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Listening to the Heartland’s Voters

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Listening to the Heartland’s Voters

City Talk January 21, 2020
Politics and law

Photo Courtesy of Salena ZitoSalena Zito reviewed Pittsburgh’s renaissance, Pennsylvania’s electoral patterns, the 2020 presidential election, and more with Charles F. McElwee, assistant editor of City Journal. Zito has had a long career as a national political reporter. She is a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner, columnist for the New York Post, and CNN political analyst. Born and bred in Pittsburgh, she worked for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for 11 years. She coauthored The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, for which she and Brad Todd interviewed more than 300 Trump voters in ten swing counties.

What can smaller cities learn from Pittsburgh’s renaissance?

In 1984, Pittsburgh had a nearly 20 percent unemployment rate, the steel industry collapsed, and manufacturing died. The city’s business and civic leaders decided to use their access to foundations to develop a cultural district in the center of the city. Over time, they diversified the city’s economic identity with a focus on “eds and meds” and high tech that took advantage of the region’s academic resources and hospital systems. In addition, over the past decade, the natural gas boom has created a boon that no one saw coming. Pittsburgh’s lesson was to work with what you have, stop trying to be what you used to be, and look to smart civic leaders rather than politicians for solutions.

How is the nation’s political realignment unfolding in western Pennsylvania?

The western Pennsylvania suburbs—in Washington, Butler, Westmoreland, and Beaver Counties—have become much more Republican than, say, the Philadelphia suburbs, which have trended more Democratic. The difference lies in how much more rooted resident are to their communities. The western suburban voters tend to have the same amount of college education as their eastern counterparts. They are more rooted to place, though, and thus have more contact with different viewpoints—including those of Trump supporters—than a Philadelphia suburban voter. Working-class voters here also moved away from the Democratic Party on cultural issues such as faith, abortion, guns, and climate change. Many of these voters work in the fossil-fuel energy sector or in related industries.

Beyond the Beltway, what are the biggest issues for voters in the 2020 presidential election? 

Access to good education, especially for distressed populations, is always top of mind for parents of K-12 children. Attention to infrastructure—from clean water to bridges and dams— is more important to communities than climate change, which seems abstract when you’re trying to make ends meet. This doesn’t mean that people don’t care about the climate, just that other issues take priority for them.

What does the future hold for local journalism?

Local journalism is the most important thing for a town, village, city, or state. You need someone keeping tabs on city or county councils, school boards, water authorities, and police. Who will hold them accountable? Corruption happens even with watchdogs, so what happens when they disappear? National news can’t cover this effectively. Part of the problem with national news organizations is that their personnel often hold homogenous viewpoints, and therefore don’t understand the people they’re covering in smaller cities, towns, and counties. Some of these reporters have never sat in a pew on a Sunday or owned a gun. That kind of perspective is important in reporting on a community.  

What is an overlooked trend occurring in the U.S.?

The importance of community. People are often tied to a community to the point that they’ll forego higher-paying jobs or opportunities to remain near their families (think Sunday dinner). Staying rooted becomes more valuable than a higher paycheck.

What are you reading?

Grant, by Ron Chernow (for the third time).

Top Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

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