Conservatives Have Lost Sight of American Aspiration

Getting back toward a politics of the American Dream.

Our era of grievance politics suffers from a collective blind spot to American aspiration. We hear very little from either presidential campaign about the American Dream or the hopes that motivate small business owners, workers considering a job change, or parents dreaming for their children’s future. That certainly won’t change before the election.

And yet aspiration persists anyway. One of its best indicators is people’s willingness to pick up and move to change jobs or pursue new opportunities. Even during a pandemic, Americans are moving. A new study of U.S. Postal Service change-of-address requests shows a 4 percent increase in relocations in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019. The increase is certainly a function of the pandemic as people escape crowded cities and college students return home, but many people are still moving for the usual aspirational reasons such as pursuing new opportunities.

Ignoring the aspirations of mobile Americans is a lost opportunity, especially for conservatives. Long before the coronavirus drew the media’s attention to the exodus from America’s cities, people were fleeing big, progressive strongholds like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago for a while. Where are they going? The five fastest-growing cities over the past decade were Seattle, Fort Worth, Austin, Denver, and Charlotte. Movers prefer a blend of economic opportunity and affordability, safety, and reliable institutions over spiraling costs, ideological governance, and unpredictability. Regardless of their politics, they move for reasons we normally associate with conservative values. 

This is especially true of young adults and immigrants, two groups with which political conservatives usually do not fare well. More than half of millennials and two-thirds of Gen Zers would move if they could, according to AEI survey data. Like immigrants who regard American cities as the most likely place to realize the American Dream, they are considerably more bullish on the future of the American economy.

Young adults have been moving away from the cool cities where movies are made to more practical places for a while. Between 2000 and 2015, the top ten cities to increase their share of 20 to 34-year-olds were Riverside, Orlando, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Austin, Houston, Sacramento, Jacksonville, Raleigh, and Tampa. All of these places grew their share of young adults between 29 and 48 percent. By comparison, San Francisco grew its share by 8 percent, New York 6 percent, and Los Angeles 3 percent. 

Whatever urban myths say about the preferences of young adults, actual millennials are flocking to more affordable places in search of good jobs, affordable homes, and lower taxes. Of the top ten destination states for millennials in the year before the pandemic, five of them have no income tax. Whatever their views on progressive taxation, millennials vote much more conservatively with their feet. Being able to afford a good place to live, though, may be the biggest factor driving young people from one city to another. 

A standard measure of housing affordability shows that median house prices have risen relative to median income to ridiculous levels in California, and much faster in other cities that have limited housing supply in the name of progressive goals. Median income in San Francisco will get you a home about two-thirds the median home price, compared to the median earner in fast-growing Nashville who can buy a house one and a half times the median home price. We see similar trends in places like Portland compared to Austin, in which the former has been subjected to a more progressive ideological goals than the latter. 

The unaffordability conundrum in America’s more progressive cities is an outworking of an untold story of urban flight over the past 40 years. The story is about the changing nature of urban inequality. Of the fifteen most unequal cities in America in 1980, measured by the gap between the 10th and 90th percentiles, about half were smaller metro areas in the south, and the only two major metros of more than one million residents were New Orleans and Orlando. Today, the top fifteen include New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Washington, DC. A generation ago, urban inequality reflected the unhappy continuation of racial inequities. Today, it is mostly about class inequities in the nation’s most progressive strongholds, which have shown little concern for middle- and lower-income people of any race who cannot afford to live in them. Aspiring young professionals, whatever their politics, render their judgment by moving out—to places that cost less and are governed less ideologically. 

Like young adults, immigrants seek opportunity in places they can afford. Even though the majority of immigrants emigrate to America’s largest cities such as New York or Los Angeles, when we look at the fastest-growing urban immigrant populations, the pattern resembles millennial preferences. In the most recent comprehensive study of domestic immigrant migration in 2017, cities with the highest percentage of immigrants are lower-cost, opportunity-rich destinations such as Tampa, Indianapolis, Omaha, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Jacksonville. Cities with the fastest-growing immigrant homeownership rates follow a similar trend. The top five are Nashville, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, St. Louis, and Portland. Others such as Raleigh, Denver, and Austin are not far behind. Similarly, the fastest-growing share of immigrant entrepreneurs is in cities such as Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Kansas City, and El Paso. 

Some U.S. cities would not be the same without immigrants. More than one in ten of the largest 100 metro areas would have had negative growth the past five years were it not for immigrants moving in. For instance, almost all (98 percent) of Cincinnati’s population growth from 2014 to 2017 was due to immigrants. Over half of the growth in cities as diverse as Grand Rapids, Baton Rouge, Seattle, and San Francisco is owing to immigrants. 

That immigrants are the most aspirational group in America should be self-evident. They start new businesses at twice the rate as native-born Americans and account for 30 percent of all new entrepreneurs. Their entrepreneurial spirit is evident in small and big business alike. Nearly 30 percent of all “Main Street businesses” like dry cleaners, flower shops, and restaurants are owned by immigrants, and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or child of an immigrant. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that compared to 41 percent of native-born Americans, 50 percent of immigrants say they are on the way to achieving the American Dream, according to AEI survey data. Moreover, more native-born than foreign-born Americans say the American Dream is out of reach.

Immigrants and mobile young adults do not represent a total political constituency by themselves, but they reflect the heart of American aspiration. They show that aspirational people care about home affordability, public safety, predictability, and an overall low cost of living. These are all the building blocks of a good agenda.

Conservatives have traditionally stood for a politics of human agency, hard work, and pursuit of dreams against the progressive vision for statist inurement to life’s discomforts. But in their turn toward populism and nationalism, they have lost sight of the aspirational quality of American life that they have traditionally been well-positioned to serve. 

Photo by Stephen Morton/Getty Images.