With Donald Trump about to assume the presidency, the United States feels like it's straining to contain multiple citizenries with radically opposed value systems; political scientists say we’re more polarized than we’ve been since the Civil War. But instead of splitting along a relatively straightforward latitude line, Americans today are sorted by the types of places they live: rural and exurban areas, suburbs, and cities. And instead of fighting over a single major issue, they are at odds on pretty much everything: immigration and racism, the right to health care, the prominence of the private sector in public life, the role of the government in countering discrimination, even modes of transportation.
Trump and his administration, plus an entirely Republican-led Congress, will make these divisions even starker—and they’ve already gotten to work. Meanwhile, the Democratic opposition—which has lost much of its state and local power, too—is split between wealthier centrists (historically suburbanites) and a more leftist working class (historically city-dwellers). But a wave of change is hitting many cities, especially the more liberal, coastal ones: The middle and upper middle class are moving back, realigning landscapes and political priorities.
Lily Geismer, an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, studies how the places we live inform our politics, both locally and nationally. Her hope is that Trump’s radical views, coupled with a middle class return to cities, can create new alliances. (Her book Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party examines the Dem shift from a blue-collar urban party to a white-collar suburban one.) "I think there’s a sense that cities are now going to be a place of progressive politics … as a pushback against the Trump administration," she says, but adds that that’s not a guaranteed outcome; a lot will depend on the views of the newest residents. I spoke to Geismer to kick off our inauguration week coverage of how the Trump administration may change transportation, infrastructure, housing, and architecture in the U.S.
Adrian Glick Kudler: There’s a shift that’s been happening over the past 10 or 15 years, where the more conservative upper middle class is moving from the suburbs into urban areas, which have for a long time been bastions of a more liberal working class. How is that changing cities?
Lily Geismer: A lot of it has to do with how you define liberal and conservative. Oftentimes there's this affluent group of people who have come in, who are quite liberal on social issues, and are liberal about issues on the national level. But what I tracked in my research is the closer you got to people’s property values, their tax rates, and their children’s educations, they became less collective-minded or less progressive, which is sort of more conservative in their values. So I think that has begun to play out. And these are not people in most communities who would have been supporting Trump, but they are deeply invested in a particular kind of individualist and protectionist politics at the local level. And I think these are the factors that are contributing to a sense of inequality in cities and to the tension around that.
AGK: We know Clinton voters tend to live in cities, but what’s the broader connection between where a person lives and whether they supported Trump or Clinton?
LG: Ultimately it’s income and education. The kinds of communities I’ve looked at are all highly educated areas, and one of the biggest predictors that shaped this particular election, if you look at the patterns, was education level. Although Trump won more white voters, Clinton won educated white voters, people with a college degree and beyond, at an even higher rate. That’s what I found in my research: a desire to live around like-minded people, particularly among a particular kind of educated voter. You can see that happening both in affluent suburban areas and in affluent urban areas, too, with this shift of who’s living in cities. Where you live is shaping how you’re voting. And then this distinction is also happening among Trump supporters.
AGK: What does that look like on the Trump side? There’s been a lot of writing about how Trump voters were not lower class; they tended to be middle and upper middle class.
LG: The same statistics came out with the Tea Party. There was this whole idea of the Tea Party being a party largely of lower income people, and it actually turned out that most Tea Party supporters were middle class or upper middle class. And a lot of that [demographic] seems to congregate particularly in more exurban areas, and [these are] also the people who were quite supportive of George W. Bush. I think there’s been this narrative of Rust Belt Democrats, but there’s a more continuous narrative of people who live in exurban areas supporting Trump. That’s been one particularly strong constellation.
AGK: A lot of cities have said they will openly resist Trump’s plans for mass deportation and remain sanctuary cities. At the same time, the residents they’re protecting are already marginalized in these cities, especially as they gentrify.
LG: That’s actually what you see in LA; it’s a microcosm for the broader question of identity of the Democratic party. There’s been this new attention to the more affluent faction of the party, and pushback against that, and a sense that there needs to be [a discussion about] what kinds of citizens the party should be drawing in and creating policies to address.
One of the big questions is how to [draw in the working class] without alienating this other faction, who vote consistently for Democrats, but also provide a lot of money and other kinds of resources. And I think the same thing is happening with cities. It’ll be interesting to watch. The reality is that a particular kind of Democratic voter might [support sanctuary cities] in theory and not necessarily in practice. So if push comes to shove, if that means that their tax rates are going to go up—or the other thing, with LA and Boston and any number of cities, is that there’s the potential to lose a lot of their federal funding—that is an incentive that would be lost for more affluent voters and residents.
For someone like [LA Mayor Eric] Garcetti, it was an easy way post-election to make a stand and get national attention. But then there are these interlocking other factors that go into it. Maybe it’s one thing for LA to claim to be a sanctuary city and that’s really important, but is the same thing going to happen with Ontario, [California,] where a lot of people are moving in who are more low income and don’t have jobs? There are so many of those kinds of other factors that I think are really crucial to addressing some of these questions. The election, maybe, will bring attention to them.
