What a Conservative Coastal Elitist Doesn’t Understand About Flyover Country

David Brooks has written a column in which he purports to explain why Trump voters stick with him. The entire piece is structured around a conversation he imagines between “urban guy” and “flyover man.” The first thing to notice is that, in an era when women are increasingly becoming the deciding voting bloc in the country (52 percent of voters in the 2018 election were women), Brooks imagines a conversation between two men.

As someone who lives in the midwest, my biggest issue with this piece is actually personal and stems from his characterization of the Trump supporter as “flyover man.” That fits into a stereotype we hear pretty often—even from some liberals—that almost always goes without a challenge.

Flyover country is used to refer to “the vast swath of America that’s not near the Atlantic or Pacific coasts.” The assumption is that “flyover country” is a pejorative used by “liberal coastal elites” to describe the rest of the country. But writing for National Geographic, Gabe Bullard deconstructs that idea by pointing out that the description is most often used by people who put it in someone else’s mouth.

Rarely is it ever used by a New Yorker or Angelino as a pejorative. “It’s a stereotype of other people’s stereotypes,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer says…

All this is a way of championing a set of values that is imagined to exist outside of big urban centers…Hence the self-coining of flyover country—it’s a way for Midwesterners (and Southerners and people from the plains and mountains) to define themselves relative to the rest of the country. It’s defensive but self-deprecating, a way of shouting out for attention but also a means for identifying yourself by your home region’s lack of attention.

Bullard also notes the downside of this kind of identity construction.

Politicians across the spectrum paint this place as more real than the coasts. This year, Ted Cruz blasted fellow Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “New York values.” And in 2008, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin quoted columnist Westbrook Pegler’s heartland-boosting line “We grow good people in our small towns.” All this is a way of championing a set of values that is imagined to exist outside of big urban centers. It treats middle America like a time capsule from a simpler era, which, when you consider the Dust Bowl, the circumstances that led to the existence of Rust Belt, and the Civil Rights struggles before and after the Great Migration, never really existed for many people.

Romanticizing can also read as patronizing for people in the middle of the country.

The fact of the matter is that Brooks’ imaginary “urban guy” could very well be someone who lives in a flyover city like Minneapolis, Detroit, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta, or New Orleans. That’s because flyover country is actually home to a whole host of Democratic enclaves that make up some of the fastest-growing urban centers in the country – even as people assume that, outside of New York and Los Angeles, the rest of us live in small towns that exist in “a time capsule from a simpler era.” That is precisely what I find to be patronizing.

Brooks would have been better served by characterizing Trump supporters as either rural Americans or white evangelicals, because those are the two blocks of voters who maintain an allegiance to the president. They also happen to live, not only in flyover country, but in coastal states.

The content of the discussion Brooks imagines is also a hot mess of stereotypes. But the biggest irony is that an elite coastal journalist—who happens to be a conservative—penned a column in which he is excoriating urban liberals for not understanding people in flyover country.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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