Urban Stereotypes and the Real Nation

Americans periodically talk about the stereotype that various large cities are not Real America. The standard explanations among American liberal for why this stereotype exists are a combination of partisanship (cities vote for Democrats by large margins) and racism (cities are racially diverse), but these have never sat well with me. Stereotypes that the major cities are a different world from the rest of the country are not uniquely American – they exist in England, France, and Israel just as in the US, and sociologists in Europe increasingly try to turn them into pan-European comparisons of urban middle-class globalists in tension with The Real Nation. This also exists historically: the best reference is Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism. This post is an explanation of Gellner’s theory and how it applies today.

Gellner’s theory of nationalism

To Gellner, modern nationalism is an inevitable byproduct of industrialization and modernization. Peasants live their entire lives within walking distance of where they were born. They have an intensely local culture with local customs, and politics revolving around jockeying for favors of the local notables, who are often entitled nobility. There is no social mobility to speak of in a traditional agrarian society, hence no need for compatibility between villages in different part of the same state. Moreover, the individual usually does not interact with the state directly, but rather through intermediaries, who again may be entitled nobles, but could equally well be powerful families in any of the premodern European republics.

A national culture may appeal to the more mobile elite, but not to the large majority of the population. In Aquitaine, the nobility transitioned from speaking Occitan to speaking French at the end of the Middle Ages, but the commoners didn’t even view themselves as part of France well into the Early Modern Era, and kept speaking Occitan until the 20th century. The standard Italian language is a creation of the Renaissance, and standard German is a creation of the Reformation, but neither was spoken widely before the modern era; standard German was only written, not spoken, until the 19th century.

Industrialization changes this situation. Workers from all over urbanize, and often urbanize far away from where they were born; people from Prussia moved west to the Ruhr to work in the factories, people from small American towns moved to the big industrial cities in the North, etc. A common language is essential. Common customs are useful as well: workers become interchangeable parts in a Fordist production system, so they need to have similar needs (for example, holidays) to be useful to the capitalist elite.

Even when minorities get some recognition, the state shoehorns them into a common culture for easier governance. Today we speak of Occitan and of the French state’s imposition of Parisian French on the South, but the term Occitania is only attested from the 16th century, and did not exist in Toulouse’s medieval heyday. In the communist world, state anthropologists grouped together people who had no conception of identity beyond their immediate village or tribe and labeled them as a particular ethnic group, such as the Uighurs or the Zhuang.

Gellner stresses that the promulgation of national culture is a top-down process, driven by the needs of the urban middle class. National education enforces a standard language and shames speakers of minority languages, such as Welsh, any minority language in France, immigrants in the US, or indigenous people in North America and Australia. Even when they lack a separate identity as the Welsh or Occitans do, the state teaches the peasants to speak correctly, that is, to speak as the elite does in and around the capital. Children are taught loyalty through rituals, national history, and irredentism, and in most of Europe this culminated in conscripted armies. In the era in question, education policy is decided entirely by political elites, be they local notables (as in the US) or urban-based national parties (as in Europe).

Even the socialist conception of workers with class consciousness only arises after industrialization and national homogenization. Factory workers can go on strike; Early Modern apprentices bound to a specific master cannot, and servants on a manor compete for favors from the lord and do not act in solidarity.

Nationalism and rural romanticism

A key aspect of nationalism is rural romanticism. As with national homogenization, Gellner stresses that this process is driven by the urban middle class, and not by rural dwellers themselves, who identify with their particular village or region more than with the nation.

The art of the Belle Epoque tells this story. Impressionist and postimpressionist painters in France might paint industrial scenes, such as train stations, but they were much likelier to paint rural ones, often in faraway regions. People in modern-day Provence have used Paul Cézanne’s paintings of the area’s rural idyll to argue against high-speed rail construction, saying it would despoil their historic culture – but Cézanne himself was educated in Aix and spent most of his life in Paris. Across the Pond, New York-based artists would paint romantic scenes in Upstate New York.

To Gellner, this romanticism is bundled with capital-centrism, as in France or England; he recognizes that polycentric models exist, such as that of Germany, but focuses on France as the purest example. In France, the middle class would not romanticize its own situation in Paris, which might be too special to generalize to the rest of the country. It would happily impose Parisian French in education, but could not romanticize the life of the Parisian worker. Instead, the object of romanticism had to be far away.

