Where is the real America?

A while back, my nephew posted a piece from FiveThirtyEight “”Normal America” is Not a Smal Town of White People” with a lament that Vermont, where he grew up and I live now, is not normal America.  The piece begins

Earlier this week, Jim VandeHei, a former executive editor of Politico, wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal accusing the Washington political establishment of being out of touch with “normal America.”

“Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption,” he wrote, citing his regular visits to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine, as his credentials of normality.

Jed Kolko, the author of the piece for FiveThirtyEight, responded by looking at demographics.

I calculated how demographically similar each U.S. metropolitan area is to the U.S. overall, based on age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity.1 The index equals 100 if a metro’s demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall.2

By this measure, the metropolitan area that looks most like the U.S. is New Haven, Connecticut, followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. All of the 10 large metros that are demographically most similar to the U.S. overall are in the Northeast, Midwest or center of the country, with the exception of Tampa. Two of them — New Haven and Philadelphia — are even on Amtrak’s Acela (that’s “uh-SELL-ah”) line. None is in the West, though Sacramento, California, comes close at No. 12.

The precise location of Normal America.

The precise location of Normal America.

But do demographics really show us the “normal” America?  According to the 2010 Census, 80.7% of American live in urban areas.  And we are creating new urban areas.  According to a Reuter’s analysis of the 2010 data

As a result of the growth in population and geography, the Census identified 36 new urbanized areas, which it defines as “densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas” with populations of 50,000 or more.

The Midwest dominated the birth of new major cities, with Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Grand Island, Nebraska; Manhattan, Kansas, and Midland, Michigan, all joining the ranks. Arizona’s Lake Havasu City and Sierra Vista are also now considered urbanized areas.

But are the urban places where most of the population lives “normal America?”  If we mean typical America, then, yes, the urban dweller is the typical American and when you add in demographics you get New Haven.

But in the past few years, my husband and I have spent a good deal of time driving back roads largely in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and Vermont.  We have eaten at diners and stayed in some small and medium sized towns many with well-known colleges and universities.  We have found a rich culture, interesting people and things to do, and fresh air.  Driving across New York on U.S. 20 yesterday made me think about more about Kolko’s piece.   Of course, he was writing about politics and arguing that Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t have such a large influence because they – and by implication other places that don’t have the urban area racial and ethnic diversity – are not normal America.  But I’m not sure that those states, at least on the Democratic side, vote much differently than the rest of the country.  Yesterday, I saw a handful of Bernie bumperstickers and yard signs along with one Trump yard sign.  I saw no sign of any other candidates.  Kolko writes

We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America.

I guess I am arguing that Kolko may be the one taking too narrow a view.  He concludes with what the 20% that don’t live in urban areas would consider an insult.

There are lots of reasons to care deeply about places that are demographically different from today’s America: Some of those places may turn out to be bellwethers for a future America that will be older, more educated and more racially and ethnically diverse than today; and some of those places are especially deserving of public attention and investment because they worse off than most other places.

But if you’re trying to get outside of your bubble and get in touch with “normal America,” skip the small towns of your actual or imagined past and instead start with New Haven or Tampa.

But I think he needs to take a ride on US 20 or US 40 or even the Western part of MA 2 and visit a place like Lincoln, Maine and get out of his own bubble.

Illustration by Getty Images and FiveThirtyEight

2 thoughts on “Where is the real America?

  1. I think both of you are right: typical American is an urban or suburban resident, if only 20% of Americans live in urban areas. But by land area, rural America is much larger than urban America.

    • Yes, as someone once said, “There are more cows than people in Vermont.” Don’t know if that is still true, but certainly on US 20 we saw a lot of them as well as horses.

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