I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go?
I’m going to some place where I’ve never been before.
I’m going, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.
Well, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.
We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.
– Canned Heat
Joel Kotkin at Real Clear Politics takes apart some population data this week and uncovers a rather counterintuitive tale of where America is right now and, perhaps more to the point, where Americans are going. If you observe American politics over the past two years you’d be tempted to think that we’re leading a more and more urban lifestyle. Policy initiatives and discussions of culture are primarily focused on the nation’s large cities. How do we fix them? What should be done about violence? On the positive side, the wonders of mass transit and the ability of city dwellers to integrate every aspect of the human experience into a small area provide a model for the future. And all of these conversations seem to focus on liberal policies and the triumph of progressive doctrine.
But if that’s the case, why are so many people fleeing the cities and moving either to the suburbs or the countryside? Or to put it another way, if Democratic policies are so spectacularly popular, why do Americans keep moving to places dominated by conservative rule?
Yet if politics are now being dominated by big cities along the coasts, the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that when it comes to their own lives, Americans are moving increasingly elsewhere, largely to generally Republican-leaning suburbs and Sunbelt states. In other words, politics and power are headed one way, demographics the other…
This divergence between politics and how people choose to live has never been greater. As economist Jed Kolko has observed, the perceived “historic” shift back to the inner city has turned out to be a relatively brief phenomena. Since 2012, suburbs and exurbs, which have seven times as many people, again are growing faster than core cities.
This is not likely to be a short-lived phenomena. Generally speaking, Kolko notes that an aging population tends to make the country more suburban. The overwhelming trend among seniors is not to move “back to the city” but to stay in or move out to suburban or exurban areas. Between 2000 and 2012, notes demographer Wendell Cox, 99.6 percent of the senior population increase in major metropolitan areas was in the suburbs, a gain of 4.3 million compared to the gain of 17,000 in the urban core.
The demographic figures are stark. In general, suburbs and exurbs are growing while inner city populations are (mostly) declining. There are exceptions in the winners and losers columns of course. Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Phoenix actually gained population in their urban zip codes, although at a slower pace than during the last decade. But the big losers were New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. What explains this?
Most of the people I know who live away from the urban centers would generally scratch their heads and wonder why you needed to ask in the first place. Over the span of five decades I’ve lived in each type of climate. I grew up out in farm country. I later spent time in my 20s and 30s living in several large cities including New York, San Diego and Chicago. Now I reside in the suburbs of a decidedly small city within a fifteen minute ride of being in endless fields of corn or hills covered in trees. Given a choice between all of them you pretty much couldn’t pay me enough to move back to a high rise.
Part of it is just the culture and the overall sense of security. Large cities are noisy, dirty and condense far too much crime into a small area. You have more room to spread out in the ‘burbs or across farm country. There are some disadvantages of course, such as the smaller number of choices in entertainment and jobs, but the scale gets tipped back in the opposite direction by the overall quality of life. But why do people tend to vote differently out away from the urban centers? Is it easier to sell conservative policies away from the densely packed crowds because of the environment or in spite of it?
I wish I knew the answer. Looking at how things are going in Baltimore and Chicago these days it’s certainly hard to argue that Democratic policies are “working” for the residents. They keep doing the same things over and over for generations and nothing seems to improve all that much. But in the end I think it comes down to a question of whether or not you want the government to either regulate your life or largely leave you alone. If you enjoy being out away from the crowds, you likely don’t want Big Brother telling you what to make for dinner. But if you live in a crowded sea of humanity with threats looming around every corner I suppose you want that guiding hand standing by to make sure you’re okay.
If these trends hold over the next decade, Democrats may have a hard time holding on to their big government leaning majorities. Ruling from the urban centers will be increasingly difficult if the people who rely on you abandon your base of operations.