Stereotypes and familiarity

Gellner’s theory studies Europe in the Second Industrial Revolution, but we can look at applications at other times and places. In the United States, we can write a bunch of stereotypes that apply to the entire country and distinguish it culturally from the rest of the developed world:

  • Cities are car-oriented and low-density, but still have a high-rise central business district, ringed by mostly single-family houses and suburban job centers. If people take public transport, it’s because they are too poor to afford a car, or possibly because they commute to a large central business district at rush hour.
  • Cities are much poorer than their suburbs – the middle class prefers to live outside the city and drive in. If there are sections of central cities that are nice and attract the middle class, the people living therein are usually childless, and many end up moving to the suburbs and buying houses when they have children.
  • Schools are governed at a very local level, down to the individual small town, and parents spend a lot of money on buying houses in favored school districts, leading to intense school segregation by race and parental education. But within each district there is no tracking into academic versus vocational schools.
  • While there is no hierarchy of schools (except across districts), there is a rigid hierarchy of universities. Harvard is the best, but is unattainable to the vast majority of the public. Generally, private universities have higher prestige than public ones. Except at the lowest level of prestige, that of the community college, it’s normal to go far away for university, often out of state, and the university will moreover often be located in a small or medium-size town and not in a big city.
  • Non-Hispanic whites are the dominant group demographically, politically, and economically. They may have sub-identities, such as Italian, Scotch-Irish, or Puritan, but they will usually identify with whites with other sub-identities more closely than with nonwhite Americans. Moreover, they do not feel threatened by neighboring countries, and view themselves as the globally dominant ethnicity rather than possessing a siege mentality the way Israeli Jews and Chinese-Singaporeans do. Finally, within the white majority, Protestants from Northern and Western Europe occupy a privileged position of being the default group, to the point of not even being viewed as ethnic.

All of the above stereotypes are broadly true of the United States, but all have exceptions in various regions. New York’s high density and broad use of public transportation are well-known, and in urbanist discourse this makes it a lightning rod for accusations that it is not Real America.

And yet, some of the other stereotypes are more Northern than Southern. The school segregation picture is specifically Northern: the South is less likely to have segregated districts, and the segregation it does have comes from private (often sectarian) schools. Children in Florida grow up going to schools with children of other races, unlike children in New England. The university hierarchy is not only Northern but specifically Northeastern – in several Midwestern states, the state flagships are their respective states’ most prestigious institutions; and whether the universities are in big cities or smaller towns is idiosyncratic.

There is probably a case that New York is more different from standard average America than other regions are, but there is no plausible case regarding a number of other American cities commonly stereotyped as not Real America, such as Boston, Washington, or even San Francisco.

However, those other cities are too familiar to the cultural elites. Some frustrated liberals do try to say that the Deep South is not Real America for its various special social and political characteristics, but they cannot say with a straight face that Boston is Real America, because they are familiar enough with Boston to know its idiosyncrasies, such as its high-by-American-standards public transport usage and its job centralization pattern.

In contrast, the rural Midwest is disconnected enough from cultural production centers that people can say with a straight face that a randomly-selected Midwestern town represents Real America. It will have plenty of idiosyncrasies, and may even play them up for tourism (as at state fairs), but it will portray them as “we are unique, just like everyone else.” The uniqueness is a claim to special knowledge, and thus power, on behalf of the local elites, rather than a claim to political separateness. A politician is supposed to visit such a town, eat whatever food the locals proclaim is a local delicacy, and do photo-ops with the mayor and richest business owners, rather than to actually change national spending priorities. It’s the politics of personal connections, rather than ideology. Politicians can proclaim it Real America precisely because it is nonthreatening. Rural areas that demand ideological concessions, as the South did on segregation in the 20th century, have a harder time being taken seriously as Real America.

Fractal nationalism

Gellner does not get into the homogenization of minority identity, but it is a real issue within the theory of nationalism. The same principles of nationalism equally apply to minority groups, even ones that have had to politically fight to have cultural autonomy. On the level of identity, this means that groups that did not identify as a single ethnos begin to do so under the influence of a larger, more powerful culture; this includes not just top-down examples like the Uighurs and the Zhuang, but also more organic ones like the formation of a unified Muslim American identity including Middle Easterners, South Asians, and Africans.

The formation of sub-nationalism includes rural romanticism among sub-identities as well. It’s common enough on the level of the state or province, even if it’s a region that the nation writ large denigrates. Californians see the rest of America denigrate them as either ungovernable or elitist, depending on taste, and yet within the state they display the same romanticism for the state’s rural minority. In the interminable California High-Speed Rail alignment debates, people who supported routing the trains through Gilroy would talk up the area’s garlic festival as some kind of important marker of state culture.

