How 2020 Democrats Are Missing the Message on the Economy

The candidates have yet to tackle the growing problem of regional inequality.

The 2020 Democratic primary has seen no shortage of big, ambitious ideas—the nationalization of health care via “Medicare for All,” free college, free child care, and the cancellation of student debt, just to name a few.

But there’s one big idea still missing: how to fix the stark and growing disparities between the parts of the country that are prospering and those that are falling behind. Regional inequality is perhaps the greatest challenge to America’s economic and political future, but 2020 candidates have yet to tackle, let alone acknowledge, the problem. It’s an omission that could have long-term substantive consequences for Democrats.

Since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, numerous analyses have pointed to a widening gulf—political, economic and demographic—between red and blue America. On the one hand are the rising fortunes of educated, urban Democratic districts. On the other is the steep decline of formerly industrial, Republican districts in rural America and the heartland.

The latest to highlight this trend is a new report from Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of the Brookings Institution, which underscores how deep this schism has become over the past 10 years.

When President Obama took office in 2008, Republican and Democratic districts enjoyed roughly the same median household income: $55,000 and $54,000, respectively. From an economic point of view, Obama’s famed 2004 declaration of national unity—“[t]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America”—was largely true.

Since then, median household income in Democratic districts soared to $61,000 in 2018, according to Muro and Whiton, while incomes in Republican districts fell to $53,000. The annual economic output of Democratic districts likewise skyrocketed, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion on average per district, while the economies of Republican districts shrank. The average Republican district’s GDP is now just two-thirds that of the average Democratic district’s GDP.

Several factors are driving this economic polarization, the first being an emerging duality in America’s economy. Democratic districts are now oriented toward high-growth, well-paid professional and knowledge economy jobs (think San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City), whereas Republican districts tend to rely on lower-growth or declining sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, and mining (think rural West Virginia). “Not only do the two parties adhere to very different views, but they inhabit increasingly different economies and environments,” Muro and Whiton write. Professional and “digital services” jobs, for instance, account for 71 percent of jobs in Democratic districts and only 29 percent in Republican ones.

And while the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or more was roughly the same in Democratic and Republican districts in 2008, Democratic districts are now significantly more educated: more than 35 percent of adults in blue districts have a four-year degree or more, compared to just one in four in red districts.

A second factor calcifying these trends is a sharp decline in both geographic and economic mobility. Americans once moved to where the jobs were, but this is no longer happening, largely because of high housing prices in high-growth areas and the lack of affordable access to higher education that can help workers’ marketability. The net result, as Benjamin Austin, Edward Glaeser and Lawrence Summers put it in a 2018 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, is the evolution of “durable islands of wealth and poverty.”

Certain regions have also compounded their advantages over time, adding to a “winner-take-all” dynamic that further exacerbates geographical economic divides. For instance, of the 6.8 million net new jobs created between 2000 and 2015, 6.5 million were created in the country’s top 10 percent of zip codes, according to the nonprofit Economic Innovation Group. Meanwhile, the nation’s bottom 10 percent of zip codes saw significant job losses.

These kinds of imbalances cry out for a policy agenda aimed at spreading economic opportunity more evenly across the country. But so far, the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination have stuck to universalist policy ideas like Medicare for All, while discussions of inequality have centered on race or class, but not on geography.

To be sure, a few candidates, including Vice President Joe Biden, have a “rural agenda” in their platforms. But the ideas encapsulated in them include relatively narrow default tropes like expanding broadband and helping family farmers. The one nod toward the disparate regional impacts of economic change is on trade policy, but there again, the prescriptions are less about creating new jobs than about posturing on China or regurgitating standard talking points bashing trade agreements. None of the candidates have put forth signature policy priorities that would rejuvenate the moribund economies of the industrial Midwest, or help heartland economies generate the kind of prosperity that their coastal neighbors enjoy.

The absence of a credible Democratic agenda on regional prosperity is one reason Trump has had free rein to exploit and magnify the economic discontent in large parts of the country for his political gain. As wrong-headed and destructive as his policies have been, his supporters can rightly say that Trump has at least acknowledged the significance of their economic decline.

Democrats shouldn’t continue to leave the field to Trump to romp at will.

For one thing, tariffs and border walls will not fix regional inequality; if anything, they make things worse. Americans in struggling parts of the country deserve better ideas, which Democrats are positioned to deliver.

As the Monthly’s Daniel Block has argued, the emerging geography of this divided America means Democrats must broaden their appeal and reach heartland voters if they want to win in 2020 and beyond. Democrats don’t have the luxury of writing off “flyover country” to rely solely on their base in major coastal cities.

Muro and Whiton point out that the newfound concentration of wealth in Democratic districts comes with a price: the geographic concentration of political power into increasingly dense districts. According to the two researchers, the land area controlled by Democrats has fallen by nearly half in the last 10 years—from roughly 39 percent in 2008 to just 20 percent in 2018, as the map below shows.

Superimpose a map of the electoral college in 2020 and two things immediately become clear. First, Democratic strongholds such as California, New York, and Illinois are nowhere near sufficient to deliver the 270 votes Democrats need to secure the White House. The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, for instance, counts 183 “safe” Democratic electoral votes so far.

Second, many of the swing states Democrats will need to win fall squarely within the “other America” in need of help. These states include the industrial upper Midwest—Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan—as well as Pennsylvania and Colorado. Four of these also happen to be states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.

Some liberals no doubt worry that nodding to the economic woes of blue-collar heartland America somehow validates the nationalism, MAGA-ism, and outright racism that Trump has unleashed. Nothing is further from the case. Reviving the heartland to help all Americans prosper is ultimately not about blue states versus red states, but about reviving the national project now in jeopardy.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a writer based in northern Virginia and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020. She was special projects editor at the Washington Monthly in 2013 and senior writer from 2015 to 2018.