The following is an excerpt from The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, out today from Penguin Books.
On a map of the United States color-coded by party, big cities and university towns and a few regions with large immigrant and racial minority populations are a chain of Democratic islands in a Republican ocean. Similar patterns appear on maps of voting for Brexit in the UK and elections in continental Europe.
Looking at these maps, it is easy to see why scholars and journalists refer to the “urban-rural divide.” But this is misleading. Farm owners and farmworkers make up only a tiny sliver of the population in the typical Western democracy. Most voters in Europe and North America today live in broadly defined metro areas or small communities on their periphery. In the case of partisanship, the most important border is not between city and countryside, but between expensive, high-density urban business districts and inner suburbs on the one hand and, on the other, low-density suburbs and exurbs.
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Rather than use the terms “city” and “countryside,” we can describe the high-density areas as “hubs” and the low-density areas around and between the hubs as “heartlands.”
The hubs and heartlands are distinguished not only by population density but also by different economic sectors. In the hubs, home to most of the managerial overclass, we see two primary sectors: high- end business and professional services, and luxury services. In the heartlands, we find two other sectors: goods production and what can be described as “mass services.”
The high-end business and professional services concentrated in the hubs, which Saskia Sassen has called “global cities,” such as New York and London, include software, finance, insurance, accounting, marketing, advertising, consulting, and others whose clients are often corporations, including global corporations managing supply chains in many countries. No matter where they are born, professionals and managers often move to pursue their careers in major hub cities that specialize in particular producer services — software in San Francisco and the Bay Area, finance in New York and London and Frankfurt.
Much of the discretionary income of elite managers and professionals in the hub cities is spent on luxury services. In Europe and North America, these amenities are provided by the sectors that the economist David Autor calls “wealth work,” a category with formal job titles that include Gift Wrapper, Fingernail Former, Mystery Shopper, and Barista. The combination of low wages and high living costs for many workers in hubs like New York, London, and Paris make these occupations unattractive to many native workers of all races, as well as more prosperous immigrants, who often move to suburbs or exurbs as soon as they can afford to escape. Urban service jobs are filled disproportionately by recent immigrants, for whom miserable pay and crowded living conditions in the hubs are preferable to the limited opportunities in the countries they left behind.
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The social liberalism of these high-end service meccas cannot disguise their extreme inequality. The gap between the richest and poorest in New York City is comparable to that of Swaziland; Los Angeles and Chicago are slightly more egalitarian, comparable to the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
Meanwhile, in the vast areas of low-density, low-rise residential and commercial zones around and among the hierarchical hubs, a radically different society has evolved. In the national heartlands, apart from expensive rural resort areas, there are fewer rich households and therefore fewer working poor employed by the rich as servants and luxury service providers.
In the U.S. and Europe, the population of the heartlands is much more likely to be native-born and white. But the heartlands are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, making the familiar equation of “urban” and “nonwhite” anachronistic. For example, most African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. are neither poor nor urban but belong along with most white Americans to the suburban and exurban working class. Over time, the share of the heartland population that is nonwhite or mixed race is growing, as both non-white immigrants and native minority- group members are driven by rising real estate costs out of hub cities that have grown whiter and richer thanks to gentrification. In the United States, immigrants from Latin America are assimilating to mainstream language and culture and marrying outside of their group at a rate similar to that of European immigrants in the past. It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that the hub city ethnic diasporas of today will endure rather than wither away in time as did America’s “Little Italies” and “Little Bohemias.”
In the heartlands are found almost all of the goods-producing industries that have not been offshored to other countries — factories, farms, mines, and oil and gas wells. In addition to being the realm of goods production, the heartland is the land of mass services. In the somewhat idealized era of mid-twentieth-century industrial Fordism, the workers in mass-production industries earned enough to buy the products they made, such as cars, radios, and television sets. In the twenty-first century, the workers in mass-provision service industries — waiters at inexpensive chain restaurants with working-class clienteles at exurban highway intersections, for example, unlike waiters at prestigious downtown restaurants — often can afford to purchase the services they provide, in a kind of service-sector Fordism.
In short, the hub-heartland divide that is reshaping politics on both sides of the Atlantic is the geographic manifestation of a class divide. Partisan geographic differences tend to be proxies for class conflicts, with the interests of hub city overclasses and heartland working classes colliding when it comes to environmental policies, trade, immigration, and values.Of all of the self-serving myths that are found in metropolitan overclass propaganda, the most absurd is the idea that the hubs are more “productive” than the heartlands. This makes sense only if productivity is equated with income. By this standard, if all the billionaires in the United States moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the luxury resort community would become the most “productive” area in the U.S. overnight.
In reality, affluent investors, managers, and professionals in global hubs like New York, San Francisco, and London are paid for the services or capital they provide to major industries or firms, most of which have physical production or transportation facilities elsewhere. The fortunes of many San Francisco tech executives depend on legions of underpaid factory workers in China and other countries, on energy-hungry server farms located in remote rural areas, and on massive communications and transportation infrastructures stretching over vast distances among cities and nations and maintained by blue-collar workers.
Michael Cembalest of J.P. Morgan Asset Management writes that without U.S. heartland regions, “cities would not be able to grow as they have, and/or the U.S. would be highly reliant on geopolitically insecure and costlier imports of food and energy, and be exposed to volatile weather, environmental and exchange rate conditions out of its control.” As a tongue-in-cheek thought experiment, Cembalest allocated the 538 votes in the electoral college that elects the U.S. president to American states on the basis of two equally weighted factors, their populations, and their food and energy production: “Texas, the Midwest, and the Rockies gain electors, while East Coast states and Michigan lose them.” Without any irony William Jennings Bryan, the leading agrarian populist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, would have approved, having declared: “The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
Most of the physical production that remains in Western nations, like manufacturing, agriculture, and mining, including fossil fuel extraction, along with infrastructure construction and upkeep, occur far from the fashionable downtowns and affluent, inner-ring suburbs where most of the managerial overclass lives and works. Overclass elites in urban hubs, therefore, can favor stringent environmental regulations at little cost to themselves. Heartland communities are more likely to be sensitive to the costs of environmental policies than hub city managers and professionals. What is more, the property-owning, working-class majorities of the heartlands are also likely to be more sensitive to environmental restrictions on what property owners can do with their property than the denizens of the hubs, where not only the working poor and the working class but also many professionals must rent because they cannot afford to own homes. And most working-class individuals in low-density regions rely on their personal cars or trucks for commuting, shopping, and recreation.
The French yellow vest riots of the winter of 2018–19 illustrated the intersecting fault lines of class and place in environmental policy. Although France is responsible for only a negligible amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, in order to advertise France’s moral leadership in combating global warming, President Macron’s government raised taxes on diesel-fueled cars and trucks. The costs of this exercise in virtue-signaling fell disproportionately on working-class and rural citizens, dependent on their automobiles and trucks. Their spontaneous protests escalated into months of…