If you ask them, one in two Americans will tell you they live in a suburb. The label evokes a clear image: areas inhabited by single-family homes on the outskirts of cities. Of that 52% self-declared suburban, half voted for Trump in 2016; today, it would barely be 42%, and his Democratic rival would destroy him if what the latest polls predict comes true.
To understand this shift, it is first necessary to fix the meaning not only geographical, but also cultural and political of a category that is in transformation: slowly but inexorably, its homogeneity is unraveling. And in it falls hollow the call of Trump to save the suburbs.
📺 American dream uniform
The American stereotype of the suburb, that of the white of the walls, the green of the trees and the gray of the endless highway, with nothing but house after house, no longer represents suburban reality as faithfully as it did two or three decades ago. . The country’s geographic mosaic has become more varied as new ways of living and living emerge, fragmenting the label of suburb into a myriad of peri-urban configurations ranging from the quasi-rural zone with mansions to the partial reconquest of areas before abandoned, passing through new developments that mix single-family with small apartment buildings and a greater or lesser degree of life outside the private vehicle (going from one place to another by car: another suburban insignia yesterday that is in question today).
That image, moreover, was the product in no small measure of a phenomenon with an eloquent name: white flight. The gradual abandonment of urban centers by the white population in the second half of the 20th century reproduced patterns of racial segregation that gave implicit skin color to the American dream of a house with a garden surrounded by peace. Even today, the suburbs are predominantly white, it is true, unlike the purely urban areas, where the latest study on the matter by Pew Research found that there was no longer any race that represented an absolute majority of the population. But today’s suburb is less uniform than purely rural areas. One in every seven inhabitants is Latino; one in nine, African American. In total, about a third of the suburban population is not white.
This figure has changed at the same rate as foreign migration reached the suburban areas. Today, 11% of its inhabitants were not born in the United States.
When Donald Trump tries to captivate the suburban vote, he does so by evoking the original, stereotypical, uniform, white image. With few ambiguities, what it tells its inhabitants is: if you want to stop this mixture, if you want to go back to the past, if you want your neighborhoods to be clearly separated from these derivations, I am your man.
🏗 What the suburbs want
With his speech drenched in reactionary nostalgia, the Republican candidate believes he is reading accurately into the souls of suburban dwellers. But polls indicate otherwise, at least for now. Probably, because it speaks to the suburbs of the past, but those who vote are those of the present.
Trump sees, for example, married women with children in these areas as his main audience. He promises them protection for their homes, for their neighborhoods, and asks them accordingly: “Please, can I like it?” The answer is negative for now: the latest Grinnell College poll gives him 31% of his vote, compared to a crushing 64% for Biden. The president, embedded in an archaic (in fact, sexist) image of the white woman locked in and abandoned by her family, seems unable to connect with her concerns. A month ago, in a Sienna College poll, a group of suburban women in quiet Midwestern states were questioned about Trump’s favorite fears: crime and riots. Protests for racial justice, looting and violence are packaged alongside the Democratic victory in a speech whose cornerstone is a warning: they are after your neighborhood, your city, your lifestyle. They will destroy not only the suburban nation, but you Plot in it, and Trump will protect it (the quote in which he asks for affection, set in the middle of a campaign event in the crucial State of Pennsylvania, ends with a direct “I saved your fucking neighborhood”). But although the concern for crime and disturbances in the country is high, it hardly translates into the perception of both in the area of each woman interviewed: they see it as serious problems, yes, but national, foreign.
Trump’s chain of argument is usually completed with an apocalyptic mention of a series of popular housing policies among Democrats (especially the most progressive). Facilitating the construction of housing in apartments, granting grants or checks to reduce the degree of racial segregation, are part of the actions that prominent Democratic legislators advocate. The Biden-Harris tandem also contemplates them. Trump makes them the blue battering ram against the suburbs. And although women in Minnesota and Wisconsin show some concern for them, it does not seem decisive, nor majority.
It is also difficult for issues of such a local nature to translate well to the national level. It is not only that the eventual implementation of these measures would vary enormously in each area, but also that the increasingly heterogeneous geographic mosaic of which we spoke before produces very different fittings with each of these measures. It will have little to do with its reception in a mixed, new and diverse periurban area, in cities such as Portland, Denver or San Diego, with which it can take place in a traditionally segregated community in Alabama or Georgia.
But on national issues, suburban positions don’t seem to find themselves where Trump supposes either. Not at least in the cultural, racial or identity aspects, to which he usually appeals when he speaks to the suburbs: in all of them, its inhabitants seem closer to the urban nucleus than to the rural Republican fiefdoms.
There is a very notable exception: government intervention in particularly material matters. There, the suburban spirit is much more individualistic, liberal in fact. But the good performance of the economy, which was always Trump’s strong asset before these elections, has been nullified by the pandemic. And in this particular, in everything related to the virus, the same pattern is reproduced: the suburb is after all more urban than rural.
Neither in the immediate, nor in the structural; Neither nationally nor locally Trump seems to connect as he did in 2016 with that half of the American population that is much less stagnant in the past than the candidate claims. In fact, it is the change itself that nullifies the appeal to go back. Meanwhile, issues that seem truly central to many suburban minds are relegated: economy, pandemic, the role of government; and according to a Pew Research survey in 2018, also the problems of drug addiction, housing, infrastructure, public transport and traffic. All this remains for now on the margins of what the current president seems willing to offer them, determined to rescue some suburbs that do not seem particularly eager for anyone to save them from themselves
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