In Europe, too, we see people specifically overrate the rural even in minority regions. French sociologists have spilled far too much ink about how modern social changes including globalization have hollowed out small towns, and multiple articles have specifically looked at Albi. They either directly say or imply that in the era of national unity, Occitania was great, but immigration and globalization have left it in decline. The reality is that Southern France has economically boomed in the last two generations – Toulouse is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe thanks to the Airbus factory – but somehow, Toulouse and Bordeaux are not Real Midi whereas any small town where one may find extreme right voters is.

This romanticism goes even below the level of a state of province. Within cities, too, there are patterns to which neighborhoods are called Real New York and which are not, and as a rule, these neighborhoods are always the farthest-out ones. I have heard speculation that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will face a major headwind in the 2021 mayoral election purely because he’s from Manhattan. I have spent years talking to New Yorkers and heard a lot of Real New York complaints and do not recall a single instance in which people accused Kew Gardens Hills and Midwood of being not-Real New York, never mind that their Orthodox Jewish populations behave in ways atypical of the city much more so than the upper middle class residents of the Upper West Side do.

Politicizing charisma

Some regions, professions, or social classes end up having considerable charisma, in the sense that other people view them as national symbols. Often these specifically represent the past, since it’s had more time to insinuate itself into national culture than the future: all over the United States as well as Western Europe, there is more attention to declining industrial regions such as the Midwest or the Ruhr than to demographically growing regions even if they’re equally poor, such as ones with economies driven by tourism and retirement.

Usually what makes a group charismatic is that it makes no ideological demands on the state, only personal ones. And yet, there is ideology in personal demands, which leads to overspending on such groups, for example lush farm subsidies and agricultural protectionism.

This is a pitfall for urbanism specifically, since the biggest cities genuinely have different needs from small towns. Public transport can succeed in small cities (like Strasbourg, Geneva, Karlsruhe, or Brno) given supportive policies and fail in big ones (like Los Angeles) given hostile ones – but there is practically always a size gradient. New York will always have better public transport than the rest of the United States. The upshot is that the sort of investment that is designed to maximize transport usage intensity relative to spending will concentrate in a few big cities, especially New York – and much of the potential for success elsewhere in the United States involves models of transit-oriented development that in effect New Yorkize other cities.

Since the modes of transportation that move people the most efficiently – various flavors of rapid transit – are difficult to implement in most American cities other than New York, nationalists face a dilemma. They can abandon nationalism, and declare that if (say) Tampa and Grand Rapids cannot make urban rail work, they will receive less funding. But this will look insensitive, not just to locals of Tampa and Grand Rapids, but also to various New York elites that have turned small cities like Tampa and Grand Rapids into national bellwethers. Most instead choose to politicize transport decisions and argue for things that small cities can implement, no matter how poor the results are (“learn to love the bus”).

One of the two options in the dilemma is politically correct, but keeps American transportation and urbanism frozen in amber in the 1950s; nationalism always romanticizes the past more than the future. The other moves forward, but is not so politically correct. Who wants to openly argue in favor of more investment in a two-thirds nonwhite and two-fifths foreign-born city, with enough minority prosperity that its most elite school is two-thirds Asian? Who wants to euthanize the national industry that played such a big role in the mythology of postwar prosperity, at least for those who could afford it and had the correct skin color? Who wants to openly argue for greater adoption of a vernacular architecture that a large majority of America emotionally associates with the living standards of a hundred years ago, never mind that individuals like it enough that developers build it on their own at market rate wherever they are allowed to?

The future of nationalism

Nationalism was the ideology that suited the Second Industrial Revolution, and globalism is what suits the information technology era. The extent of economic specialization of 1900 lent itself well to nation-states. Those nation-states did not have to be very big – Sweden wasn’t – but if they were small they needed to have open economies and institutions allowing extensive trade even in the absence of mass migration.

The extent of economic specialization of 2020 in the developed world is not the same as that of 1900. Industrial specialization, as when each industrial Northern American city produced a different good, is in decline, but instead there are hyper-specialized clusters of academic and industrial research, drawing on international talent. This requires stepping up from nationalism toward globalism. Linguistically this means English, stripped of a few Americanisms and Anglicisms like non-metric units; in literature this means reading a selection of many different cultures’ great authors, usually in translation, and not just one linguistic canon; in science this means an academia that trends toward international exchanges and often nation-hopping in training. It’s too vast a world for cultural Fordism, which encourages post-Fordist specialization – think Starbucks and its many different options for coffee and not the McDonald’s of 20 years ago with its limited menu.

