs in a handful of states -- such as North Carolina -- where boundaries remain elastic thanks to legislation anticipating urban growth. Most of our politics, however, is still confined within legal structures and political language that have become out of date. If we cannot change our institutions, we can widen our understanding of new social realities so that we can shape policies appropriate to them.

The Democrats appear to have captured the energy and dynamism of this new metropolitan archipelago. They succeeded in gaining back the White House by running up enormous vote caches within them. Should the Republicans welcome the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrant communities spread out along highway corridors, they may make these splashes of blue purple once more.

We have a test of this new alignment coming up on January 5, when Georgia voters return to the polls to elect two senators. The suburbs will prove to be a major battleground in these contests. Should Atlanta’s suburbs remain a deep blue, then once ruby red Georgia will have flipped from one political alignment to another. Should Republicans find a new way to reconnect to their once-stalwart suburban constituents, we will see Georgia appear red once again.

In this moment of social, cultural, demographic, and economic realignment, what it means to be “metropolitan” has emerged as a critical fulcrum for charting the nation’s political future. Will the knitting of cities and suburbs continue? Will we continue to become a nation enclosing a metropolitan archipelago? Was our presidential election simply about President Trump? Did it reflect more-profound changes in American life? January 5 should provide more indication of whether or not this is so.

Blair A. Ruble is a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.