‘Confessions of a Liberal Urban Elitist’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Jon, articulates in Notes what he probably doesn’t say in public:

A lot of the post-election analysis has pointed to the deep divide between between city-dwellers and country folk. An excellent essay in Cracked Magazine, the musings of Michael Moore, and people in the reader notes you’ve been compiling [namely the Southern Trump voter in “‘I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball’”] have described the election of Donald Trump as a collective middle finger to us urban liberals who think we’re so superior.

I could see exactly what they’re talking about in my own life. I grew up right on the edge of New York City’s sphere of influence, in Sussex County, New Jersey, just about where the suburbs end and the farms of greater Pennsylvania begin. I was raised in an Evangelical church where Republicanism was preached from the pulpit as God’s Word handed down from on high. And you might’ve found me among the right-wing ranks had I not attended a little private school further East, closer to where my parents worked—a school much more ethnically diverse than my public school, and much, much closer to New York City.

Just to further fuel the allegations of urban snobbery, I was completely ashamed of where I grew up. The kids at school made fun of me for living in the boonies. I pestered my parents to move east. I didn’t want a quaint life on a pretty, little lake. I wanted to be where stuff was happening, where I could walk to convenience stores and play street basketball games, preferably with black people. That’s what was cool when I was a kid and that’s where I wanted to be.

So on the one hand, I think that this explanation of a collective middle finger to The City and all it represents makes total, complete, and perfect sense. People in the country have struggled along while their jobs have disappeared and their communities have been forgotten—all the while being written off and looked down upon by those in Washington and cities around America. I get it. It’s tough.

But the other part of me wants to respond with a middle finger of my own. And I’m afraid it feeds right into the narrative of urban snobbery and elitism we’ve been hearing about.

I want to reply angrily to rural Trump voters: “Well I hope it feels good. And I hope it still feels good four years from now, when you’re still as economically depressed, neglected and looked down upon as you are today, and meanwhile millions of undocumented workers, Syrian refugees, Ukrainians, NATO allies, and poor people from other countries who had better jobs thanks to free trade agreements have suffered through the first term of President Donald Trump. I hope that big Fuck You you delivered last Tuesday still makes you feel great. Like, you really stuck it to us.”

Then, with condescending sarcasm, I want to remind them, as they moan about machines and foreigners taking their good, secure jobs that pay decent living wages, that the American Dream is open to all people. And that if they just buckled down and worked harder, stayed out of trouble and laid off the meth, I’m sure as heck they’d get ahead and succeed, just like I have.

This is my snobbery in full effect. Let’s just get it out there, as I continue to spew ...

These are the people who preach Capitalism and the value of Competition in the marketplace. And to them I want to open my arms and say, “COME. COMPETE.” Come to The City and compete with us—the doers and makers of this society. We make the movies you watch, the shows you stream, the video games you play, the Internet you surf.

And I get that maybe they’re resentful, but I’ve got some resentments of my own. See, I left my nothing town full of nobodies. I moved to Boston, got a job at an ad agency and worked my way up to creative director, making a six-figure salary and shooting commercials like a real-life Don Draper. It’s a pretty cool job by most people’s standards. And I didn’t get it because my parents knew somebody in the industry, or because I went to some elite college. I didn’t have an “In.” I just had talent and desire and I worked at it and it eventually worked out.

And working hard in my career isn’t where it all began. Before that I worked hard in school. And you know what? Most of the other kids I knew who worked hard in school are here in The City making stuff and making money. And maybe when we were working hard in school, you were making fun of us. And maybe it feels a little bit good to stick it to you.

I practice what you preach. I worked hard and I succeeded. If I espoused conservatism, I’d be what they call a Self-Made Man, a big success story. But because I’d like my success to help buoy others who haven’t had the same chances, I’m called an Elitist.

There’s a lot of generalizations here, of course. But a map of the United States divided into two colors is perhaps the greatest generalization of all. And I’m sure some will be offended by my words. This is not a scientific article, or even an op-ed designed to offer a defensible position, but merely a memoir combined with a rant under the guise of a confession.

But I wonder if some of it rings true for some of the folks reading this. And I wonder if a resentful person living in the country might see things from my point of view.

If it rings true to you, let us know and we’ll include: hello@theatlantic.com.

Personally I can relate to some of what Jon is saying. As an Army brat, I grew up all over the U.S. and a little abroad, but mostly in Kansas, where my dad retired to the countryside about 10 miles outside a town of just 5,000 people. My high school in that small town was a big step backwards for me academically (no A.P. classes, for one), having come from a well-funded public school in the Maryland suburbs. Socially the Kansas school was really isolating, because most of the students—who grew up together in a tight-knit community—didn’t relate to me much and didn’t really want to, especially given my awkward introversion at 14. I became miserable and resentful—mostly toward myself—and went to live with my mother, stationed in Georgia, for the second half of high school.

