No matter who they voted for, most Americans would probably agree that the 2016 presidential election burned a lot of bridges. Fear and demonization of the other side reached epidemic levels—with the left’s charges of racism and misogyny being met with accusations of corruption and cultural Marxism from the right. The bonds of trust in America are broken, and it will be very difficult to repair them.
Or maybe not, if the rumblings I’m hearing from my classmates are any indication.
My law school is not exactly known for its intellectual diversity, and “localism” is a concept that has been traditionally associated with old-school conservatism. But surprisingly, many of my left-leaning friends and acquaintances are now talking seriously about forming a “Red State Coalition”—returning, upon graduation, to their home states in Middle America, where they plan to get involved in state and local politics. This sentiment was undoubtedly triggered by the widespread defection of working-class voters to Donald Trump, but the need for it has been long in the making.
College Students Should Look Homeward
The goal of such a shift? Safeguarding individuals’ rights while rebuilding political liberalism from the grassroots up, and engaging seriously with communities that have felt overlooked for decades. At a time of unprecedented political and cultural upheaval, this kind of thinking gives me more hope than almost anything else—and it’s an idea I hope that young, coastally educated conservatives also start taking seriously in the years to come.
However, today’s economic incentives are aligned against it. Students at prominent West or East Coast universities often follow a fairly typical professional path: upon graduation, they work in large professional-services firms in major cities (commonly New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., or San Francisco) before transitioning into government, business, or advocacy work. Few return to “flyover” states for any sustained time—or if they do, they remain safely ensconced within major metropolitan areas.
Yet this trend isn’t inevitable. For example, a college friend of mine, who I deeply admire, returned to her economically depressed hometown with a goal of promoting urban revitalization. She almost certainly could’ve had her pick of Capitol Hill roles or think-tank jobs in D.C., but instead chose to reinvest her skills and abilities in the Ohio community where she grew up. Unfortunately for America, she is an exception to the norm—and the “brain drain” trend is even more pronounced at the law school level.
How Brain Drain Hurts America
The impact of this estrangement from local communities is broadly felt, and its fingerprints are all over contemporary coastal culture.
You see it in online publications like Vox, which are filled with essays from young Ivy League graduates explaining how to build a better national health policy. How many of these graduates have ever talked to a general practitioner in the Midwest about how Obamacare has impacted their ability to treat patients?
You see it in university symposia about religious liberty and nondiscrimination, where brilliant students demonstrate a near-total inability to comprehend why American evangelicals philosophically link “religion” (bad!) with “morality” (good!). How many of these students know a single evangelical?
You see it in conversations about education reform, where student advocates dismiss charter school proponents as “racists” who want to perpetuate inequalities rather than reforming the public school system from the ground up. How many of these students actually attended a public school themselves?
Smaller-Scale Politics Allow For Moderation
By design, politics flows downstream. Decision-makers at the top are unlikely to be seriously affected by any sweeping policy change, since institutional culture tends toward homogeneity. The actual effects of political change are felt most keenly on a local level—and when those who seek to make decisions for others are systematically isolated from that local impact, forming their own millennial-professional caste, radical outsiders like Donald Trump win elections.
Resisting the brain-drain tendency allows both parties to play a role in rebuilding a healthy polity from the ground up—rebuilding that must entail across-the-aisle collaboration. As a conservative, I see real value in the existence of a “loyal opposition” whose views I might not share. Aristotle warned that great danger lies in extremeness, and that one’s pursuit of any given virtue ought to occur with an eye to moderation.
Smaller-scale politics allow for that moderation, in the form of a constructive give-and-take between left and right. Business-friendly policies ought to be tempered with a concern for their human cost. Criminal justice systems ought to work in a restorative, not bloodthirsty, way. Christians, Muslims, and atheists alike ought to understand each other’s beliefs. Old prejudices have been reinforced for too long by the isolating effect of social media; they are far harder to maintain when there are familiar names and faces attached to them.
How ‘Parks and Recreation’ Shows Us a Path Forward
The beloved television series “Parks and Recreation” illustrates this idea well. Fictional though it may be, the show depicts a healthy coexistence of liberal and conservative views within a functional city government. Characters don’t demonize one another because they have to see each other every day: it’s impossible for them to withdraw into a safe political bubble surrounded by people who think exactly like them. At the local level, basic things have to get done: the water has to flow, the electricity has to stay on, and the streets can’t fall into total disrepair. Ideological purity must sometimes take a backseat to community flourishing.
There is a distinct lack of glamor in any anti-cosmopolitan turn (even the very word “municipal” sounds hopelessly boring), and many millennials will undoubtedly continue to be drawn to the world of Washingtonian ladder-climbing or New York’s culture of high finance. (And certainly those cities need talented, principled residents too!)
But for years, well-trodden pathways have slowly been draining Middle American towns of an important resource: the energy and talents of their young people. Perhaps, in the post-Trump years, that will begin to change: after the ugliest election cycle in recent memory, the best places for building future unity will likely be far away from the hubs of partisan rage.
That’s a lesson some on the political left are slowly learning—and that conservatives ought also take to heart.