The United States happens to be very well-suited for some aspects of globalization: most importantly, it is already Anglophone. It is ill-suited for others: Americans’ sense of national pride is bound in industries and consumption patterns that are destroying the planet. Any green transition, and really any improvement in infrastructure beyond the 1950s and 60s, will offend Americans’ sense of nationhood and elevate subcultures they are used to denigrating. This is not partisan and this is not even mostly racial. Nationalism romanticizes the nation’s imagined past, and in the United States more than anywhere else the past in question must be discarded as an era of wanton pollution.

42 comments

  1. Herbert

    For what it’s worth a lonely planet guide on Costa Rica I once read argued for people to spend more time in the central valley, home of San José, Cartago, Alajuela, SJO airport, most of the population and industry and basically all that’s left of the national rail lines (run like an American style commuter railroad), because it was “the real Costa Rica” as opposed to the tourism zones on either coast

  2. Diego Beghin

    I just read Nations and Nationalism, and Gellner doesn’t talk much about the romantisation of the countryside, and I don’t think there was anything about negative stereotypes of cities. There are a few throwaway comments about how nationalists are often ignorant of the rural culture they claim to protect, but that’s it. Does he develop these ideas elsewhere?

      • adirondacker12800

        With all this new fangled telecommunications, 300, 325 days of the year it’s the same as suburban splendor with less traffic and more deer.

  3. Eric

    “the rural Midwest is disconnected enough from cultural production centers that people can say with a straight face that a randomly-selected Midwestern town represents Real America”

    There are other reasons for this, which I think better explain the identification of the Midwest with “Real America”. It speaks in the “standard” accent (“General American”). Regarding the Great Plains in particular, it is economically successful and highly educated compared to other areas of similar population density. And it is (or was until recently) overwhelmingly white.

    • Alon Levy

      Re accent:

      1. The choice of which region’s accent to turn into the standard is not exogenous.
      2. While the Plains speak General American, the industrial parts of the Midwest do not – they have a big soundshift that is nonetheless not negatively stereotyped the way Southern, New York, and Boston accents are.

      • Daniel

        That is not borne out by regular experience, as someone who has spent plenty of time over the last 20 years in both urban and rural parts of the Midwest, and also (through time in the military) all over the rest of the United States. Generally, the Midwest has the least “regional” character in accent; the old industrial city accents of yore (i.e. on SNL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBnnon_iZOM) are gone. You will be hard pressed to find the soundshift you speak of in 2019.

        • Alon Levy

          Hillary Clinton speaks that way. So do a bunch of grad students and postdocs I met from that region in the late 2000s and 2010s. It’s not as exaggerated as in the SNL sketch, but it’s there.

  4. Basil Marte

    I was waiting for a mention of the thing where cities were decried as having Asphaltkultur.

    “Factory workers can go on strike; […] servants on a manor compete for favors from the lord and do not act in solidarity.”
    Non-unionized workers in a contemporary megacorp cannot go on strike either, as they are unable to coordinate the action. (On the other hand, IIRC there was a revolt of the apprentices in medieval Flanders.)

    “Those nation-states did not have to be very big – Sweden wasn’t – but if they were small they needed to have 𝘰𝘱𝘦𝘯 𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘰𝘮𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴 𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘰𝘸𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘦𝘹𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘥𝘦 even in the absence of mass migration.”
    This basically means that it wasn’t economic specialization, since the economic pressure was released by trade. And by analogy, in the 21st century it ought to be possible to have hyper-specialized clusters of academic and industrial research, even more extensive trade, and an absence of mass migration.
    I think a better case would point at telecommunications technology. Before the printing press, language and culture were very “fragmented”, but without actual sharp borders between groups. In the Gutenberg era, especially once literacy rates soared as centralized education (itself pushing in the same direction) became widespread, writing clustered some patches of this landscape into internally homogeneous languages, that became sharply distinct from the other clusters. These became the (cores of) nations. Then, while for some reason telegraphy/-phony and radio apparently had no effect (insert special pleading here), Teh Internet reduces the variable and especially the fixed costs related to publishing (as opposed to creating in the first place, which, on the other hand, many people seem to willingly do in their free time). As a result, there won’t be much of a barrier to entry, where a gatekeeper (publisher) decides what is a good enough fit to the existing culture to be worth adding it to said culture. Consequently, economies of scope increase, leading to Mandarin taking over the world. Or was it 英语? (Previously, larger languages mostly enjoyed simple economies of scale, and maybe a selection benefit, where the best N works from a larger pool were better.) Within that, geographically neat (in theory) nations are replaced by geographically mixed subcultures. Thus in the physical world, indeed only a minimum of shared culture can be assumed, thus globalism/liberalism/cosmopolitanism wins. Also, the subcultures would all be low-Grid because members can just walk away. (Or can they? If they spent significant time there, they probably picked up some phrases, concepts, or other verbal “tics” that would remain, and probably current-day AI could pick this up. But presumably it would be illegal to do anything drastic with this information.) Thus mostly they would have to be low-Group as well. A few groups currently have solutions for creating Grid (physical co-location means children befriend other group members’ children; early marriage; giving children a skewed education such that they won’t be able to function in the rest of society) but these might be difficult/impossible in the future.
    I can easily see why a lot of people are going to be (heck, some already are) angry about national pride being taken away from them, without anything to replace it, and a future where they have to spend a large part of their time among effectively foreigners.