After college, I went straight to New York City—the extreme opposite of that Kansas town—and I’ve lived there and DC ever since. Those big cities definitely have their flaws, and the smug attitude and myopic political views of many New Yorkers get insufferable at times, but overall, there’s no other place I would have wanted to spend the past decade. The biggest reason? The vast diversity of people living there—diversity in all forms, but namely the array of places from which they came, across the U.S. and abroad. They came to the big city in their twenties to pursue a passion, work hard for an opportunity, and enjoy an endless stream of culture that extends well past Netflix. The people I most enjoy in NYC and DC aren’t from NYC and DC; they’re the ones who got out of their sleepy towns and dreary suburbs, at least for a while.

If you’ve lived in a small town your whole life, on the other hand, and you’d like to tell your story or vent your resentments to Jon, please drop us a note. Update from Susan:

Yes, Jon, we get it. But your choice to leave and become Don Draper does not invalidate the issues at hand. I tried your route. I got my fancy degrees and worked in the big city for a while. God bless all of you who can do it. I sure couldn’t. I couldn’t drive by the poverty and see the violence on the news while listening to my coworkers complain that their neighbors refuse to control their dandelions. I tried reading Malcolm X and signing up for Big Sisters, but in the end, I could not figure out a way to make a meaningful difference there, and I couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance of a suburban existence.

So I moved back to northern Appalachia, on the opposite side of PA from you. This is Trump country. People want to work. They want to raise their kids, and in reality, most people can do that. Where it falls apart is with three main issues:

  • Higher education. If your kid wants to go to college, and you are barely scraping by in a low cost-of-living place, there is no way to help him. This cost inflation is obscene, and it is entirely government caused.
  • Health care. If you own or want to start a small business, ACA has become a boulder around the neck. Five years ago my insurance premium was $382. The quote for 2017 is over $1100. Again, it’s pretty easy to draw a straight line from the law to the premium.
  • Retirement. No one really, truly wants to go back to working in the mill. But you could earn a living wage, and when you retired, you would have a decent pension. Those days are gone. This one gets blamed on free trade.

The reason you get called a snobby elitist is that we shouldn’t have to choose between an intolerable existence in the city, or poverty in God’s Country. We don’t want your six figures. We just want to live and for our kids to have some options when it’s their turn to make these choices.

Update from Paul:

Susan’s frustrations are valid but her comments are about the causes are not. I’m not aware of any evidence that supports the idea that the rising cost of college is caused by the government, that the ACA is what is driving private healthcare insurance costs up (in fact there’s some evidence to suggest that the ACA is slowing the otherwise normal rate of price increases), or that the government (Republican or Democratic) is responsible for the collapse of privately funded defined-benefit pensions.

All of these are real problems, but none of them can be easily solved by direct government action. I definitely agree that free trade killed a lot of older manufacturing companies in businesses with high labor costs and lower value add. The solution isn’t getting rid of free trade, which makes everyone poorer, it’s much more generous help for those displaced as a result.

If we want to reach common ground on our problems, it would help to have a more evidence-based discussion about the root causes.  This does not mean we'd reach complete agreement on all the root causes (ACA in particular is still too new to really deeply understand how it is affecting health care inflation rate), but I think it would certainly help.

Here’s some help from Reason’s Robby Soave regarding Susan’s contention that the federal government has caused college to become so expensive:

Long have liberals vowed to make higher education more affordable by offering ever more generous loan subsidies, and long have conservatives and libertarians argued that federal aid merely gives colleges license to drive up the price. A study by the New York Federal Reserve offers some new evidence that the latter group is correct. According to the study’s authors:

We find that institutions more exposed to changes in the subsidized federal loan program increased their tuition disproportionately around these policy changes, with a sizable pass-through effect on tuition of about 65 percent. We also find that Pell Grant aid and the unsubsidized federal loan program have pass-through effects on tuition, although these are economically and statistically not as strong.

The argument goes like this: Since government aid programs make it easier for students to pay the sticker price of admission, no matter how high that price rises, universities have every incentive to respond by charging more. The universities have little to worry about—they get paid up front, regardless of how difficult it is for the students to repay the government (or the government’s actual creditors: the U.S. taxpayer).

