“You always seemed so sure / that one day we’d be fighting / in a suburban war” –Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)
The 2016 Presidential election has become a prizefight for the ages. Of the many lenses through which the contest has been viewed – a clash between the educated and uneducated, between minorities and whites, the white collar and the blue collar – no framework better captures the true rift at the heart of the body politic than the urban-rural divide.
The data tell the story: urban areas rich with demographic diversity foster support for Clinton, whose platform largely plays to the interests of communities well-established in cities—millennials, African-Americans, immigrants, and Hispanics. Polls show Clinton clobbering Trump within city limits by as much as twenty-five points.
By contrast, Trump dominates the countryside, a long-neglected land where generations of poverty, depression, and substance abuse have decimated traditional ways of life with astounding clip. Outside metropolises, Trump consistently trounces Clinton, beating the former First Lady by some twenty points according to recent surveys.
Yet a dichotomy between Clinton’s urbanism and Trump’s rural appeal misses an element to the current election and the long-term fate of the nation: the suburbs, where a statistical majority of likely voters live.
In the suburbs, both political parties find the last frontier of American political life, the yet-unclaimed terrain of social liberalism and economic conservatism, of typically well-educated middle class voters not rigidly partial to pro-business Republicans or socially conscientious Democrats. Like Americans of the post-War era, into the suburbs the national political parties will inevitably move. At stake is more than a mere voter bloc central to the outcome of federal elections—up for grabs is the very republic itself.
Like rural America, the suburbs are, demographically, a shrinking province, albeit less perceptibly than commonly recognized. In most American cities, from Boston to Portland, Tampa to Minneapolis, demand for housing continues to climb, propping up real estate prices virtually everywhere. Eager for “walkability,” convenience, and accessible culture, Americans young and old are flocking to cities in droves. Most significantly, young Americans have abandoned their parents’ sprawling fantasies of white picket fences and lush manicured lawns for sidewalks and more manageably sized apartments, the portals unto urban life.
In the wake of exodus, a reversal of migratory patterns extending back six decades, the suburbs sit ripe for the taking. Unlike ever before, this middle ground between cityscape and country presents prime real estate for both political parties to set up shop with aim of crafting platforms that speak to the unique hopes, fears, anxieties, and preferences of suburban voters.
For Republicans, who traditionally and in 2016 have found vigorous backing outside cities, suburbs could shade red as a product of urban growth. Receptive to the GOP’s pro-business, low-tax fiscal policy, suburbanites who stick around the hinterland will constitute increasingly conservative communities neglected by Democrats who strategically pivot toward urban bases.
Republican suburban success will have to resemble the Romney strategy four years earlier: economic industriousness checkered with moderate social policy. Just as the 2012 Republican nominee won key suburban counties outside D.C., Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, viable GOP nominees of the future will need to play to the basic conservatism of the exurbs. Founded upon well-defined borders and a sense of security from external threats, the suburban soil nourishes status quo. In such an environment, anti-radical, clear-headed Republicans have ample room to take root and blossom.
On the other end, the Dems will have compelling reason to contest the suburbs. The exodus to cities has not, nor will be, a parade of equal opportunity. Suburbanites who choose to pack up and move will be those able to bear the sustaining swell of urban living expenses and those who have the social and fiscal capital to navigate, or altogether avoid, byzantine social services like public housing and education. Poor adults and families and individuals living on the outskirts of a metro may not have the resources to make such a move possible.
Thus mirroring the demographic shifts advantageous to Republicans, the Democratic hope for suburban triumph will depend upon opposite yet not incompatible population changes in which the immobile are stuck outside the city limits. In the suburbs of Atlanta, where nearly nine-in-ten impoverished persons across the metropolitan area dwell in suburbs, Democrats have already begun efforts to woo these disaffected, disconnected voters.
So both parties will eye opposite yet not incompatible migrations trends that will increasingly come to affect the composition of metropolitan areas across the United States. In the process, the suburbs will transform into the new political battleground, the arena of suburban war.
The significance of the suburbs is due, in large part, to the fragmentary nature of municipal organization in America. Because local policy can affect the demography of one metro area while hardly or disproportionately affecting that of another, similar cities, even within a single state, can support or hinder widely divergent patterns of in-migration from suburbs. The effect will be to render each metropolitan area different and distinct, forcing politicians to target campaign stops and messaging toward the specific trends impacting a given metro.
Trump and Clinton have, largely, failed to identify the shifting terrain. Their relative strengths have been deployed along the rural-urban chasm. This chasm, though, has a bridge, teetering on the edge of unprecedented historical importance. On its fragile rails hangs the future of American power.