  5. Aaron M. Renn

    In the US, part of the issue is historically distinctive regional cultures in which the big cities are somewhat different from most local cultures. In Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America, he cites NYC (lower Manhattan at least) and DC as aberrations from his schema.The other elite east coast city is Boston in New England, with most of the West Coast as a thin strip called Ecotopia. (If you include Miami, it was a US enclave of a mostly Caribbean region called “The Islands”). Within these elite regions, the big cities are not seen as inauthentic to that region (e.g., Boston in New England).

    Radical anti-modernist Catholic priest Ivan Illich had a lot to say about the development of formalized language in one of the essays in his book Shadow Work. He traces it back to the time of Queen Isabella in Spain (specifically Antonio de Nebrija’s Spanish grammar). A couple of quotes:

    The switch from the vernacular to an officially taught mother tongue is perhaps the most significant – and, therefore, least researched – event in the coming of a commodity-intensive society. The radical change from the vernacular to taught language foreshadows the switch from breast to bottle, from subsistence to welfare, from production for use to production for market, from expectations divided between state and church to a world where the Church is marginal, religion is privatized, and the state assumes the maternal functions heretofore claimed only by the Church.

    Formally taught mother tongue professionally handled according to abstract rules had begun to compare with and encroach upon the vernacular. This gradual replacement and degradation of the vernacular by its costly counterfeit heralds the coming of the market-intensive society in which we now live.

  6. LeeEsq

    The idea that Real Americans (TM) lives in rural small towns and farm steads rather than big cities is a very old one. It dates back to the colonial period and was articulated into theory by Thomas Jefferson. It has appeared periodically throughout American history with different groups and politicians like the Drys advocating for it. America also had a long bias for single family homes over apartments that also dates back to the colonial period. The former was seen as more domestic and Anglo-Protestant than the apartment. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

  7. LeeEsq

    Getting the vast majority of the world’s population to go along with globalism/cosmopolitanism is going to be staggeringly difficult. One of the virtues and flaws of nationalism is that every linguistic or cultural group can access nationalistic feelings for themselves and demand a nation. I also think that national feelings go back a lot further than the 19th century even if they didn’t manifest in quite the same way. The various anti-alien riots that occurred during the Medieval period shows that something like a national idea already existed in a inchoate form at least.

    Globalisms/cosmopolitanisms issues are two fold. One is simply that they’re always going to be hundreds of millions or even billions of people around the world that don’t have much to gain by abandoning nationalism in favor of globalism/cosmopolitanism. The anywheres are going to be the people that need freedom of movement the most, either upper middle class or wealthy people who need the international free market for their livelihood or those that need to escape horrible conditions at home to avoid persecution. That isn’t going to be most of the world’s population and for many of them cheaper consumer goods, an occasional international vacation, and wider variety of food choices might not make up for the loss of community feeling. Its sort of why many Eastern Europeans mourn the lost of Communism even though their lives are generally better now than they were under Communism from a material standpoint at least. Globalisms other big issue is that it will work best and cause the least amount of resentment if every country drops their own particular national community feeling and adopts liberal democratic cosmopolitanism at once. This isn’t going to happen for a variety of rather practical reasons and it will strike people as highly hypocritical to have a group of countries that get away with nationalism and another group of countries that are required to abandon it.

    • Alon Levy

      The medieval period had lots of anti-Semitic riots, but the construction of linguistic nationalism took a while, and took well into the Early Modern era to form outside Italy. In Germany it only really goes back to the recovery from the Thirty Years’ War, and even then there was no notion that Germany must be united until after the Napoleonic Wars. German nationalists subsequently mythologized German nationalism as more ancient, just as Renaissance Italians had pretended their nobles were direct descendants of 1st-century generals. Medieval Christians told themselves that God had chosen the king to rule and the peasants to toil; 19-20c nationalists told themselves their nation had some essential characteristics from time immemorial. Both were excuses to avoid having to say the quiet part out loud: “the powerful rule because they outgun you, your choice is obedience or the graveyard.”

