Editor’s Note: Check Your Coastal Urban Privilege

If affluent liberals want to avoid a permanent GOP dictatorship, they need to reform a system that benefits them but screws everybody else.

It’s been three decades since Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar at Wellesley College, published her landmark essay, “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” In it, she observed that even her most well-meaning male colleagues—those aware of the discrimination female scholars faced—were nevertheless blind to the ways that they, as male academics, benefited from that discriminatory system, from easier career advancement to the power to decide curriculum. She then posited a corollary: that whites like her were similarly unaware of the advantages they enjoyed from a system of policies and social norms that disadvantaged minorities. “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege,” she wrote. As illustration, she offered a list of some of those privileges, such as the freedom to go shopping “fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives,” or the ability to “criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.” 

McIntosh’s essay is the urtext of what has become a core principle among academics, diversity trainers, social justice activists, and liberal society at large. The concept has been applied to other dominant groups—“cisgender privilege,” “age privilege”—and led to the catchphrase “Check your privilege,” which roughly means, “Be aware of and admit to your own favored personal situation when talking about problems in society.”

Like a lot of people in my generation, I have issues with the use of the word “privilege” in some of these contexts—among other things, it implies that a freedom as basic as not getting harassed by police is a kind of special perk rather than a fundamental right. But the basic point is correct, and essential: many of us, especially we white men, go about our daily lives blissfully unaware of the benefits we enjoy—McIntosh calls them “unearned advantages”—from not being the victims of oppression. 

In fact, I’d like to extend McIntosh’s concept to another form of unearned advantage: the economic opportunities enjoyed by residents of a handful of the nation’s largest and wealthiest coastal metropolitan areas. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., and their suburbs, have raced ahead of most of the rest of the country in recent decades. But the well-educated liberals who most benefit from all this economic growth—the same people who are most likely to be woke to privilege in other contexts—don’t seem to recognize that a substantial portion of the gains are unearned, ill-gotten, and coming at someone else’s expense. 

Put simply, these big liberal metro areas aren’t thriving simply because they’re liberal, or educated, or “innovative”; they’re doing so in large part thanks to federal policies that allow them to suck up more than their fair share of the nation’s wealth. Since 1980, the gap between the per capita income in the wealthiest 10 percent of metro areas and the poorest 10 percent has grown by 21 percent. The contrast with rural America is even starker. As recently as twenty years ago, sparsely populated counties were doing fine; in fact, during the first four years of the 1990s boom, their rates of business start-ups and employment growth exceeded those of the big cities. But their economies collapsed during the 2008 recession and have not recovered, even as the largest metro areas have flourished. 

These growing geographic disparities ought to alarm everyone—especially those who claim to care about inequality. But instead of concern, what you too often hear from coastal liberals is smug satisfaction that they are the forward-thinking economic drivers of the national economy and that they disproportionately pay the nation’s taxes. Writing in the New Republic in 2017, contributing editor Kevin Baker took this triumphalism a step further by proposing, tongue only partially in cheek, that wealthy blue states (or, as he dubbed them, “the United States of We Pay Our Own Damn Way”) should virtually secede from the union.

This lack of empathy is partly understandable. Red state voters elected and continue to support a corrupt, racist, misogynist, dissembling authoritarian whose agenda and impulses threaten the whole world. But it is also a stark example of privilege as McIntosh defined it: these blue megacities are getting ahead in part because of a system of unearned advantages that directly contributes to the heartland’s economic distress. 

This magazine has long made the argument—advanced in this issue in twin cover stories by Daniel Block and Claire Kelloway—that the migration of wealth and opportunity to a handful of coastal metro areas is not primarily the consequence of inevitable market forces, but of policy choices made in Washington. Beginning in the 1970s, and with accelerating force in the 1980s, elected officials dismantled a set of rules that for decades had allowed all parts of the country to compete on a level playing field. These included safeguards for local banks and retailers, regulations that kept the costs of air travel relatively uniform throughout the country, and strict enforcement of federal antitrust laws. 

The results of this dismantling have been devastating. Chain stores headquartered in distant cities bought out local retailers and are themselves now threatened by a single fast-growing Seattle-based monopoly, Amazon. Megabanks in New York and San Francisco acquired local lenders, depriving regional economies of access to capital. Four airlines now control 80 percent of the domestic market, and the New York–based hedge funds that own them have cut service and raised prices for flights to and from small and midsize cities, rendering them less competitive places to do business. 

