I was struck by a short video produced for the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations University, and publicized by The Intercept. It examines the future of cities from the perspective of military operations, but I think its implications go far beyond that. Let's watch it first - it's only five minutes long - then take the discussion further. Watch it in full-screen mode for best results.
Finished? Then let's continue.
What struck me about this video isn't just how cities will continue to grow in future, but what cities have already done to those who live in them. They've changed the attitude of their residents, the way they see and understand and experience the world. City-dwellers are all but cut off from many of the basic realities of our lives, such as the production of food and natural resources, power generation, even weather as a factor in everyday life. Let's take a few examples.
- Food, to them, isn't something that comes from farms; crops grown over a period of weeks or months in fields, animals raised for slaughter, etc. Instead, it comes from supermarkets, or the corner store, or fast-food carts lining the streets. I've personally encountered young people who've never made the connection between the piece of meat they've just bought, and a living, breathing creature that was slaughtered to provide it. In one case, the person concerned burst into tears at the thought that an animal had died to provide her meal - and this was a woman who'd be considered educated, with a university degree. In contrast, rural dwellers see their food being produced all around them, and understand it as a basic, fundamental act of life to do so.
- Weather isn't something that really affects a city-dweller's life except when it's extreme, like a hurricane or tornado. A city-dweller can move from home to work and back again cocooned in weather-proof transportation (bus or taxi or train, above or under ground, etc.), only momentarily inconvenienced by the need to use an umbrella during the transition between transport and a building or vice versa. For rural dwellers, on the other hand, weather is a vital aspect of life, defining whether they'll be able to make a living this year or not because of its impact on farming and mining operations (and every business associated with them). A storm that floods the underground railway system in a city, causing a week or two of temporary transportation inconvenience, may wipe out a pit mine, or flood farms and destroy a season's crops, thereby inflicting poverty and deprivation on entire communities for years.
- The interconnectedness of life isn't something that necessarily occurs to city-dwellers. They can exist in a personal 'bubble', where their interactions with other people, places, etc. is governed by the circumstances of their lives. They can choose whether or not to interact, and can limit themselves to their own circles. Rural dwellers, on the other hand, understand that if a farmer goes broke, a seed merchant and a farm machinery supplier and a local store and other institutions will be directly affected by that. They understand that the 'ripple effect' of commerce and industry on each other is a real, vital, living thing, and they take seriously anything that affects one part of the chain, because all links are only as strong as the weakest one. There's far more solidarity in rural communities than in urban ones, in my experience.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. Big-city life is, to a large extent, artificial, a construct derived from its surroundings - surroundings which are cut off from the basic cycles of nature, food and resource production, and so on. Inevitably, of course, that isolation from such things produces an outlook on life that both expresses, and further changes, the urban environment. A classic example is so-called 'cultural Marxism'. I've met very few rural dwellers who would give even a moment's thought to such nonsense, let alone devote time and attention to analyzing it. It's so far from their lived reality that it would be pointless to do so. On the other hand, urban academic elites see no problem in doing so, because they aren't rooted in the lived realities of rural life. They've cocooned themselves in an artificial environment where such speculation has little or no real-world connotation. As a result, they fail to recognize that its social application may have real-world consequences.
Basically, city dwellers see life, the universe and everything through the artificial spectacles of their urban environment. They don't think about, or take into consideration, the fact that their perspective is rooted in and grounded on an environment that is, in many cases, divorced from reality and built upon theoretical constructs that fail to recognize their dependence on reality. When reality intrudes, the artificial urban environment comes crashing down around their ears. A few recent examples:
- New York City blackout, 1977. A power failure plunged the city into chaos. One of the most noteworthy features of this incident was the speed with which civil order deteriorated into anarchy - a matter of hours only. It didn't last long, because power was swiftly restored . . . but what if it had lasted longer? There's a very good hour-long BBC audio documentary about the incident on YouTube. I highly recommend it as a graphic illustration of how bad things can get in an incredibly short time.
- The siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1996. A survivor's comments on that long-running tragedy have circulated widely on the Internet. I urge you to read them in full. They describe what happened when one of the most 'civilized' cities in Europe - one that had hosted the Winter Olympic Games less than a decade earlier - descended, in a matter of days, into a dystopian nightmare that lasted for years.