Here’s one more reader response, from Philip, who challenges both Jon and Susan:

I don’t usually like to write in, especially in a thread that I figure will probably have more of me (urban, liberal, Clinton voter) than of the people like Susan who are writing in with their more pro-Trump opinions. But I have issues with both the self-proclaimed liberal urban elitist and his respondent, so I might as well take the plunge.

To Jon, I ask, as Susan does, why he assumes they want to come to the city. I think it’s entirely fair that they don’t. People should have an opportunity for a good life wherever they want to live, not just by coming to the city to “compete.” And saying they’re all on meth (even if you acknowledge the condescending sarcasm) is really no better than Donald Trump calling Mexicans rapists. Both are hyperbole; neither is particularly helpful. They have legitimate concerns, and we should address them. We should have even if Hillary had won. They matter.

But that brings me to Susan. She points to three issues: health care (especially costs); higher education (especially costs); and retirement (and the lack of pensions nowadays). My question is where in the world she gets the idea that voting Republican will help on any of those points.

OK, I see that she thinks the ACA is responsible for rising health care costs. I have two big issues with that. One is that health care costs have been going up far longer than the ACA has been around, and they’ve gone up less with ACA than without it. The other is that most of the mechanisms for reducing costs for individuals under the ACA have been gummed up by precisely those Republican politicians she just empowered (more on this in a moment). Medicaid expansion for the poorest? Blocked by Republican governors, who then sued to not have to do it. Subsidies for those making too little to afford the exchanges without them? Not funded by a Republican Congress, which is suing to prevent the administration from paying the money out of general funds. Which of these two parties is trying to help with the cost of insurance? And of course, that’s without mentioning all the people (many in that same part of the country she lives in) who now have health insurance who couldn’t get it before.

On higher education: Susan is totally right that higher education costs are ridiculous. But what Republican policy does she think will help with that? Perhaps it’s true that the way the government currently runs educational grants inflates the price of college; I think it is too! But there are ways to help a kid going to college if you’re barely making minimum wage (itself an idea that Republicans tend to oppose of course ): all those dang grants. And of course, if you go to some colleges—elite and liberal and urban, mostly—they’re cheap or free for those making very little money.

On retirement: Those pensions aren’t coming back. But you know what’s still there? Social Security—which the Republicans tried to privatize the very last time they had the presidency. I think she’s wrong to blame the lack of pensions on free trade (it’s probably more the fault of companies ceasing to prioritize corporate citizenship and the duty to their workers over the bottom line—something our new president-elect is somewhat of an expert on), but even if she does, the Republicans are the ones taking out the safety net beneath it. Speaker Ryan has already started to do this with his Medicare proposal—which, by the way, he’s packaging as part of the ACA repeal. So the same people who riled up their base because they claimed the ACA would endanger Medicare are now endangering it themselves to get rid of the ACA.

Basically, my problem with Susan’s perspective comes down to this: For the past eight years, the Republicans have spent every ounce of energy trying to stop Obama, and by extension the Democrats, from governing, and from actually doing anything for people like her. But her response is to empower them by voting the obstructionists into even more power. It’s like a team that needs a field goal looking at Lucy swiping the ball away from Charlie Brown before he can kick it and saying “you know, that Charlie Brown just can’t kick. Let’s put Lucy in charge. I’m sure she’ll put the ball through the uprights.”

So the liberal elitist, Jon, is wrong to imply we shouldn’t care about red-state and red-county voters. But the respondent, Susan, is claiming that the people who put us in this situation are the people we should trust to get us out.

Update from Susan, who gets the final word here, if you’re still following along:

This is fun! Thanks. A couple of clarifications, if it’s relevant. Here’s the graph showing how government caused tuition increases:

What happened in 2010? Bankruptcy law was changed so that student loans can never be discharged. [Update from reader Darren: “I think the bankruptcy law change that she’s talking about is the one in 2005, and not 2010 like she states. Not sure where you’d want to put such a minor correction, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to point that out to y’all.] This complements the Reason research showing that student loans drive college cost increases.

Also, you will notice I never said that Republicans would or could fix any of these problems. The problem is that neither Republicans nor Democrats work for any of us out here in flyover country. They work for Wall Street, and Big Pharma, and Monsanto, and Big Oil, and the military/industrial complex.

And I didn’t vote for Trump. (I went for Gary Johnson.) My personal opinion is that the problem is corruption and crony capitalism, and more laws favor those with more lawyers. As long as people think one of the parties or some politician is going to help “we the people,” then they’ve got you fooled.

I understand why people voted for Trump; they are hoping that maybe, just maybe, he won’t be a politician.