By now, we’ve all heard this one: The suburbs are getting bluer, and rural areas are getting redder. And while the latter is a discussion for another time, I wish to describe how the former, during what I will call (albeit reluctantly) the Trump Era, is a gross oversimplification.
To be honest, I am getting a little tired of the explanation from pundits about the shift: Trump has alienated women, minorities, and individuals with a college degree. Combined, these groups constitute large percentages of “the suburbs.” So, obviously, Trump has doomed GOP appeal there. Sounds simple enough, right? But, I think this does aspiring analysts a disservice.
Upwards of eighty percent of anything ever built in America was between World War II and now, taking a relatively ubiquitous form – single-family homes on large lots, freeways, office parks, shopping malls, fast food joints, and lots of parking lots. Thus, the term “suburban” quite literally describes most of America’s urban form, even that which falls within the boundaries of a major city proper. This form, mind you, is even mandated by law. It is no surprise then that so many are willing to weigh in on the political shifts occurring in suburbia. After all, most of us live there! So, what’s the big deal?
If we take the analysis on the surface, are we to believe the GOP is just dying out around every major metropolitan area, becoming an entirely rural party? Well, no. Certainly not. And while no one can deny that the Grand Ole Party coalition looks a lot more rural today than it did in 1990, there is little benefit to describing suburbia (what is, in effect, a collection of structures outside city cores) and its politics without describing the very thing that makes them places at all: people. That is why I propose that political analysts be more precise, in describing the ongoing suburban political realignment.
(1) People are moving and being succeeded by those of a different political stripe. Let’s call this Diversifying Suburbia. Today, this tends to favor Democrats. The quintessential example is Gwinnett County, GA, the anchor of Georgia’s plurality-white 7th congressional district, which had one of the closes races of 2018.
(2) The already lopsided vote in suburbs is beginning to homogenize. We see this happening in Retirement Suburbia (Florida for Republicans), Blue Collar Suburbia (parts of the Midwest for Republicans), and even in other Upscale Suburbs that have trended Democratic in the past decade. Really, this is happening all over the country for both parties, but let’s return to that in a bit.
(3) The growth in population is fast enough among one political affiliation to dampen the margin of the other, even if both groups are growing. We see this in Upscale Suburbia (near Denver and Atlanta, Phoenix, and major Texas cities), tending to favor Democrats.
(4) Value and tonality changes of the major parties have caused existing residents’ voting habits to change. We see this happening mostly in Upscale Suburbia, but in others as well, favoring both parties situation-dependently. This is the explanation that plays well with pundits, in part I believe, because it is a cop-out at worst and first-level analysis at best. But it neither does justice to the other shifts, or explain the full story.
Americans place a high premium on living near people who are like them – a likeness that can take forms such as race, age, interest in particular hobbies, or economic status, many of which directly correlate to political affiliation. More relevantly, and perhaps tragically, it is becoming clearer that such likeness actually includes political affiliation, a notion elaborated upon by Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Likeminded America is Tearing Us Apart. This clustering by and large occurred, and is occuring, on the urban fringe – an observation alone that suggests that we should no longer use the ubiquitous “wealthy American suburb” to describe modern political trends.
So, sure, only rarely can you find a metropolitan GOP stronghold by looking out the train window (yes, dear readers, I have heard of Staten Island before!). But in the Trump era, the truth is that it’s becoming even harder to do so by car. Not all suburbs are getting bluer. In fact, there is mounting evidence that America might be approaching a point at which suburbs are not purple on the whole, as the previous decade (or the 2018 midterms) suggested, but in fact large clusters of red and blue. So if you’re writing about electoral politics these days, be sure you look a little deeper when you talk about “the suburbs”.