Americans: Not So Dense

I’m moving to America soon, which may be seen as ironic or hypocritical given my support for Nationalism and strict borders. But then, my attitude is that: (a) I am white English, and therefore more of the kind of genetic stock America needs right now, (b) America has every right to reject me if it doesn’t want me, (c) strict borders doesn’t mean zero immigration – it’s perfectly legitimate for America to allow a small number of immigrants each year, so long as strict standards are kept in place, and the influx (and birth rate) of incoming immigrants does not overwhelm the native population.

Anyway, this has lead me to thinking about where I’d like to live. I grew up in, and still live in, London. This city has a density of 14,000 per square mile. For reference, this is 10x the UK average, and is almost double that of Los Angeles (a city most Americans would consider to be a smoggy, over-crowded, gridlocked hellhole). So, y’know, I’d like to avoid that. I started ranking American cities by population density, just to rule out anywhere that’s like London and… I only ended up ruling out places I didn’t want to live anyway: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston… big Blue cities, basically (although more because of the city itself than the politics necessarily). And even those cities (especially when you rule out the very-crowded city centres) don’t come close to the Mega-City One that is London.

All of this led me to thinking about how sparsely populated a country America is, and how this is reflected in the voting. It also got me to thinking about how Americans in big cities, often Democrats, but not always, bitch about the Electoral College[1] and the minority of boondock Americans who are holding the country back. What got me thinking about this was a liberal bitching about the Electoral College – he said that if a Popular Vote for President meant small-population States like Wyoming got overwhelmed by heavily-urbanised states, then that’s just tough: the majority vote represents how Americans really want to live. The Vote should express the will of the people. The way they see it, they’re denizens of a progressive, forward-thinking culture, but they’re still essentially “normal Americans”, with as much right to speak on behalf of everyone else. They see most Americans as being just like them, with the same basic attitudes, but somehow unenlightened.

(Anonymous Conservative has some interesting views on how population density impacts voting patterns, incidentally).

The thing is, I don’t think American ultra-urbanites (or those in smaller cities) appreciate how many of their fellow countrymen live outside dense urban areas, while still being in possession of the luxuries of indoor plumbing, Wi-Fi and Starbucks (i.e. the people are aware of what modern life is like) – nor do I think they appreciate how different even modestly dense cities are from the norm. They’re right that there is a vast difference between themselves and other people, but I don’t think they realise how alien they are to the average American. It’s not as if it goes from “happening city” to “shack in the woods”. Heck, that’s one of the big draws to me about America: that you can live with access to modern amenities and relatively easy access to supplies, while still living a small-town life (or you can live in one of the even smaller urban areas surrounding these already-small towns).

Put it this way: imagine the “big cities” of America – the really cosmopolitan areas (population density around 12k per sq. mi. – 27k at the high end 7k at the low end). These are typically left-wing, “progressive” cities. These 30 densest cities in America account for only 23 million people – already we see how little someone living here knows of what life is like for the average American.

But the problem is even bigger than that. Someone who lives in a blue island like Athens (GA) – a relatively “small city” –
might feel an affinity with the progressive in San Francisco (though the San Franciscan might think the Athenian a southern hick), and the might feel they’re in tune with the majority of forward-thinking, progressive Americans. They see themselves as being more in the heartland of America, as a typical American. A journalist who grew up here might write as if they know what America is like. And, knowing they’re not from the massive metropolises of America, they’ll think that most Americans are either like them – living in cities like them, possessing the kind of mindset that develops in big cities – or else they’re shit-poor farmers living on a ranch (again, that AC article is very relevant to understand the kind of attitudes that develop in dense-vs-sparse populations).

