The next time I get into one of those verbal political brawls that include aging boomers reminiscing about their bucolic lives in “Back-when-I,” an, I am certain, perfectly splendid picket-fence of a hometown, I’m hauling out this nugget from Nate Silver:
If you want to “get in touch with ‘normal America,’ skip the small towns of your actual or imagined past and instead start with New Haven or Tampa’.”
Tampa? Or how about Philadelphia? Chicago? Milwaukee? New Haven (that’s in Connecticut, one of those New England bastions of liberal fervor.)
Despite our collective, media-shaped memories of our “real America” childhoods with their white picket fences, white bread and white people, there’s no such thing anymore – if there ever were.
Today’s real America lives in Tampa, not Des Moines, and certainly not in Louisville, Kentucky. As statistics guru Silver says in a recent post on his website, FiveThirtyEight, “that sense that the normal America is out there somewhere in a hamlet where they can’t pronounce “Acela” is misplaced. In fact, it’s not in a small town at all.”
Every generation, when it reaches the halfway mark, starts shaking its head, sighing over the foibles of young people and harkening to the mythical delights of their upbringing in Anytown, USA. Why, we never locked our doors in Backwheni; we worked hard for what we have, and, by golly, we want that America back again.
Like him or not, we all know what Donald Trump means when he talks about making American great again: an updated version of our 1950s and 1960s memories of just how great we had it back then. You know, when most of the people we knew lived in small town, white America, where people were young and a high school education was a ticket to success, where mom stayed home, dad and all the sons worked in the local factories, we went to church on Sunday (and Wednesday) and where “city slicker” was an epithet.
Popular media and all politicians join the hunt for the all-American home place every election cycle, appealing to our collective sense of who we think Americans are. And, that collective sense is pretty much, spectacularly dead wrong. We aren’t, as Silver’s statistical analysis “a small town of white people.”
And, America is not New York City, or Washington, or Los Angeles.
Instead, today’s real American communities are the complex, sprawling, highly diverse mid-size regional metropolitan areas. Tampa is number two. New Haven is number one. They’re joined in the top 10 by Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Oklahoma City and a handful of others.
The top three states most “like” today’s “all-American” demographics? Illinois, New York and New Jersey. Florida comes in at number seven.
But, but, but, we sputter, those metro areas are cities – and we say “cities” with that sliding tone approaching three syllables of disbelief as though there were something contagious about city folks. As for those top three states? Dear heavens, they’re filled with crazy liberals and monstrous traffic jams.
That’s the real America. Boisterous, racially and ethnically diverse, left-leaning socially, right-leaning fiscally, young, educated, mobile, immigrant, disapproving of establishment politics (when they care at all) – and wholly uninterested in living in places for which their parents and grandparents pine. We’re not going back to Back-when-I, no matter how hard the media and politicians try to convince us otherwise. That America is gone. We’d best be getting on with understanding today’s real America, its people, politics, dreams, challenges and aspirations. They don’t look a thing like Back-when-I. That may not be what we want to hear, but the sooner we accept it, the sooner we capitalize on our collective strengths and find the solutions to our daunting challenges.
But, if you should want a peek at what today passes for the “towns most likely to look and feel like the 1950s,” you can plan an outing to Louisville, KY, Cincinnati or Indianapolis.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a digital solutions company for small businesses. She has lived in a bunch of the states that look and feel like today’s “real America,” which likely explains her left-leaning ways.