AGK: A big part of Donald Trump’s message and appeal is his focus on people who live outside of cities, in rural and exurban areas. Can he improve life in those places with something like his infrastructure plan?
LG: I’m less optimistic that that will happen. The question with Trump is what kinds of infrastructure will he take on? He has this idea that he’s a builder, but he’s done particular types of construction projects. Could that plan actually produce materially better [conditions]? Maybe a little bit.
It’ll be interesting to see, given the difficulties that Obama had with his infrastructure plans, if Trump will be able to get it passed. Getting things passed in Congress and getting that kind of funding passed—infrastructure has become less and less a priority.
But these are policies that get played out at the local level, where you face certain kinds of resistance. [What] might be good for one community is not good for another one, and those are the kinds of logjams that can limit infrastructure, things like highway construction. There are also fights amongst municipalities about getting funding for things like mass transit. So those would be the kinds of real resistance that have made it consistently hard to get infrastructure programs passed and I think will continue to do so.
AGK: The infrastructure plan relies heavily on privatization, which seems like maybe the only thing that Trump, the Republican party, and the Democratic party all seem to favor in one form or another, whether it’s handing Medicare over to for-profit insurance companies or public schools over to nonprofit charter companies. Going back to the New Deal, there was an idea that things like highways and schools were the responsibility of the government. How did that shift happen?
LG: There always was a place for the private sector and this idea of public-private partnerships. That was at the heart of things like urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s. But there’s a difference—the New Deal was about stimulating those sectors and working in partnership, and this is letting the private sector do a lot, if not most, of the work. And that shift occurred in the 1970s, in response to a recession and the rise of inflation. There was pushback against Keynesian economic models that led to this notion that the private sector is a more effective way of getting things done. There’s also a lot of pushback against large government bureaucracy that emerges during that time, this idea that it’s better and more efficient if it comes from the private sector.
Trump stands for this kind of valorization of business since the 1980s. And to go back to the issue of Trump voters, there is an idea that having someone with business experience in office will help them. And that’s a factor with these infrastructure programs: Who’s going to benefit? This is an issue that created a lot of tension amongst the Democrats in this last election cycle—when you have these programs of privatization, who is actually receiving the spoils of it? And if these programs do get into place, that might be something that there’s more reckoning with, particularly by lower income voters who’ve been frustrated by not receiving various types of benefits and jobs. That was some of the frustration with Clinton, coming from both the left and the right. With Trump, it already looks like that’s going to be a major factor.
AGK: Where did the New Deal fail?
LG: I often hear this idea of "going back to the New Deal," this notion that that was this halcyon [period] of social democracy. But a lot of inequality and segregation emerged from New Deal policy. One of the things that’s been really interesting, as a scholar of these issues over the last decade or so, is that there wasn’t a lot of recognition of that fact. New Deal policy played a key role in producing inequality and segregation within cities and suburban areas, and the growth of white suburbs and African American cities. There has been more recognition of that in the public conversation in the last few years, led by the work of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates.
There’s [now] a large-scale understanding that New Deal policy, and particularly the policies of the FHA and the GI Bill, played a central role and very active role in producing segregation throughout the country, and those policies really persisted and became self-actualizing, and then there was an increase in what’s known as reverse redlining that was at the heart of the mortgage crisis and foreclosure crisis [in the aughts].
AGK: It seems like some of that housing discrimination is set to return.
LG: This is one area where the Obama administration has made strides; they hadn’t solved the problems of residential segregation and inequality, but they produced laws that looked at things like disparate impact [which broadens legal definitions for discrimination] and were trying to make more forms of accountability. Those seem to be potentially eradicated with Trump’s appointees. I think both HUD and the Justice Department had been working and really committed to understanding the importance of housing as a space for creating segregation and discrimination. And then having someone like [Treasury Secretary nominee] Steven Mnuchin, who has massively benefited from the system, if not Trump himself—it’s going to roll back things, potentially for a generation.
AGK: So there’s a return to housing segregation, and another kind of segregation happening in gentrifying cities. How does that affect political power?
LG: I’ve always been interested in affluent liberals in suburbs and these gentrified urban enclaves because they hold a lot of power. Both are people who go out and vote a lot, and Democratic politicians listen to them, and I actually think Republicans do too because there’s this idea of them being a liberal elite. One of the questions is how much are some of Trump’s policies going to affect those particular communities? That’s one thing that I’ve been thinking about: There’s been all this outrage about Trump, and will that dissipate when it’s like "It doesn’t actually affect my life," or will it create an understanding that a lot of the policies under Obama and other administrations, and what’s happening in cities, was actually making them more progressive, was a site for reducing certain kinds of inequality. Will that create more momentum and efforts to want to fight back?
But one thing that has come out is that there needs to be more coalition building amongst groups. I find hope that urban areas and metropolitan areas are spaces in which to do that—you have concentrations of people—and that’s been historically true. If there’s coalition building across different groups and across different areas, that could create some pushback and change.
This interview has been condensed and edited.