The same thing has happened across industries. As cities in the interior lost companies headquartered there through corporate mergers, they lost their economic engines, while the already wealthy coastal megalopolises gained horsepower. And as those interior cities try to reinvent themselves by nurturing entrepreneurs, their local start-ups are being acquired by tech monopolies located (where else?) on the coasts.

Rural America has been even harder hit by this orgy of industry consolidation. As Claire Kelloway documents, Big Ag monopolies in recent years have relentlessly raised prices on what farmers buy (seed, fertilizer) and pushed down the prices of what farmers sell (grain, livestock), to the point where “we are on the verge of a farm crisis more sweeping than the one that ripped rural America apart in the 1980s.”

One of the key insights of Peggy McIntosh’s original essay on privilege is that unearned advantages harm even those who have them. That is true for residents of elite coastal metros in more ways than one. As Daniel Block notes, plenty of talented professionals would prefer to make their careers in their home towns to be close to friends and family but find themselves instead “channeled to a handful of overly expensive, traffic-choked megacities.” This phenomenon is also what’s driving the gentrification problem. “It’s not that [elite metro areas] have too many white-collar working professionals moving into once-affordable communities,” Block argues. “It’s that they have too many white-collar working professionals, period. Stagnant heartland cities, on the other hand, don’t have enough.”

But the biggest harm is political. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats rode a “blue wave” of support to their first House majority since 2011. Yet, despite a nine-point advantage in the national vote, they lost a net of two Senate seats. That’s because their voters are increasingly clustered in solid-blue states like California and New York and too thin on the ground in states like North Dakota and Ohio. If this situation continues, Democrats will have a hard time overcoming the advantage Republicans enjoy in the Senate (where sparsely and heavily populated states each get two senators), and may even continue to lose the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote. 

The challenge is not only that Democrats have hemorrhaged support in rural areas. It’s also that metro areas in red and purple states, which generally support Democrats, haven’t been growing enough to offset those rural losses. If these places had been thriving at anywhere near the level of the coastal megalopolises, there would be millions more blue votes across these key battleground states. Consider Colorado, a formerly purple state that is now reliably blue thanks to the expansive development of Denver, one of the few metro areas in America’s interior that have enjoyed coast-like economic growth. 

Or compare Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 2016, Minnesota remained blue while Wisconsin went red. In both states, rural voters lurched right. The difference was in the size of their main metro areas, both of which voted heavily for Hillary Clinton. Greater Minneapolis’s economy has grown at almost double the national rate since 1970, while Greater Milwaukee’s has increased at about a quarter of that rate. Consequently, the Minneapolis area’s population has swelled while Milwaukee’s has stagnated. Had they both grown at the rate of Greater Minneapolis, Block concludes, “Clinton would have carried Wisconsin by approximately 16,000 votes instead of losing by roughly 23,000.”

The single best long-term strategy to break through the geographic wall that preserves GOP power is to reverse the policies that have enabled the rise of monopoly firms that cluster opportunity in a few lucky cities. In the short term, committing to that path could help Democrats make inroads among the rural voters they desperately need to woo back. Last fall, Iowa Democrat J. D. Scholten, running on an economic message that heavily emphasized the need to break up the dominant agricultural monopolies, came within 3.4 percentage points of beating Representative Steve King, the notorious racist, in a heavily rural Iowa district that went for Donald Trump by twenty-seven points. If that swing from 2016 could be replicated nationally, Kelloway observes, it “would all but wipe out the current incarnation of the Republican Party.” Over the longer haul, anti-monopoly policies could restore the freedom of small and midsize cities around the country to compete for business, economic growth, and residents—and take away the GOP’s geographic advantage for good.

This obviously won’t be easy. The monopoly powers—the Citibanks, Comcasts, and Facebooks—will resist with all the considerable political clout at their disposal. Democrats who take up the challenge will also have to overcome the resistance of their own voters in coastal megacities who are benefiting from the current setup. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” as Upton Sinclair famously put it. 

The good news is that political convictions can be an even more powerful force than economic self-interest. Why else would millions of affluent liberals vote for Democrats who promise to raise their taxes? These voters need to be made to see that the prosperity they enjoy is at least partly the result of a rigged set of rules that makes it crushingly difficult for anyone living anywhere else to compete. Those rules are also what’s helping the Republican Party keep control of Washington despite lacking majority support in the country. So if coastal liberals want to avoid a permanent GOP dictatorship, they need to become aware of how a system they benefit from is also screwing them and everybody else. They need, in other words, to check their privilege.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.