Last month, when Queens told Amazon and its 25,000 high-paying jobs to take a hike, community leaders cheered. Last week, when GM announced it was shuttering an auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, killing 5,000 jobs, community leaders wept. These different community reactions, each legitimate locally, should send a warning to Democrats nationally.
For Democrats, much of their donor and activist base resides in places where the economy resembles Queens. But the voters they need to win over to capture the White House, retake the Senate, and hold on to the House live in places that have more in common with Lordstown.
And while Democrats, activists, and progressive intellectuals have railed against the evils of wealth concentration and income inequality, they have paid scant attention to a more pernicious, salient, and politically roiling problem: the concentration of opportunity in America.
Consider Queens County and Trumbull County (where Lordstown is located). Between 2005 and 2015, Queens added 7,577 new businesses and gained 78,756 new jobs. Over those same 10 years, Trumbull County lost 592 businesses and shed 11,704 jobs. To put that into perspective, one-seventh of the businesses and jobs in this one Ohio county disappeared. As Queens rocketed forward, the economy in Trumbull resembled a depression.
Of course, different places have always been growing and shrinking in America—that’s nothing new. What is new is the scale. The digital economy has made living in the right place, having the right degree, and belonging to the right socioeconomic groups more important than ever. Characteristics inherited at birth have an outsized influence in determining whether a worker will be on the short end of the opportunity stick. Ignoring this trend arguably cost Democrats the White House in 2016 and could do so again in 2020.
Here’s why. Remember the Blue Wall states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that flipped to Trump and delivered him the Oval Office? From 2005 to 2015, tiny Queens added more new jobs than these three states combined. That’s right—one county in one thriving corner of the country, population 2.4 million, created more jobs and businesses than these three large, politically critical states that have a combined population of 28.6 million.
And in a new report we recently released, we found that since the Great Recession the recovery in the Blue Wall has been much slower than it has in the Blue Bubble Democratic strongholds of California, Massachusetts, and New York. This is true when measured by a slew of indicators, including new business starts, job creation, and working wages.
The result is that Democrats, including many running for President, are focused on issues like income inequality because it is the lived experience of people in the urban cores of the Blue Bubble. But it is far more abstract in the interior of America. Consider that there are more ultra-wealthy people worth north of $30 million in the 309 square miles of New York City than in the combined 2.7 million square miles of 22 states.
The vast differences between the very wealthy and the rest of us are an everyday reminder in the urban cores of the Blue Bubble. But in the rest of the country, it’s kitchen-table concerns like jobs, wages, and basic benefits that are more tangible and urgent.
That is why Democrats need to make opportunity their uniting cause. They need to focus on economic issues that vast swaths of the country can relate to. Spreading the opportunity to earn a good life to more people and places would unite the disparate factions of the party. It would appeal to communities of color and women who still face blatant workplace discrimination in high flying economies like Queens.
It would appeal to those in the 2,100 counties (two-thirds of the country) who saw the number of private businesses decline and who lost 1.2 million jobs in a decade’s time. And it would appeal to everyone who feels like the possibility for economic success is drifting away.
This focus would create space for a rich set of policies that run the gamut of the ideological spectrum within the Democratic Party. They could push for universally laudable proposals, like apprenticeship options for all, a new set of family tax credits, universal private pensions, wage subsidies, massive infrastructure investment, ubiquitous broadband deployment, and aggressive measures to get capital to people and places forgotten in this economy, to name a few.
As the presidential race unfolds, the pressure to play to the top concerns of donors and activists who live in the wealthy and successful enclaves of the Blue Bubble will be immense. But it is the voters in places like Lordstown, not Queens, who will determine whether Donald Trump is retired as a one-term president or given another four years to ruin America.
Jim Kessler is Executive Vice President for Policy and Ryan Zamarripa is an Economic Fellow at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC.
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