      “Eastern Europeans mourn the loss of communism” is a pretty weird take, to be honest. The political left is incredibly weak in most of Eastern Europe for a reason, and not only do post-Soviet emigrants tend to be right-wing in the US and Israel, but also the right specifically appealed to them using the line that the local left is just like communism. There’s genuine Ostalgie in East Germany because of resentment toward the country’s absorption into West German institutions, and even more so in Russia because its economy tanked after its vassal states went their own way, but in the now-booming former vassals in between there’s very little of it – and even among East Germans, the Ostalgie is concentrated among those who did not move to higher wages in the West.

      • LeeEsq

        There were also various anti-alien riots in Medieval and early Modern England. There was certainly a sense of English patriotism by the 1400s if not a bit earlier. The fact that England kept trying to conquer the rest of the British islands probably contributed to something like national feeling in other parts of the British islands until England managed to slowly absorb them and even then it didn’t really go away. Dutch national feeling can be traced back to the wars of liberation against the Spanish, etc.

        • Alon Levy

          I mean, England was trying to conquer Ireland and France around the same time. And the Dutch state goes back to the 17th century, but it’s not really a good example of modern nationalism. For one, there was no irredentism in the Dutch Republic toward the Southern Netherlands – on the contrary, after the War of Spanish Succession, the Republic specifically wanted the Southern Netherlands ceded to Austria in order to have a buffer state with France. For two, the Dutch Republic mixed a strong Calvinist identity with relative toleration of religious minorities (=Catholic churches were permitted as long as they did not look like Catholic churches from the outside). For three, there was never any sense that Frisia was less Dutch than the other provinces and needed to be assimilated, cf. significant minorities in France *in the 1960s* who thought Corsicans, Alsatians, and Bretons weren’t really French.

      • Herbert

        Except some of the “vassal states” did do better pre 1989.

        The Soviet Empire such as it was was a curious case of the core bleeding itself for the benefit of the fringes.

        Shelves in Magdeburg were always fuller than in Moscow.

        And Yugo nostalgia has a large current of “We want Tito back” I recently saw that in the flesh in the inflight magazine of Air Serbia of all places…

        • Alon Levy

          The USSR core (like Russia and Ukraine) did; the Baltics, Poland, Czechia, Romania, etc. have all had fast economic growth since 1990. Serbia crashed but was never a Soviet satellite, it was a small imperial center.

          • Herbert

            Life expectancy in Russia has tanked.

            Rubel per person per year is not the best measurement of “doing well”

          • Alon Levy

            Russia specifically underwent a crisis; the loss of the Eastern European colonies would do that to an empire. The life expectancy crisis was a combination of that and the repeal of Gorbachev-era alcohol taxes. The Baltics and the non-USSR members of the Warsaw Pact have had a very different economic and social trajectory.

    • Basil Marte

      I live in a now-EU (and Schengen) -member ex-Warsaw Pact state, and I have relatives who do go on about how life under Communism was better in some respects; more broadly, there is a stereotype that such a kind of person does exist. However, both my relatives are elderly, and the stereotype is often called “communist retiree”. If one is cynical, one could say that these people confuse their personally degrading health and ability with the quality of life declining.

      • adirondacker12800

        They remember the good parts and ignore the bad parts. ….. my aunt and uncle would spend the winter in Arizona with my cousin and her family. Her one of her pet peeves was that her parents would leave dirty dishes in the sink. I reminded her that none of us had running hot water until we moved to the suburbs. Most of her parent’s life, the dishes got washed once a day when someone made the effort to manually make hot water. And until they moved to apartments with a water heating device, by putting a pot on the kitchen range… when they were having a fit of nostalgia, at family gatherings, that was getting out of hand I’d ask them “When was the last time you shoveled coal or ashes?”. To remind them life today is sweet. They remember the good parts and ignore the bad parts. . .ask them which part they would trade for the remote controlled television….

      • Eric

        Reminds me of the old joke:
        Professor: Life was great under Stalin.
        Students: Really?
        Professor: Yeah, I was 18 years old.

  8. Daniel

    “all over the United States as well as Western Europe, there is more attention to declining industrial regions such as the Midwest or the Ruhr than to demographically growing regions even if they’re equally poor, such as ones with economies driven by tourism and retirement.”

