Think of this as Volume 16, Number 47 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
It wasn't about race, and it wasn't about class. It was about economics, specifically the economic model most of us grew up in.
That model is the suburb.
The modern American suburb was a product of the post-war boom. It featured small houses on postage-stamp lots, where former soldiers and their wives could raise children in peace with the men working in nearby offices or factories. (Above, Levittown, New York.)
What did one do in an office, after commuting 60-90 minutes on clogged highways to get there? Mostly, it was stuff you could now do from home. The secretarial jobs are gone, the middle management ones too. You don't need people to calculate sales and expenses, and networked PCs allow creative sharing online that's almost as effective as face-to-face. Salesmen don't need offices, they need to get out in the field with the customers. There's just not enough value add in office work to justify the expense of rent, of commuting and enough in salary to keep up with the Joneses.
Today's value-add comes from the campus. Specifically, it comes from scientific research, and engineering needed to bring the result into production as new goods and services. It comes from robotics, from 3D printing, from biotech, from energy research. Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be brokers. Raise them to be engineers and scientists, people who can take the abundance of Moore's Law and turn it into the abundance of energy the world craves.
This change has been underway for 20 years, since well before Richard Florida dubbed the new work force the “Creative Class.” He foresaw that the border between living and working was breaking down. He foresaw the greater urban density of our time. And he foresaw that tolerance would attract these people – that breakthroughs could come from any mind, and all minds would have to be on deck 24-7 to make breakthroughs.
The impact of this on many suburbs has been profound. More suburbanites now work in the suburbs, either from home-offices or in nearby office parks, labs, hospitals, and colleges. Suburbs need to become self-sufficient. The era of the “ultra-commute” is dying, not just because of its financial cost, but because it's 3 hours of wasted time each day.
But these changes haven't been fully realized in the South, where I live now. The South – the curve of states from Virginia to Texas sometimes called the “Old Confederacy,” took to the old suburban model like ducks to water. Whites loved the idea that they could simply move away from urban problems, cocooning themselves in new towns further-and-further out, building wherever the government sent the freeways while claiming to be self-sufficient. They came to love zoning, the separation of homes, institutions and shops from one another, the necessity of having a car. The South is now one big suburb.
The problem here isn't race. The problem is that cities like Atlanta are living like it's 1966, and it's almost 2013. It's urban universities like Georgia Tech and Emory that drive the economy now, not the office towers on the I-285 Perimeter. Those buildings have become factories where engineers do the one thing that must still be done by hand – computer programming. But even here tools are gradually getting better, and as computers get faster the programming can get sloppier, programmers more productive. Business computing is becoming increasingly automated, in other words, and the center of the business is moving more-and-more to creative tasks like security and imagining uses for the increased abundance of the broadband Internet and the cloud.
In a suburb you don't have to see anyone you don't want to see. You get into your car, you get to your office, you make the return trip. You associate in church and at schools only with your own kind. In a city you start to walk, or bicycle, you may even ride a bus or a train because it's cheaper and more convenient in short distances, and you see your fellow citizens. You rub elbows and learn to tolerate the closeness. And when people are right there next to you, it's harder to dismiss their problems, to dehumanize them. White voters in Atlanta's inner core are more like those on today's Long Island than like the people in the suburbs they left behind.
(I found the picture below on the web, and I'm told on good authority one of the people pictured is my son. I'll let y'all play "Where's Waldo" with that.)
In short, the problem the Republican Party faces isn't race. The Confederacy doesn't vote Republican because they're bigots. They vote that way because they're attached to old economic models of living, because things are getting harder out in Snellville and Hiram, because the lifestyle they think of as immutable is becoming obsolete.
Republicans have to deal with the new cities, not just the black and brown and Asian and gay and female people who may be producing tomorrow in them, but the cities. You can't afford to run away any more, or fewer people can. Density is going to increase, and society has to adapt to that. It can, by building small urban cores around suburban towns and college campuses, but it's going to take time.
Until the Republican Party adjusts to that economic reality, the re-citifying of America, until they can offer practical ways to maintain and even improve the common infrastructure, they'll remain lost and increasingly irrelevant. That's what Mitt Romney's voters were crying about, the loss of an old lifestyle. The outer suburbs of the Sun Belt are our new Rust Belt.