Sun, Jan 15, 2017 - Page 7 News List

What the urban-rural split means for the future of the US

Cities have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party, and rural regions the heartland of Republicanism, yet US president-elect Donald Trump’s election has exposed these divides like never before. Will US metropolises increasingly turn into city-states?

By David Uberti  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Louise Ting

Sitting in a downtown Cleveland, Ohio, coffee shop in early December, Julie Goulis is still in shock.

“Some of the soul-searching I’ve been doing after the election has been about how I can understand people outside of my bubble,” she tells me. “I was so ashamed Ohio went for Trump.”

Like many US cities, Cleveland is overwhelmingly progressive in its politics and traditionally elects Democrats at all levels of government, despite hosting last year’s Republican National Convention. But partisan divisions in the US increasingly correlate with geographic differences, leaving many cities like Cleveland as liberal bubbles distinct from the vast conservative US hinterland. The looming inauguration of US president-elect Donald Trump has left many city dwellers grappling with just how distant much of their country seems.

I meet Goulis in Tremont, a neighborhood overlooking the Cuyahoga River as it cuts through Cleveland’s revived downtown district. After an influx of European immigrants in the late 1800s, Tremont was a thriving and diverse working-class community for the first half of the 20th century before it gradually atrophied alongside the local steel business in a familiar post-industrial spiral.

Goulis, a freelance copywriter who grew up in a town about 64km west of Cleveland, moved here 12 years ago in search of a more walkable and diverse community.

“I reject the suburbs,” she says.

In the years since the housing market bottomed out, Tremont and other pockets of Cleveland have witnessed a tenuous revitalization thanks to newcomers seeking city lifestyles and new investment in 21st-century industry. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods, particularly communities of color, continue to suffer from the long-term effects of deindustrialization, disinvestment and systemic racism. The dichotomy is familiar in many US cities.

Still, economically and racially diverse metropolitan areas stand as one in US politics. In Ohio, progressive urban centers like Cleveland and Columbus put up fierce opposition to Trump, who carried the state by running up huge margins in ex-urban and rural regions. The election only accentuated this divide in political culture, bringing a national spotlight to urban-rural tensions that have long simmered at the state level.

“I love Cleveland, but I’ve always considered it separate from Ohio,” Goulis says. “I just feel different than my friends far out in the suburbs and the rural areas. We just have different ideas about what makes a good life.”

Such conflicting perspectives stretch back to the foundation of US democracy. Urban areas — places of dense social diversity — have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party, coalescing around a stronger safety net, liberal social policies, climate science and more open immigration laws. Outer suburbs and rural regions, meanwhile, are a bastion for conservative Republicans, with largely white communities rallying around traditional values, lower taxes, fewer regulations and a more static notion of US culture.

But the trends driving these divisions have quickened in recent decades, particularly during an uneven economic recovery in which many small towns were devastated and a few megacities roared back.

These kinds of demographic and economic factors that deepen the political divergence largely mirror those in liberal cities and more conservative countrysides in Europe, as the UK’s Brexit vote demonstrated. In the US, the election of Trump has ushered these urban-rural divides onto the national stage like no other time in modern history.

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