    I think this is an instance of news media bias on your part. What about popular TV and movies? (for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top-rated_United_States_television_programs_by_season). Going backwards in time, top 10 TV shows are set in (if they are set anywhere):

    2019 – DC, East Texas, LA/Philly/NYC, NYC, NYC, San Jose, NYC, Chicago
    2018 – Pasadena, LA/Philly/NYC, suburban Chicago, East Texas, San Jose, NYC, NYC
    2017 – Pasadena, DC, NYC, LA/NJ/NYC, NYC, New Orleans, LA
    2016 – DC, Pasadena, NYC, New Orleans, NYC
    2015 – Pasadena, DC, New Orleans, NYC, Seattle, DC, DC
    2014 – DC, Pasadena, NYC, NYC
    2013 – DC, Pasadena, Los Angeles, NYC, LA
    2012 – DC, LA, Pasadena, Sacramento
    2011 – DC, LA, Sacramento, Philly, Seattle,
    2010 – DC, Sacramento, LA, Las Vegas
    2009 – Las Vegas, DC, Sacramento, “suburbia”, Seattle
    2008 – “suburbia”, Las Vegas, New Jersey, Seattle
    2007 – Las Vegas, Seattle, New Jersey, “suburbia”, Miami
    2006 – Las Vegas, “suburbia”, Seattle, NYC, Miami, New Jersey
    2005 – Las Vegas, “suburbia”, Miami, NYC, Seattle, Long Island
    2004 – Las Vegas, NYC, NYC, Chicago, Miami, Long Island
    2003 – Las Vegas, NYC, Chicago, Long Island, NYC
    2002 – NYC, Las Vegas, Chicago, Long Island, NYC, DC, NYC
    2001 – Chicago, NYC, Long Island, NYC, Boston, Las Vegas, DC
    2000 – Chicago, NYC, Seattle, Boston
    1999 – Chicago, NYC, Seattle, NYC, Buffalo, suburban Detroit

    You have to go back to 1999 (20 years ago!) to find top 10 TV shows set in the Midwest (non-Chicago edition). Otherwise, the focus is the “globalist” big cites, with smattering of Sunbelt (East Texas, Sacramento, New Orleans) thrown in. You have to go to 1995 (Grace under Fire) to find a top 5 show in the “struggling Midwest” and 1979 (Laverne & Shirley) to find a #1 show.

    The point is, the national conscience is driven by TV and movies much more than news articles. TV viewership dwarves newspaper readership. People just aren’t paying attention to the struggling Midwest, even viewers _in_ the struggling Midwest; and they haven’t been doing so for a long time.

    • Alon Levy

      Prestige fiction describes a deracinated version of the global cities, yes. And then political media and non-fiction center everything else that’s less exposed. Ultimately, nobody votes based on what’s depicted on Friends.

  9. SB

    “.. various New York elites that have turned small cities like Tampa and Grand Rapids into national bellwethers…”
    That’s because they are bellwethers for winning the Presidency and Congress. Increasing turnout in NY and CA doesn’t help you win elections.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        Have you ever lived in California during a presidential campaign? You wouldn’t know there was a national election coming. The candidates drop into Northern or Southern California for private fundraising events (no public appearances) and then leave. It is already known that California’s Electoral College votes for 2020 are going to whoever is the Democratic candidate. [Dear Toyota. It is difficult to find my Prius in the Whole Foods parking lot. The “Obama For President” bumper sticker is apparently factory-installed. If I put a Romney bumper sticker on my Prius to make it unique, would this void the warranty?] Have you ever lived in Florida (the largest “purple state”) during a presidential election? You can’t watch 15 minutes of television without an ad.

        • Alon Levy

          Okay, but the Real ___ rhetoric happens not just in the US. London is still full of marginal constituencies and yet the Deep England rhetoric excludes it. Paris only voted a few percentage points to the left of the rest of France in 2012. Tel Aviv votes way to the left of the rest of Jewish Israel, but it has a lot of intra-bloc swing voters and Israel uses a strictly proportional system and yet people denigrate it, even parties that draw a disproportionate share of votes from it like Meretz.

          • SB

            It could be that capital/big city bashing is net voter gainer as voters in living in Real ___ will react more than voters in major cities. This could explain why capital/big city bashing is so popular and wide spread; it works (electorally).

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t think it universally works electorally (France not only elected Macron but is so far poised to reelect him), but even if it does, it’s worth asking why certain regions are viewed as more deserving of political attention than others.

          • Herbert

            I have never heard any political movement in Nicaragua openly capital-bash. The east of the country doesn’t bash Managua as much as the entire Mestizo Spanish speaking elite.

