A Political Realignment Based on Domestic Migration

The increasing polarization in American politics means that it is possible to guess a person’s party affiliation based on where they live. Urban areas are overwhelmingly Democratic, while rural areas are Republican strongholds. In the Trump era, suburban communities are the battleground, trending towards Democrats.

That is why, in a recent edition of the Washington Monthly, Daniel Block effectively argued that Democrats need a plan to revive heartland cities, which have been losing population to large coastal metropolitan areas. As heartland cities decline in population, Democrats aren’t able to overcome the huge advantage Republicans maintain in the rural areas of those states.

The GOP’s disproportionate—and antidemocratic—Senate representation and the clustering of economic opportunity in elite coastal metro areas are closely related. Democrats won big in cities and suburbs all over the country [in 2018], as they increasingly do. But metro areas in traditional swing states away from the coasts generally haven’t been growing much in recent decades, leaving the populations of those states skewing much more rural than they otherwise would. Meanwhile, wealth, opportunity, and growth have increasingly flowed to a handful of metro areas in states that are already Democratic strongholds.

But according to Derek Thompson, the pattern of migration in the United States is in the process of shifting. He documents that, following a post-recession boomlet, the metro areas of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are seeing their population decline.

In 2018, the New York City area lost more than 100,000 people to other cities and suburbs—that’s 277 people leaving every day. The Los Angeles and Chicago areas lost, respectively, 201 and 161 residents each day. It’s quite a change from the post–Great Recession period, when an urban renaissance was supposedly sweeping the country and all three metro areas were experiencing a population boomlet.

In order to understand what’s happening, Thompson explains that the census tracks two kinds of movers: (1) domestic, and (2) international. The second group is made up mostly of immigrants. While Chicago has seen the number of immigrants decline by 50 percent since the 2000s, immigration to both New York and Los Angeles has declined by 30 percent in the last five years.

What we know is that several years before Donald Trump engaged in fear-mongering about Mexican immigrants, Pew Research reported that net migration to the U.S. from that country had fallen to zero. In other words, there were as many people in this country migrating to Mexico as there were traveling in the opposite direction. While we’ve seen surges of asylum seekers from Central America, this administration’s xenophobic immigration policies on both legal and illegal immigration are also having an effect.

The declines in population, however, are even more pronounced when it comes to domestic migration. Thompson suggests there are two factors that have contributed. The first is that housing has become unaffordable in metro areas like Los Angeles and New York, accelerating a middle class exit. The destinations of choice for these migrants are Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas, all three states that are in the process of turning into swing or blue states.

The second reason for these population declines is something that has been referred to as “reverse migration.” During the 20th century, we saw a “great migration” of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to major cities in the north and west. But in the 21st century, that migration has been reversed. Chicago is on pace to halve its African American population by 2030 and, as Thompson writes, “the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline.” He goes on to note how this could spur a political realignment.

The political implications of the first Great Migration were immense, as blacks moving into northern cities forged an alliance with urban liberals and pushed the Democratic Party to prioritize civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The political implications of the Reverse Great Migration could be equally ground-shaking, if blacks moving south redraw the political map for the second time in 100 years. The slow decline of America’s largest metros may also mark the beginning of a new political movement in the suburbs of the South and Southwest.

In the 2020s, as in the 1960s, it may be said that movements begin with movers.

As I’ve written previously, these are the factors that, in addition to the growing Hispanic population, are leading states like Texas to look more and more like political battlegrounds. That is precisely why so many people are suggesting that, in addition to winning back the so-called “Rust Belt,” Democrats should focus on Sun Belt states. Domestic migration is in the process of changing the political dynamics in these areas that were once assumed to be Republican strongholds. The changes won’t happen overnight, but they are underway.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.