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.
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.
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.