But let’s challenge that assumption. Let’s pool together the 300 most dense cities across America, places ranging from Tucson, Arizona to Memphis, Tennessee. Places that have any right to call themselves “metropolitan”, places where a native to that city might consider themselves part of a forward-thinking elite, while still considering themselves part of the “heartland” of America. That’s how broad we’re gonna look. Heck we’re including Amarillo, Provo, Knoxville – real, proper American towns. Well… for one thing, this still only accounts for 100 million people – less than 1/3 of the population. And what’s normal for these people is a population density ranging averaging 4,000 per square mile, or 3,000 if you subtract the megacities which could skew it.

Now, that sounds pretty sparse to me, but my point is that for America that’s: (a) densely populated, and (b) a minority lifestyle.

Get rid of them and you still have over 200 million Americans living a much less dense lifestyle. We’re talking about people for whom Waco, Mobile or Provo are bustling, over-crowded cities. The fact is the average population density for an American is less than 1,000 per square mile – and therefore, by definition, half of Americans are living in urban areas smaller than even that. For these people, if you live in Jacksonville, you’re “big city folk” living a suspicious lifestyle. Heck, we’re talking about a range that goes down as small as 100 people per square mile (and I’ve excluded the 10-person outposts in the middle of nowhere in my averages here – we’re still talking about regular Americans who are living “on the grid”, who would still consider themselves to be living a “normal” American life – just with a very definition of “normal American life” to the people living in top-300 densest cities).

Simply put, America is mostly a small-town country with a small-town political mindset. Cities like New York, San Francsico and LA are elitist, we can accept that easily, but even a relatively small city dweller lives a life that’s pretty abnormal American lifestyle. The thing is, you watch the movies that come out of Hollywood, and you think most Americans live cosmopolitan lifestyles in big, busy cities. When a movie like ‘Dazed and Confused’ has teenagers roaming through a relatively small town, or we see Casey Affleck going from a small town to a really tiny town (Manchester-By-Sea), it all feels very quaint and quiet versus what we’re used to – but that’s how most Americans live! And with that comes a different attitude towards life, towards community, and towards a large Federal government (or even towards an over-active State government).

That’s me just thinking more in terms of cities, of course. Obviously, when it comes to something like the aforementioned Electoral College and the choice of President, people vote by State, rather than districts (with a few exceptions like Nebraska). To put it just in terms of States though: the top 15 US States have an Average Pop Density of 600/mi2 (this includes as diverse a mix as Texas, New York, Illinois, California and Hawaii) and make up 161 million people. The rest of the country (158 million people) has an average density of just 74/mi2. That is a staggering difference – 70% of US States, and just under half the population, live in States which are 8x less dense than the rest.

Or, to put it another way: only a third of the Top 15 densest US States voted Trump in 2016. And of the remaining 35, only a third voted Clinton. This feature of America – the relative lack of density of where most people live – is a defining feature of the country. By any sane analysis, America is a small-town nation, filled with small, self-interested communities[2]. Most of these small towns are very white, too. Most population centres in America are very different to the big, progressive cities. Even places like Memphis or Fargo are relatively “big cities” compared with the rest of America, in terms of being an unusually dense urban area, with all the unique features that accompany dense populations.

[1] Of course, the Los Angeles voter will get angry that Wyoming is weighted so high, yet cry very few tears that California’s 53 Congressional representatives can write Federal laws that overrule the single Congressman from Wyoming.

[2] In contrast to the provincial, more community and family-focused aspect of most Americans’ lives, is the kind of attitudes developed in a big city. As said, r/K theory explains a lot of what’s going on here, in terms of dense cities being advantageous to the r-selected (in fact, high birth rates are a feature of cities (see page 6), making them r-selected by their nature). What I’ve not heard much talk about is the feedback loop in which large cities encourage more socialised thinking. While a dense city has a greater pool of resources, it’s also home to many shared resources: people must live in apartment complexes, take public transport and share small city parks (instead of having the freedom of a large backyards, or access to large outdoors areas). Learning to compromising personal space and personal property for the sake of the collective good is a part of being a big city dweller. Just ask anyone who has to take the London Underground every morning.