The Middle America in Coastal Cities
Looking from my Los Angeles apartment building this morning I can see 8 different U.S. Congressional districts — equal or more than the total number found in 33 states. If my county, with 18 congressional seats, was its own state it would be the fifth largest in the U.S., trailing only Texas, Florida, NY, and the rest of California.
A population this size cannot help but be, well, typical. Very few of the people I know here are wealthy or famous. We work as hard as folks from anywhere else and pay more than a fair share in taxes. Far from oblivious, we are painfully aware of economic struggle and especially inequality. A small visible minority in LA makes an obscene amount of money while the majority scrambles for a paycheck and worries about healthcare. This reality is in our face more than any other place in the U.S. We see this unfairness everyday and we feel very little connection to the distorted celebrity culture stereotyping our city from studios down the street.
I guess I’m tired of being told I live in a bubble (or at least in a bubble that is so unique from other bubbles). There are roughly the same number of people living in metro LA and NY as there are in rural areas throughout the U.S. The urban story, that of the average LA resident, is just as important, just as American, and just as silenced today as that of men and women who earn similarly low wages and have limited prospects in the heartland.
California seems to have a generosity of spirit missing in many other places right now, probably because living close together in tremendous diversity requires that capacity. It also demands constant practice. Some of this cooperation and coexistence in Southern California is downright beautiful. And the rest of the U.S. should pay attention when we do this well (and learn from all the ways we screw it up too).
We also have seen enough celebrity culture first hand to mistrust it. Given a choice between believing the hype of a reality TV star and accepting what a political journalist compiles about him, we generally choose the latter. We’ve seen this phony crap up, close up, for decades. We’ve been backstage and know how the ruse is constructed.
But otherwise, the working men and women of LA share profoundly in the suffering experienced elsewhere. We know an economic pain brought on, not by immigration, but by automation,Silicon Valley efficiency, ecological apathy, globalization, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few (including the disproportionately wealthy few living on hillsides here in LA).
What makes people in cities any less credible as commentators on the great problems facing our democracy and the modern economy? I’m not dismissing the heartland voter, but we need to look closely at categories that seem to distinguish (and diminish) the low wage worker with limited educational prospects living in Boyle Heights or Pico-Union from her counterpart in Muncie, Indiana or Macon, Georgia. Trump’s revival and repetition of the archaic term “inner city” suggests that drugs, housing, and unemployment here are somehow morally different than the drugs, housing, and unemployment in middle America.
Regions matter. We know these places are different and it is obvious Americans are seeing starkly separate realities these days. But more of us in the same boat than both entertainment and news media would lead us to believe. Most people, on the coasts and in between, are hurting. And while California never had space for Trump in our electoral imagination (perhaps our greater exposure to born-rich hypocrites turned us off), we are as anxious for change as folks elsewhere.