Skip to content

Stirrings in the heartland

Memo to Democrats who think the Donald J. Trump phenomenon in the American heartland is a passing fancy: The latest census figures released this spring suggest fresh growth in the Midwest, the sea of Republican red that swept the Manhattan billionaire into the White House.

The movement isn’t robust, and a good portion of the growth is in cities that customarily help bolster Democratic numbers, but this period may be an important moment in the sun for places outside the Sun Belt — particularly the very places where Trump mopped up scores of electoral votes.

Indeed, at the very least, the parts of America that complained of being ignored now are meriting special attention from demographers and almost certainly soon will be studied in more detail by political professionals.

For tucked inside those census figures are signs of a comeback that could reshape the country just as Trump’s triumph reshaped the political world.

“The middle of the country is showing signs of reviving,” said William Frey, a pioneering demographer who now is a Brookings Institution scholar. “It is a good thing, especially since so many people in the middle of the country have felt that they’ve been left out of things for a while.”

No longer. There are discernible population gains in Detroit, Dayton, Akron, Indianapolis and Scranton — all in states that Trump carried in 2016. Rural areas, also a Trump stronghold, are growing nationally for the first time in a decade. And there remain big gains in the Sun Belt, yet another Trump redoubt, though the gains are less now than they have been in the recent past.

One of the characteristics the census figures reveal is an aspect of American life that had disappeared for several years: population dispersal. The result is a spurt of growth in heartland cities that Frey believes “could call into question the sharp clustering of the nation — in large metros and their cities — that characterized the first half of the decade of the 2010s.”

One likely reason for this, as for so much in our culture today: the millennials.

They’re interested in settling in locations where housing costs are lower than they are in the established cities, where life is less formal, traffic is less oppressive and work-life balance is possible. The migrants, Frey suggested, “are benefiting from the revival of the economy, as they now begin their careers and families and look for a more long-term location that is affordable and provides a good quality of life.”

That is increasingly becoming a theme in those areas.

“That’s because there’s a revival of opportunity in the Midwest, where there has been so much revitalization,” said Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who was born in Cincinnati. “There’s the lower cost of living, but also more and more tech jobs, and people are realizing they can afford a better quality of living in these places.”

Meanwhile, for the first time in this decade, population gains are being recorded in rural areas. These are the kinds of places that Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his striking new book “The Left Behind,” described as “moral communities,” places where “people interact with one another and form loyalties to one another,” adding that the “moral outrage of rural America is a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are disappearing. The anger is that they are under siege.”

And while there may be precision in census figures, there are great uncertainties in politics, and one of them may be whether growth in pro-Trump areas necessarily means strengthening the hold the president has on those areas.

“It’s impossible to know whether these movements are motivated by politics,” said Barbara Trish, a political scientist at Grinnell College, located 60 miles east of Des Moines, Iowa. “And things could work in unexpected ways. To the extent that Democrats worry that they have fallen way behind in those areas, they may find the newcomers vulnerable to being picked up by their candidates.”

The latest census figures show that the smallest population growth rates are in the urban cores and mature suburbs, two areas carried by Hillary Clinton in the last election. The two areas with the highest growth rates, emerging suburbs and exurbs, were carried by Trump. As the GOP presidential nominee, Trump actually carried exurbs by a margin of 36 percentage points, about the same margin by which Clinton prevailed in the urban cores. But the exurbs grew at a pace 3.5 times as fast as the urban cores.

Slice these census figures a different way and you also will find that non-metro areas, though with populations and growth far smaller than large metro areas, sided with Trump by a margin of 34 percentage points.

This underlines the current geography of American politics, besides the well-known portrait of two blue coasts bracketing a bulging red middle. It also illuminates the social challenge the United States faces, with the aggrieved clustered not only in the cities but now also in exurban and rural areas.

Urban dissent has been an important element of American life for a half-century now; we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr. and the uprising of blacks in cities across the country, in part in anger, in part in heartbreak. Rural discontent has waxed and waned over the years, hitting crescendos during the last decade of the 19th century (with the growth of the Populist Party, which won 22 electoral votes in the 1892 election) and again in the agricultural credit crunch in the 1980s.

Now rural America is in rebellion again, though special-force-level teams of journalists are combing the back roads and hollows in an effort to listen to the voices of those who say they have not been heard — except perhaps by Trump and by the Census Bureau, specialists in measurement and, this time, in identifying the Americans whose views no longer are being expressed in voices that are measured.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

David Shribman

David Shribman

Leave a Comment