            Neither did capital bashing play a role in any Costa Rican campaign I’d know of…

          • Eric

            Maybe it’s wealth-bashing. A way of saying that poorer people (the white ones, at least) should have more attention paid to their needs because they are more vulnerable.

          • adirondacker12800

            The myth is that the stalwart yeomanry of Real America(tm) is having it’s blood sucked dry by those awful people in ciites spending all of their taxes. It’s not true but that is the myth.

  10. keaswaran

    I’m not sure the extent to which this is connected to your explanation, or a different one. It seems to me that there’s a model where communities interact with their immediate vicinity, and with the nearest communities of comparable or slightly larger size, even if they are far away. As a result, small towns mainly interact with each other and regional larger towns; larger towns interact with their hinterlands and the nearest big city; and big cities interact with large hinterlands and then big cities across the continent or even on other continents. On this picture, big city people have substantial foreign influence, while smaller towns only have influence from within the nation. So there’s a case to be made that “real Xans” are from smaller than average towns within X, because people from bigger places interact substantially with people outside the country.

    • Alon Levy

      “People from bigger places interact substantially with people outside the country” is a very modern take; it was not true during the romantic era. Even today it’s not universally true, e.g. Parisians aren’t appreciably more Anglophone than provincials (whereas Berliners very much are).

  11. myb6

    “in the United States more than anywhere else the past in question must be discarded as an era of wanton pollution”
    Everything about the era in which you were happiest MUST BE DISCARDED. Didn’t Obama like to talk about a scalpel instead of a hatchet? Do you really think carbon emissions and intolerance were the substance of what made Americans happier in the 50s? Haha and we wonder why we’re not received as Real America? I know I’m being a little uncharitable here but come on.

    I don’t think the common cause made between subcultures within a nation vs the globalist city/cities is all that mysterious. There’s the matter of globalist culture/interests threatening your local subculture in a way that other locale’s subcultures are not. There’s also the matter that the values systems of the different subcultures are often compatible, despite local variation, in a way that they’re not with globalism, family-raising/vertical-transmission vs homo-economicus/horizontal-transmission.

    I’m decidedly underwhelmed on the theory (I see amongst a lot of lefties reacting against the current nationalist turn in some countries) that, just as national institutions absorbed local, that tech etc mean globalism is the rational next step. The institutions of nationalism, Westphalian states, *preceded and encouraged* the national identity; you’ve covered this. The problem with globalism (or the EU for instance) is that for a median-status 1st Worlder, the institutions are remarkably poor performers and non-participatory; so why exactly should they cooperate? There’s an element of globalists parasitizing on the effective/plausibly-participatory national structures/culture/institutions without any sort of offsetting contribution, hence the resentment.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know, were the 1950s an era of happiness? Or just an era in which America’s national dick size was bigger?

      And think long and hard about whether you really want to call Jews globalists parasites.

      • adirondacker12800

        It was an era when white guys, preferably a member of the locally dominant church, were shown a lot of deference. And could count on making more money next year. “more money next year” lasted until the 70s. And before the subtle lead poisoning from the enormous amounts of leaded gasoline we began to burn were affecting people.

      • myb6

        Well, yes, I haven’t delved into happiness studies, but that’s a common factual claim. Some googling cited Bok/Harvard. General Social Survey only goes back to the 70s but trends that way too. Considering the tech and tolerance, not a good sign. But a little beside the point: people *think* life was happier then, and if that’s false better to demonstrate that before deciding to discard the era.

        Is the EU, the UN, DC/Boston/Cali or Paris or the City of London particularly Jewish? NYC is, but that’s about it. On a more personal level, for all you know I could be MOT. I’m open to using a more technical synonym: “rent-seek,” “defect”?

        I’m increasingly concerned that MY side in the culture war is actually the aggressor (at least in the 2010s).

  12. Nathanael

    “Cities are much poorer than their suburbs – the middle class prefers to live outside the city and drive in”

    This was true once, but has flat-out reversed. It’s just not true anywhere in the US any more. We’re reverting to the older pattern where cities are much richer than their suburbs.

    I wonder what effect that is going to have.

    The rural areas are just gone, in population terms. The population counts are low enough to be irrelevant now (which is an interesting and historic change); even in the “rural red states” which have oversized power in the Senate, their populations are essentially entirely in the cities.

    So it’s cities (of various sizes) and suburbs. And the cities are richer than their suburbs. What effect does this have?

    • Alon Levy

      No, it’s still true, compare the poverty rate in New York with the poverty rate in its suburbs. The gradient is falling and is likely to reverse itself eventually, but today it still exists and is large.

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