- Hurricane Katrina, 2005. This had a profound impact on the city of New Orleans. The Wikipedia article to which I've linked is largely 'sanitized', leaving out many of the nastier details of what happened there. I've written about some of them from my personal experience of that disaster - you can read my reflections here. It was a grim picture of destruction, not just of the physical fabric of the city but of its social infrastructure as well. It's still not fully recovered.
- EBT system failure, 2013. In October 2013, a computer system outage took down the EBT (welfare) card system in 13 states, preventing recipients from buying food. Widespread outrage resulted, including riots in Louisiana where EBT recipients abused the system and the generosity of one supermarket chain by buying as much as they could, without respecting the limits on their cards. (Some were later penalized for this theft.) This was a relatively minor, short-lived problem, but if it had continued, many believe widespread social unrest, even riots, might have resulted. (For that matter, cities have very small reserves of food. If the supply of food should be cut off for any reason - weather, unrest, transport disruption, whatever - they would rapidly starve.)
I could cite many more examples, but I think the above suffice to illustrate how quickly things can descend from order into chaos. I don't think the same thing would happen to the same extent in more rural communities, or in smaller cities and towns where more people know those around them. The social networks in such communities are much stronger, and their self-reliance is too. They know that Mother Nature is going to do her own thing, no matter what we may want, and they have to be prepared to survive that. They know that if trouble comes, they have to heed Benjamin Franklin's warning (delivered in a different context): "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." Certainly, if urban unrest were to spill over into the smaller town where I now live, I can guarantee you it wouldn't last long - and it wouldn't take police to stop the riots, either. The citizens of this community would do so themselves, by whatever means necessary.
What does this have to do with elections? A great deal. We've spoken ad nauseam about the difference between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Overwhelmingly, the former are city dwellers. Not so overwhelmingly, but predominantly, the latter live in smaller cities and towns and rural areas, where the 'citification' of society and the globalization of the economy have wrought the most damage. There's a divide in the electorate that mirrors the divide in where people live and work, and their consequent experience of life. This is illustrated by a comment to an earlier post on this blog:
I'm about halfway between Akron and Cleveland [in Ohio], and there's very few people that I've talked to who are voting for [Hillary].
Got a couple nieces in college at Kent State - the whole area is one giant Hillary sign.
Out in the countryside, away from the big cities, all I see are Trump signs, very, very few signs supporting [Hillary].
I've traveled around the state quite a bit over the past couple weeks, I-77 to Coshocton, out I-90 to Ashtabula county, also been to Ashland, Richland, Medina, Wayne, Morrow, Crawford, Marion,and Huron counties - plus some other mostly rural areas.
Went through Columbus - infested with Hillary signs. People in the restaurants we ate at - one on the way down, another on our way back home, were all putting Trump down, believing all the recent sexual harassment claims etc.
Seems like all the college towns are for [Hillary] - as expected - and in the wealthy 'burbs, there were plenty of Hillary signs. Once you get in the truly wealthy areas - we saw [no] political signs at all.
This is why Donald Trump has an uphill path to the Presidency. For convenience, let's say that 40% of likely voters currently live in rural and small-town America, and 60% in city and mega-city America. If Trump obtains two-thirds to three-quarters of the rural and small-town vote - let's say 70% for convenience - that still gives him only 28% of the national vote. He'll have to win at least a third of the city and mega-city vote - where his support is much lower - to make up the difference. On the other hand, if Hillary Clinton obtains 70% of the city and mega-city vote, where she enjoys dominant support, that will already give her 42% of the national vote. The remaining 30% of the rural and small-town vote, representing only 12% of the national vote, will be more than enough to put her 'over the top' and give her victory. (Yes, I know the US electoral college system complicates matters, but I'm trying to put the argument in simple terms here. Bear with me.)
Rural and small-town America has long felt that it's being disenfranchised by the domination of elections by city voters. The truth is, that's exactly what's happening. The Atlantic provided an excellent summation of the situation after the 2012 elections. It further noted: "The voting data suggest that people don't make cities liberal -- cities make people liberal." That tends to bear out my hypothesis above. The situation has only gotten worse since 2012. That reality makes a possible victory for Mr. Trump extraordinarily difficult in 2016. I don't say it's impossible, but it will probably take the equivalent of an electoral miracle for it to happen. We'll see.
The surprising thing, of course, is that Donald Trump was raised in, and lives in, the same city and mega-city environment where Hillary Clinton enjoys majority support. What made him turn out differently? Is he actually different, or is his campaign a political Trojan horse? It's a fascinating question . . . but one for a different post.