Reversing the general course of history, economics or demography is never easy, despite even the most dogged efforts of the best-connected political operatives working today.
Since the 2006 elections – and even more so after 2008 – blue-state politicians have enjoyed a monopoly of power unprecedented in recent history. Hardcore blue staters control virtually every major Congressional committee, as well as the House Speakership and the White House. Yet they still have proved incapable of reversing the demographic and economic decline in the nation's most "progressive" cities and states.
Obama and his congressional allies have worked overtime in favor of urban blue-state constituencies in everything from transportation funding and energy policies to the Wall Street bailouts and massive transfers of private wealth to powerful public-employee unions. Yet these areas continue suffering from net outmigration and stubbornly high job losses – as well as from some of the most severe fiscal imbalances in the nation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the president's hometown of Chicago. The Windy City has suffered a very bad recession and may have fallen to its worst relative position since the Daley reconquista in 1989. As Chicago blogger Steve Bartin points out, even the presence of a Daley operative in the White House has failed to prevent the city from falling "in a funk." He writes that even a reliable booster, columnist Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, has lately described the city "as edgy, a little sullen and scared, verging on depressed."
There's plenty reason for feeling low, well beyond the humiliating loss of the Obama-backed Olympics bid last year. For example, Oprah Winfrey, the city's one bona fide A-list celebrity, is retiring her talk show in 2011. She is also reportedly shifting much of her media empire to Southern California, which, for all its admitted problems, has gads of celebrities and much better weather.
Chicago's most serious concern, however, revolves around the economy. In June, its unemployment rate peaked at 11.3%, far outpacing the national unemployment rate of 10%. Since 2007, the region has lost more jobs than Detroit, and more than twice as many as New York. Chicago's total loss over the entire decade is greater than any region outside Detroit: about 250,000 positions, which is about the amount its emerging mid-American rival Houston has gained. In hard times businesses tend to look for places with a friendly environment for their enterprise. They avoid high taxes, political payoffs and inflated public employee salaries – all well-known Chicago specialties. These costs are undermining the city's competitive position in, for example, the convention business, among others.
Other key sectors are also flailing. Political influence in Washington will not stem the flow of high-wage trading jobs away from the Mercantile Exchange to decentralized electronic exchanges. Nor can it reverse the deteriorating state fiscal crisis caused by weak economies and exacerbated by insanely high pensions and out of control spending policies. Late last month
To be sure, the recession has not hurt New York as much as Chicago, but the Big Apple has lost heavily , including 50,000 financial sector jobs since 2007. The outrageous bonuses to a few well-placed financial types will cushion but not deflect the influence of declining high-wage jobs. This can be seen in the striking weakness in the once seemingly unstoppable high-end condominium market. Particularly hard hit have been recent gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y., much like the hard-hit, newly developed areas along the Chicago lakefront.
Other blue bastions have been shedding jobs as well, both during the recession and over the whole decade. Beyond Chicago and Detroit, the biggest losses among the mega-regions have taken place in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles-Long Beach and Boston. Big money can still be made in Silicon Valley, Hollywood or around the academic economy of Boston, but in terms of overall jobs, the past decade has been dismal for these regions. Meanwhile, the consistent big gainers have been – besides Houston – Dallas and Washington, D.C., the one place money really does seem to grow on trees. Even Miami, Phoenix and San Bernardino-Riverside, in California, boast more jobs today than in 2000, despite significant setbacks in the recent recession.
These trends coincide with continuing shifts in demographics. The recession may have slowed the pace of net migration, but the essential pattern has remained in place. People continue to leave places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles for more affordable, economically viable regions like Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Overall, the big winners in net migration have been predominately conservative states like Texas – with over 800,000 net new migrants – notes demographer Wendell Cox. In what Cox calls "the decade of the South," 90% of all net migration went to southern states.
Utah, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest have also experienced positive flows – but perhaps most striking have been the migration gains, albeit modest, in Great Plains states such as Oklahoma and South Dakota as well as Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia. Historically these places shipped many of their people to cities of the industrial Midwest, the eastern seaboard and California; that is no longer the case.
Ultimately these shifts could undermine the true blue political strategy, perhaps as early as the 2010 congressional and state elections, and certainly after reapportionment. By 2012, the census will likely take seats from New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, handing them over to Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Utah. Perhaps nothing will epitomize the new reality more than the fact that California, now among the most extreme blue states in terms of governance, will not gain a Congressional seat for the first time since the 1860s.
These trends suggest that the current administration and the majority party in Congress must adjust their strategy. Further attempts to push a radical "progressive" agenda – expansive public employee bailouts, higher taxes and radical measures to combat "climate change" and suburban development – might please their current core constituencies, but they have the perverse effect of driving even more people and jobs out of these regions.
All these underlying trends appear a boon to Republicans. But Democrats could counter the emerging GOP edge by appealing to the needs of these ascendant regions. By their very nature, growth states have the most urgent need for government investments in basic infrastructure, something traditional Democrats long have espoused. Moreover, such areas tend to become more tolerant as they welcome outsiders, and could be turned off to excessive Republican social conservatism.
For any of this to work, however, Democrats must first abandon their current narrow, urban-centric blue-state strategy. They must learn to adjust their appeal to regions on the upswing, or things could turn out very badly for them very soon.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press early next year.