The New Continental Divide, by Michael Lind

Carl Blesius links to Michael Lind who writes about “Overcrowded cities on the coasts. Dying rural communities in the interior. The way to save both may be to create a post-agrarian heartland.”

Two of our country’s most cherished dreams are at risk. One is the American dream of upward mobility. The other is the romantic dream of settling the American heartland. These two dreams cannot be separated in the information age any more than they could be in the frontier past. Indeed, for many Americans in this century moving up may mean moving inland.

The articles talks about how the interior is getting less dense and less populated, while the coastal areas are getting more and more populated.

The future demographic pattern of the United States may be a largely empty interior surrounded by a handful of densely populated metropolitan areas: “Bosnywash,” the Boston-New York-Washington corridor; “San-San” (San Diego to San Francisco); a “Texas Triangle” defined by Dallas, Houston, and Austin-San Antonio. The suburbs of expanding cities may fuse together, whereupon a process of inexorable “densification” may begin.

These facts have many influences, including politics, hmm!

The most obvious relates to national politics, as the stark contrast in the 2000 election between densely populated “Gore country” and thinly populated “Bush country” suggests. Al Gore could fly from California to Washington, D.C., without passing over a single state in between that gave him its electoral votes. That power in Washington is only partly related to population density does not clearly benefit any region, but it does undermine the very essence of the democratic process. On the one hand, the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate exaggerate the political power of the prairie, the Great Plains, and the Mountain States. Wyoming’s senators represent about half a million people; California’s represent 34 million. Yet every state has exactly the same number of Senate votes. On the other hand, many heartland politicians raise much of their money from the wealthy in coastal enclaves, prompting questions about whether they represent their local constituents or their distant donors.

So what can be done? Make it easier to move into the interior and help grow those economies, rather than providing life support for the dying ones.

Thomas Jefferson’s idea that population dispersal would promote economic and social equality was shared by Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Homestead Act to provide western land to settlers from the East, and by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1925 expressed admiration for Canada’s policy of seeking “distribution of [its] immigrants throughout every portion of Canada.” By means of rural electrification, interstate-highway construction, tax benefits for homeowners, and the nationwide distribution of military plants and government contracts, FDR and his successors made it possible for immigrant slum dwellers and poor tenant farmers to become today’s home-owning suburban majority.

In a second inland movement, wired professionals and well-paid service workers might make new lives in wide-open spaces that are slowly reverting from monotonous expanses of wheat and corn to wilderness. The first wave of heartland settlement was in the long-term perspective a failure, with consequences that are evident today. The high-tech pioneers of the twenty-first century, unlike their agrarian predecessors, may be able to reconcile the myth of the heartland with the American dream.