Something that's almost a given in politics is desperation gives rise to populism. Generally speaking, when things are already on the right trajectory, we prefer for things to stay the same. But when they're going poorly, you're far more likely to roll the dice and see what happens. That's exactly what happened in 2016, and what nearly happened in 2020. So why are things going more poorly for ~70 million Americans? It comes down to a few key factors:
Big cities are getting bigger
The US population is getting more and more concentrated around large urban centers, while rural areas have declined or stagnated in population over the past few decades.
Manufacturing/industrial jobs are disappearing, tech jobs are booming
The jobs that largely fueled the economies of rural areas are disappearing. Oil & gas, coal, manufacturing, and farming have all been in decline for decades, meaning that the types of jobs that can support your livelihood have taken a dramatically different shape. Rather than the factory worker in rural Ohio driving the economy, we picture the knowledge worker in central San Francisco, behind their laptop screen at a WeWork sipping on coldbrew.
Most economic gains are going to higher-earners
Not only have the spoils of the new tech economy gains gone to the cities, they're going to a smaller proportion of the population. Since 2000, wages have risen for the lowest tenth of earners by 3%, and 15.7% in the highest tenth, which has caused a wide economic rift between urban and rural areas.
So what does all that look like in one graph? Check it out:
While the share of voters that voted for Biden and Trump in 2020 are roughly even (sitting at about 51-52% to 49-48% as of November 11th), the voters that live in counties that broke for Biden generate nearly 70% of all national GDP. While federal taxes are collected nationwide, state and local taxes are far more dependent on where people live. This means that the county and state governments that happen to serve Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston have access to far more revenue than any rural county, which in turn has a dramatic effect on their ability to support their residents.
If you live in a state or county that isn't blue in the above chart, you can bet that your economic prospects aren't very rosy. These rural counties where industrial jobs were at the core of their livelihood have not only seen their career opportunities vanish, what little economic gains they've made are minuscule compared with that of knowledge workers in the city centers. In addition, your state and local governments are far less likely to have the tax revenue to be able to help rebuild your community and help you find a new job.
When you don't see a way out of your financial situation, you become far more susceptible to crazy ideas, like, let's bring back all the manufacturing jobs, or building walls, or blaming anything that isn't what's on display in the chart above. The easiest way to stabilize US society is to spread some of the gains from the wealthier 70% of counties to the poorer 30%. If we can't bring GDP production back to those counties, the least the US can do is make sure that they can share in the rewards of this new knowledge-based economy.