Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media
In November 2000, Americans stayed up all night awaiting the results of a close presidential election. As the night wore on – turning into months until a Supreme Court verdict pronounced George W. Bush the winner – the depth of our national divide emerged. We were divided by demography, by ideology, but most of all, by geography.
The 2000 race led to the phrase "red states and blue states". Republican red states are usually in the middle, while Democratic blue states tend to be on the coasts. After 2008, this divide became sharper, as the "recovery" which followed the Great Recession was unequally distributed. Regions like New York and Silicon Valley boomed while the Rust Belt eroded and small towns throughout the Midwest and South struggled to survive.
Having lost its manufacturing base, the mostly red state heartland went on to lose other industries, among them media, which became dominated by coastal elites. By 2014, one of four journalists lived in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, versus one of eight in 2004. Middle American newspapers struggled or shuttered while our regions went largely uncovered by the coastal media – except during elections, when politicians and journalists dipped briefly into the red sea and puzzled over our concerns, oblivious to the daily struggle. That is what happens when you care only every four years.
When you look at a map of the Brexit results, the same pattern emerges. England is a sea of red indicating "leave". The blue dot of prosperous London is the sole holdout for "remain". Journalists who cover England's central regions, like the Guardian's John Harris, saw it coming. He described the areas with the highest "leave" rates as marked by "a terrible shortage of homes, an impossibly precarious job market" and residents boasting "a mixture of deep worry and often seething anger".
This geographical divide – between expensive and prosperous cities and a heartland left to rot – is not unique to the U.K. or the United States. When I previously wrote about U.S. geographic inequality, I received dozens of e-mails from Globe and Mail readers discussing the same dynamic in Canada, describing being priced out of Toronto or Vancouver, or struggling to find good jobs in the central provinces. Readers from Australia, South Africa, India and other countries claimed the same post-2008 geographic inequality had restructured their lives as well.
The new world economy is structured on gated citadels of prosperity and gaping joblessness in between. Brexit, and the chaos in its wake, feels shocking. But it should not be surprising.
Was Brexit caused by economic despair, xenophobia, right-wing nationalism, or public ignorance of the consequences? Try all of the above. These factors build on each other, when jobless citizens seek a scapegoat and target innocent immigrants; when racist politicians convert desperate citizens who, in better circumstances, may have shunned their bigotry. In the U.S., the same dynamic plays out in the campaign of Donald Trump. Neither Trump voters nor Brexit "leave" voters are monoliths. To describe them as such is to commit one of the errors that led to this mess – refusing to take seriously what individual citizens outside elite enclaves are saying or experiencing.
In the US, pundits fret over who will win the Rust Belt: the economically battered Midwestern states deemed critical to victory. Much as Brexit may prove an economic disaster for the inland Brits who voted for it, a Trump presidency may prove disastrous for Midwestern Trump voters. But Trump speaks the Rust Belt language: by acknowledging we are suffering, we have been screwed, that our best days are behind us. (That Trump is, in fact, one of the coastal elites who screwed the Midwest is omitted.) What people hear is an acknowledgment of pain – and the potential, cloaked in disingenuous platitudes, for that pain to be alleviated.
Debates over Brexit and Trump have focused on bigoted propaganda targeting vulnerable populations. But the danger is not only talk – it is the refusal of others to listen, before a dangerous demagogue comes along who will.