Donald Trump signs in Ottumwa, Iowa, one of the struggling communities that helped catapult Trump to victory
Donald Trump signs in Ottumwa, Iowa, one of the struggling communities that helped catapult Trump to victory Charlie Neibergall/AP

More and more, the geography of the U.S. is one of winners versus losers—but the populist backlash puts our future at risk.

On top of America’s long-running political divide between red and blue states, and its widening economic divide between the rich and the poor, there is a troubling gap between its geographic winners and losers. The United States is growing spatially more unequal, in ways that are ripping the country apart and threaten to undermine prosperity for all of us.

New data released earlier this week by Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program get to the heart of the matter. Bigger cities are prospering more than smaller cities, and much, much more than rural areas. And the trends are accelerating.  

(Brookings Institution)

Between 2010 and 2016, the 53 largest metropolitan areas accounted for two-thirds of growth in economic output and almost three-quarters of job growth, despite making up just 56 percent of the country’s population. Between 2014 and 2016, these same metros accounted for 72 percent of economic growth and 74 percent of job growth.

On the flip side, small metros—those with fewer than 250,000 people—saw their share of the nation’s economic output shrink by 6.5 percent between 2010 and 2016. Rural areas saw net population decline over this same period, and in 2015, saw their modest rate of employment growth actually decrease.

The political repercussions of these trends are profound. The growing divide between large, dense, diverse winners in the knowledge economy and the rest of the country has fueled the populist political climate that landed Donald Trump in office and put conservative Republicans in control of a large share of governors’ mansions and state legislatures. As my Atlantic colleague Ron Brownstein points out in a recent essay for CNN, the voters who put this cast of characters in power are overwhelmingly from economically lagging areas.

Trump won an overwhelming share of U.S. counties, 2,600 of them, five times more than Clinton. But Clinton’s seemingly meager 500 counties accounted for 72 percent of the nation’s growth in economic output and two-thirds of its job growth between 2014 and 2016. Indeed, Clinton won 79 of the 100 counties that saw the greatest net economic growth over that period, and 76 of the top 100 in job growth.

GDP growth share by Trump and Clinton counties (CNN)

The rub is that the declining parts of America now control our politics, and not just nationally, but also in the states. As Brownstein sums up: “The nation is poised for even greater tension between an economic order that increasingly favors the largest places—and a political dynamic that, for now, sublimates them to the smaller places that are economically falling behind.”

Far from Making America Great Again, Trump and the GOP are putting into place a backward-looking economic and social policy that threatens to undermine the key pillars of American innovation and economic prosperity. They are curtailing immigration and excluding global talent; slashing federal spending for research and development; lashing out at gay and women’s rights; cutting back on spending for state universities; and making efforts to undermine and preempt cities.

Once America’s innovative engine is dismantled, and talented people start to go elsewhere, it will be hard to put it back together again. For the first time in a very long time—perhaps since the Civil War—America’s divides threaten to put it on the wrong side of history.

Moreover, cities are not immune to this populist backlash, no matter how much they think they are. Back when Trump was making reality TV shows and venting about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto, one of the fastest-growing, most technologically advanced, diverse and socially progressive places on the planet. He was elected by a multicultural, suburban populist coalition that felt it was being left behind by a small group of downtown urban elites. As I said then, if Ford could happen in Toronto, more and worse are likely to follow. Trump is not likely to be the end of this trend. It may even take root in U.S. cities.

That’s because the dynamics underlying the rise of populism are broad and encompassing. They are ricocheting through places like Toronto and much of Europe (notably the U.K. with Brexit), as well as the United States. Recent studies find a hauntingly similar divide between urban and rural areas across the U.K. The political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris painstakingly document how such spatial inequality sowed the seeds of a backlash from lagging places and rural areas across Europe and much of the advanced world.

This spatially-induced backlash manifests more along cultural and political lines than economic ones. Study after study has shown that the great majority of populist voters, including Trump voters, are working-class or middle-class, and even affluent. What distinguishes them is that they are concentrated in places that are falling behind. Their political backlash takes the form of a cultural turn against the values that cities have come to represent, especially openness, diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.

Although there are policies that could help mitigate these trends, the depth of the spatial divide in the United States means that none of them are very feasible politically. One way to lessen it would be via federal strategies to redistribute economic activity across more places. But there is no way that is happening with Trump and the Republicans in power. Not only are they committed to serving the interests of the rich, they have also risen to power by exploiting our country’s divisions. The last thing they would want to do is heal them.

Change could also come from cities taking the lead. Affluent progressive cities and suburban areas could help finance more inclusive development for their own disadvantaged groups and less advantaged suburbs and outlying areas. Or coalitions of progressive cities and metros could even work together to pool resources to help less fortunate places—a kind of city-to-city redistribution that the late Benjamin Barber was working on through his Global Parliament of Mayors. But there is zero evidence that this more decentralized approach is in the cards. Cities have problems enough in their own backyard, no thanks to federal and state governments.

Meanwhile, America’s most progressive cities and their mayors are climbing over each other to lavish incentives of hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars on one of the world’s most successful companies, Amazon, and one of its richest men—precious taxpayer dollars that could be used for affordable housing, badly needed transit, job-training programs, and poverty-mitigating initiatives that could improve the conditions of less advantaged groups and places. No wonder people in lagging communities feel like no one in the big liberal city cares about them.

America’s spatial divide has created an incredible dilemma—which there is no easy way out of, and which this country, its cities, and its people will be struggling with for years, if not decades, to come.

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