Welcome to the ALT-MIDDLE
The session at South By Southwest that inspired me the most was presented by two L.A. visionaries who went searching for America
On my last day at South By Southwest, I rented an Austin B Cycle and rode the bridge spanning the Colorado River to the Hyatt Regency. I hoped a session titled “100 Million People You Don’t Know, But Should” might provide clues to what’s going on in America.
The presenters were Lisa Pecot-Hébert, a lecturer in Broadcast and Multimedia Journalism at the University of Southern California, and David Measer, senior vice president at an L.A. advertising firm, RPA, whose clients include Honda, Southwest Airlines, and Farmers Insurance.
The session was one of the five that I liveblogged, typing furiously on my MacBook Pro to keep up with David and Lisa’s well-organized research about what they labeled the alt-middle.
What they mean by that term, a riff on the alt-right and alt-left labels for extremes of either ideological wing, is a crucial voting bloc residing in cities of between 40,000 and a million population. Those cities account for about 100 million people or 42 percent of the over-18 US population. That’s just about the same number and percentage as those who live in the 21 US cities with populations of a million or more, concentrated mainly on the East and West Coasts.
The pair analyzed quantitative data on attitudes of the big cities and the middle-sized cities and then went on a road trip which focused on Omaha, Nebraska; Fargo North Dakota; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
At the beginning of their panel, Lisa and David asked us to raise our hands if we had ever seen Westworld, an edgy HBO show. A third to half of the audience raised our hands. How many had visited a foreign country in the past several years or planned to do so? About the same number of hands raised.
“And how many of you have ever watched a NASCAR race like the Daytona 500?” David asked. Fewer than 10 people raised their hands, and we all laughed. It was clear which 100 million we were in, and that it would be a good idea to learn about the 100 million people in the Alt-Middle.
Some of the data were not surprising. The Big Cities had more diverse populations, more white collar workers, and more interest in social status and material success. The Alt-Middle had more blue collar workers, less diversity, more interest in religion and more interest in traveling in the U.S. than in foreign countries.
In the presentation, David said the quantitative data reinforce stereotypes, which led to their desire for real conversations, in person. “When you live in a bubble you can make assumptions about people in other bubbles that are wrong,” he said.
Their conversations, which took place in coffee shops, churches, laundromats, and homes turned out to be revealing and inspiring to this resident of Denver and Boston.
They played video clips that brought me close to tears because of the pride evident in those interviewed. One woman said her community — I think it was Omaha, where Darlene’s sister Deb lives — ”is like a comfortable afghan your grandmother made for you. You can wrap yourself up in it and feel cozy. If you get a flat, the first car that stops by will help. It’s a family here. A stranger is a friend you haven’t met.”
The Alt-Middle conversations portrayed communities where Americans do not feel anonymous in their lives and are ambitious not so much for material success but for their children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life — being happy by being comfortable with themselves.
Rootedness in family traditions and faith are important to them, and they don’t consider themselves disadvantaged to live in what Coastals sometimes consider “flyover country.” In fact, they consider their cities to be epicenters of culture, rich with ethnic restaurants, economic opportunities. They don’t have FOMO — Fear of Missing Out.
As David said, “They feel in the middle of Fargo in the middle of winter they are in the center of cool. They are not trying to get out.”
This fascinated me, because the portrait of the Alt-Middle values struck me as exactly what many anxious, self-referential citizens of the Big 21 cities, including myself, are seeking: less time on the Internet, more connections with real people, less obsession with status and material wealth. More farmer’s markets.
David said when they returned to L.A. they did another run of their databases and found that the values of the Alt-middle align quite well with those of the Millennial Generation, now aged 18 to 34 and accounting for 75 million Americans, more than my cohort, the Baby Boomers, aged 51 to 69, who total 74 million. The Millenials, surveys show, are looking for authenticity, optimism, community, discovery, and honesty.
David said, “Those of us in the top 21 are searching for things the Alt-Middle already has. We are now looking at them as trend setters, leading some of the most important cultural trends.”
Oh and by the way, most of the Alt-Middle voted for Donald Trump.
An appreciation of them as something other than “Them” in the tribal partisanship we all experienced in the Election and that continues in the early days of Trump’s presidency — well, that seemed like a wonderful possibility to me as I left Austin for my flight home to Denver.
You can click here to listen to an interview I did with David and Lisa after their presentation. This Medium post is adapted from my audio commentary about their session on today’s episode of The Kindle Chronicles.