“The economic and cultural power of cities is so overwhelming,” says Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford, “that to people in rural areas, the resentment and the oppression … feels quite intense.”
Indeed, things have gotten so uneven that, although there are nearly 20,000 towns and cities in America, the top 25 cities are responsible for more than half of our GDP (Boston is number nine).
Venture capital — used to finance startup companies — is even more lopsided. In 2018, more than 75 percent of VC investments went to just five places: San Francisco, New York, Boston, San Jose, and Los Angeles.
Sit with that for a minute. In this enormous country, a handful of cities are raking in almost all the venture capital. But, as it turns out, the financial power that cities like Boston have amassed may be causing them to shed a different kind of power: political power.
Why? At least two reasons.
First, the economic and cultural chasm has grown so enormous that urban Democrats have largely lost the ability to connect to folks in rural areas. Second, city dwellers provide so much money and support for Democrats that they drive messaging, making it more difficult for the party to compete in swing, suburban districts.
Obviously, cities start out with a built-in disadvantage. In America, winning elections is about winning the right votes in the right places — not winning the most votes. Rodden, the author of the book Why Cities Lose, says it’s difficult to explain to people from other countries how states dominated by large cities get crushed when it comes to representation.
Massachusetts, for example, has 12 times the population of Wyoming. But both states have two senators who represent them. And if you think that’s bad, imagine how disconsolate Californians must be. Their state has 70 times as many people as Wyoming.
But the problem of cities losing political power, even as they amass other sorts of power, goes beyond the Senate, and it’s getting worse — a terrifying thought for Democrats as they head into the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election.
To understand how much small towns and rural areas have shifted away from wealthy Democratic enclaves, consider the case of Ohio, where J.D. Vance — who shot to stardom with the memoir Hillbilly Elegy — recently won the Republican senate primary. Vance — like former President Trump, who heartily endorsed him — did particularly well in counties near Kentucky, like Scioto.
In Scioto, Vance crushed his nearest opponent 2-to-1. Trump was a similar, stand-out favorite in 2020, when he won 71 percent of the vote (President Biden won 28 percent).
But rewind just a decade, to 2012. President Obama nearly tied with Mitt Romney in Scioto county: Obama lost by less than 2 points.
Obama, Rodden says, invested lots of time in small, rust-belt cities, winning Ohio twice and even carrying Indiana in 2008. Now, in states where rural residents wield considerable influence, Democrats don’t stand a chance.
Which leads to the other reason urbanites are losing political power.
Rodden argues that the Democratic party is really two parties, locked in a “marriage of convenience.” Urban Democrats — like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens — are more likely to lean towards democratic socialism, while Democrats in the suburbs tend to be far more moderate.
“If there’s a big ideological difference between the urban core — that is, the core of your constituency — and the exurban or middle-ring suburban place you have to win… you have a real problem of messaging,” he says.
Witness Representative Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, who recently lost his Democratic Senate primary to John Fetterman, a Bernie Sanders supporter. Lamb’s military service and moderate views on issues like gun control seemed like a great fit for a swing state, but the center of gravity has unquestionably shifted.
As Matthew Yglesias and Milan Singh recently noted in the political newsletter “Slow Boring,” “Democrats have changed a lot since 2012,” and the official party platform has adopted a number of more progressive stances.
Ideally, Rodden says, Democrats would offer completely different messages to their urban and suburban constituencies. But in an era when the national media — from MSNBC to Fox News — is dominant, it’s virtually impossible to do that.
In fact, partisan media often does everything it can to highlight polarizing politicians, and cast them as mainstream.
“In the old days, a relatively new backbencher in the party like AOC … is not someone who would have been on television all the time,” Rodden points out. But now “she’s one of the most cited people on Fox News — there’s just a constant focus on AOC. And that’s partly by design.”
Because the parties are internally divided, the only way for partisan media — on either side — to build unity is to insist that their opponents are extremists.
Cities occupy a strange spot in this internal division. They fund a great deal of the party’s operations, but have very different leanings than the country at large.
In the 2020 election, for example, 83 percent of Boston voters went for Biden. That number is so high that many Bostonians (or folks in inner-ring suburbs) may not know anyone who voted for Trump, even though 47 percent of American voters did.
“The geographic core of the party,” Rodden says, “starts to dominate some of the party’s decision making and thinking. And things that seem perfectly reasonable to the majority of folks in the party are not necessarily the things that are going to get the job done in the pivotal districts.”
In 2022, the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade might change the landscape, causing some Republican women to vote for Democrats. Or anger about the availability of guns could last into the fall. But given consumers’ deep concerns about inflation, and the general inclination to blame the party in power for economic turmoil, social issues may not feel most pressing to voters on election day.
For those in densely packed metro areas, coping with fading political power is tough, especially since their economic and cultural power is so considerable. And while it’s true that the number of Americans who self-identify as liberal has grown a lot over the last three decades (rising from 17 percent to 25 percent), it’s also true that the number of Republican and Republican-leaning Americans has spiked in the last couple of years, hitting 47 percent in 2021.
City dwellers are pulling away from the rest of the country, both in how they think and how they act. And understanding this gap is essential to bridging it. Because it may be that, with the electoral deck stacked against them, urban Democrats face a tough choice: half a loaf or nothing at all.
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.