Among the surprises of the 2020 US presidential election was its unusual geography. Donald Trump, though defeated, added more than 11 million votes to his 2016 total. Many of these new votes were racked up in communities dominated by the multiracial working class: the Rio Grande, Miami-Dade, the Bronx, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s victory was secured in part by driving up his support among older white voters, not only in the suburbs and military outposts, but in the staunchly Republican “exurbs”. The exurbs are at the threshold between the suburbs and the properly rural: low-density, semi-rural residential communities on the farthest periphery of metropolitan centres.
This complicates a cliché of US political commentary. The US is politically segregated. Democrats tend to live close together, within walking distance of amenities, while Republicans live farther apart, reaching church and family by car. Place is political. We experience class through place: this street, this school, this factory. Place organises capital and labour, production and consumption, conflict and competition, infrastructure and lifestyle, taxes and laws.
If Republicans prefer suburbs, this is not just the old story of “white flight”, first prompted by the jacqueries of 1968: they are also in flight from city administrations that tax to pay for services they don’t want or use, and indeed from any tincture of “socialism”. It is also flight from blight, where production takes place, and the poor live. Yet, as with Trump’s surprising gains among non-white voters, and in counties with the highest rates of joblessness and Covid-19 infection, Biden’s gain in the exurbs is a story of spatial realignment, and thus, also, of political realignment among classes, ethnicities and religions.
For several decades, the growth of exurbia was powered by the globalisation of manufacturing, and the decline of old rural economies based on extraction. In their place, new economies emerged based on real estate and amenities offered to affluent employees of service industries.
Exurban residents are typically white, middle-class homeowners who commute to work. The exurbs offer a version of natural beauty that can be consumed as a form of class distinction, contrasted with urban “ugliness”. They are wealthy, but – in part owing to their anti socialist impetus – have comparatively few services. This lack of infrastructure in the exurbs, Tristram Hunt explained, was successfully exploited by Republicans who worked hard to build civic networks through churches and conservative societies. The fantasy life of exurbia is perhaps a version of the increasingly common idea of “exit”.
Geographer Jeffrey Osgood argues that exurban migration is culturally informed by the Jeffersonian idea of a nation of small farmers spread throughout the countryside, a counterpower to Washington. Jeffersonian republicanism has been a frequent motif of conservative resistance to the liberal state in American politics, particularly during the struggle over segregation.
Currently, the urban theorist Mike Davis points out, 34 million Americans live in the exurbs. Already the dominant mode of settlement in the US, exurban residents are likely to overtake the urban population. This bodes well for the Republicans’ ability to maintain their minoritarian grip on the US’s elected institutions. The exurbs are the typical spatial threshold at which support for the Democrats starts to plummet. In every election between 2000 and 2016, the Republican lead over the Democrats in the exurbs was close to 20 per cent – with the exception of 2008, when it was just over 12 per cent.
And yet, in 2020 the exurbs swung to Biden by 5.9 per cent, proportionally larger than the Latino swing to Trump. The Democratic vote share rose to 43.3 per cent, slightly higher than Barack Obama’s 2008 record. Nor does this seem to have been a sudden aberration brought on by the pandemic. Just as the trend among non-white voters towards Republicans was visible in 2016, exurbs such as Delaware County in Ohio – where Biden increased the Democratic vote share from 38.7 per cent to 45.8 per cent – have been shifting steadily towards the Democrats for years. In the Philadelphia exurbs, anti-Trump activism began almost immediately after the 2016 election.
Although Republicans retain their exurban lead, two factors are driving an electorally left-ward trajectory. First, polarisation along educational lines coincides with the growing number of exurban graduates. Second, as more residents decant from the cities and some exurbs expand, conditions are increasingly resembling the suburbs. In Georgia, for instance, Biden’s biggest gains were in more populous exurban areas. Yet, these aren’t so much explanations as things that need to be explained.
Why should those with degrees be trending left? It’s easy to assume the educated are more socially liberal, but Trump actually won among white degree-holders in 2016. Another answer is that a degree isn’t worth what it used to be. The salary premium has fallen by 6 per cent since 2000, but the more important “wealth premium” has collapsed as graduates accumulate debt. This trend has accelerated since the credit crunch.
The growing population density of the exurbs also shows that the reasons for sprawl have changed. The frantic construction in exurban areas caters to the demand for housing among those – millennials and the elderly who are poor – who simply can’t afford urban or suburban prices pushed up by speculation and gentrification. The more the exurbs resemble the suburbs, the more they will bring the suburbs’ declining incomes.
Place is political, but its political meaning isn’t immutable. New generations, and new economies, add new layers of meaning. The exurbs, once the exit dream of the middle class coming to prominence in the era of Reagan and Clinton, are becoming a refuge for the downwardly mobile and displaced.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war