President Trump’s recent attempts to pit the suburbs against cities inadvertently cast a light on his more general problem with metropolitan areas. Claiming to protect the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” (an expression unfamiliar to suburbanites) in describing his opposition to an Obama-era low-income housing program, Trump betrayed an ignorance of the socioeconomic diversity of the suburbs, which a number of critics rightly noted. The truth is, suburbs have more in common with the cities they surround than not.
But even critics mostly regard suburbs and cities as distinct geographic units defined by their differences. On one level, this is understandable. Suburbs and cities are governed by different municipal authorities, and suburban areas have long been the landing pad for urban flight. But the division between cities and suburbs and the “urban-rural” divide we hear so much about are mostly sideshows. They mask a much more distinct schism between metro areas, which include much of the suburbs, and non-metro small towns and rural areas.
In a recent American Enterprise Institute survey, urban and suburban respondents were aligned with one another other on important issues, and the same held true for residents of small towns and rural areas. For instance, 52 percent of city dwellers and 48 percent of suburbanites said “not at all” when asked whether Trump is acting in the best interest of the public, compared with 38 percent of people in small towns and 32 percent of rural residents. This split is especially notable given that Americans in all geographic categories have similar views of how much the federal government, their local government, and national and local media act in the best interest of public. When it comes to key institutions, Americans don’t differ much. When it comes to Donald Trump, the suburbs are much more urban than rural.
One of the more telling differences between metro and non-metro—or, let’s say “heartland”—residents concerns the question of scientists. Only a third of metro dwellers say that scientists are as likely to be as biased as anyone, compared with 43 percent of heartland residents. More than 41 percent of metro residents have “a great deal” of confidence that scientists act in the best interest of the public, compared with a third of those in the heartland. Knowledge and expertise divide metro and heartland areas in other ways, including politics. Metro residents are much more likely to say they value experienced politicians over newcomers to politics. Heartland voters are warmer to the newcomers.