Last year was full of turmoil: I gave birth to my second baby, turned 40, and quit my faculty job in DC. I also moved to Wichita, Kansas.
My husband was born and raised in Wichita. His parents have an elegant home in an affluent suburb, and they let us camp out in their basement during the year of upheavals. This was no hardship: it’s a beautiful walk-out with a fireplace and bar, twice the size of our DC condo.
What I saw in Wichita’s suburbs doesn’t jibe with much of what we on the coasts hear about the interior. For all the stories of rural hardship and disaffected Trump voters, of failing cities and crumbling infrastructure, I saw communities that are growing and thriving. Infantilizing portraits of downtrodden “flyover man” ignore this enormous slice of contemporary American reality —and an essential dimension of our changing political landscape, too. Not all of America’s enormous wealth is clustered on the coasts. It wasn’t primarily economic anxiety that gave us the Donald Trump presidency. And it isn’t just the “coastal elites” who are fighting now to end it.
A majority of Americans live in suburban communities, as do most people in Kansas. Ours was the ideal-typical life on the outskirts: affordable homes, good public schools, a short drive to Starbucks. It’s the kind of place that’s easy to ignore precisely because it’s doing just fine. But the suburbs are America’s new swing states. Suburban voters were pivotal in the 2018 Congressional races, as well as in the Democratic primary to date, and there’s every indication that suburbia will play an outsized role come November. America’s suburban women—with their college degrees and full time jobs—matter more, electorally speaking, than Brooks’ flyover guy.
The suburbs, known for strip malls, banality, and sprawl, occupy an ambiguous space in the American psyche, but they’re going to play a crucial role in the country’s political future. Here’s what I learned from my year in one, going in as a WASPy coastal elite.
We’re Not in DC Anymore, Toto
I grew up in Canada, and frankly my expectations of Midwestern suburbia were somewhere around Betty-Draper-meets-Roseanne-Connor. I figured things would be boring, lonely, and, well, slightly regressive.
But it did not take long to see how Wichita gives the lie to simplistic talk of economic stagnation in the interior, and of America’s failing cities. So too do Hays, Hutchinson, Lawrence, Denver, Boulder, Longmont, Lincoln, and Omaha—some of the other low-density, suburban cities we visited throughout the year. These are places with pockets of old money, large middle class populations, and the neighborhoods and facilities to match. Wichita is home to a large sector of US aerospace manufacturing, as well to Koch industries. Money flows through the city like the two Arkansas rivers, funding places like the gardens at Botanica and the new Advanced Learning Library. You get a sense of Wichitans’ disposable income at the city’s cafes, farm-to-table restaurants, and local breweries. It has a proper independent bookstore, and nearly a dozen YMCAs.
Compared to Washington, DC—with its private schools and neighborhoods full of multi-million-dollar homes—Wichita feels like a socialist haven. Inequality is much lower in the Midwest than on the coasts, and this overall difference of conditions is palpable. The median home value in DC is $564,400. In Wichita it’s $129,600. Our child care in DC cost $450/week; in Wichita it was around $175. For middle-class earners, DC’s higher wages don’t cover those gaps, and it makes things hard on families.
Wichita offered a reprieve from our financial frustrations, and I got a palpable reminder of what it feels like to live in a community where a good middle-class life is more broadly within reach. When inequities are less conspicuous, it’s also easier to feel settled in your community—i.e., to feel at home and neighborly, rather than alienated and resentful.
To be clear: Kansas has its share of problems. Former governor Brownback’s offered tax cuts that gutted the state’s schools and services, and Kansas farmers are hurting from Trump’s trade war. America’s problems with segregation are also Wichita’s. And I don’t imagine the Midwest is an easy place to be an ethnic or religious minority, to be gay, or to be poor (on growing up working-class and “broke” in Kansas, I highly recommend Sarah Smarsh’s 2018 memoir Heartland). But whether we’re talking about the outskirts of Wichita or the heart of downtown, small urban centers throughout the United States offer something that our mega-cities simply don’t: a fairer standard of living for whole swaths of the middle class.
Trumpism and Anti-Trump in the Heartland
As soon we announced the Kansas move, our DC friends started in: “how do you feel about heading to the heart of Trump country?” And I admit I was right there with them. So perhaps the most surprising thing to me about life in suburban Kansas was the near total absence of MAGA culture.
Don’t get me wrong: voters in our precinct chose Trump over Hillary by forty points, and Kansans did by over twenty. But I’ve seen more overt Trump support since returning to the DMV than I did the whole time we were in Kansas. Nothing about Kansas—not the State Fair, not the 4th of July—felt very Trumpy.
This near-absence of Trumpism took a while to notice. And it’s still hard to explain—especially to DC types who, if you’ll pardon my saying so, never shut up about politics. But as I know from a decade of marriage, and now from living among them, Kansans are a tight-lipped bunch. While they are resolutely polite in public (driving about in Wichita, you will get a lot of nods and waves), the typical Kansan would rather do just about anything than share their thoughts and feelings about matters of personal significance. Since politics involves the latter, it mostly remains unspoken and unseen. No one’s really out in public talking about Trump.
Polarization only contributes to this phenomenon. Wichita is, in its way, far more politically diverse than DC (the Capitol went +87 for Hillary), and that has social implications. When you can’t assume what someone else thinks, you risk real offense in the asking, so often you don’t. Of the friends we made in Wichita, I know more about their church attendance than I do their political views. In DC, it’s the opposite.
I’m not praising all this silence, which I think is toxic to politics. The good news is that, in Kansas at least, it’s clear that the muted status quo isn’t just a cover for latent Trumpism. The 2018 midterms showed us a galvanized state poised for more open engagement and change.
In 2018, Kansans pushed back firmly against Brownback’s legacy by electing a woman and a Democrat—Laura Kelly—for governor over Trump acolyte Kris Kobach. Our very conservative suburban precinct saw nearly a thirty point shift to the Democrats in 2018 (that is, from Clinton to Kelly). In a stark rebuke to everything Trump, several Republican leaders in Kansas actually broke with the party to endorse her. Furthermore, Kansans in the suburban Northeast elected Sharice Davids to Congress, the first openly LGBTQ Native American to serve in this role. So now, when I talk to friends about Kansas politics, I say it doesn’t feel like Trump country—it feels like anybody’s game.
None of which comes as a surprise to people, like Sarah Smarsh, who are familiar with the history and character of the place. And none of which comes as a shock to suburban women.
The night before the 2018 midterms, my mother-in-law and I went to make calls on behalf of Laura Kelly. Obviously this is not an impressive act of civic participation, but it was a first for both of us, and clearly we weren’t alone. The results in Kansas were especially dramatic, but women’s mobilization in 2018 was a nation-wide phenomenon. As Rebecca Traister explained in a recent interview, even the Democratic establishment is slow to wake up to this reality: “They all just want to comfortably talk about soccer moms or whatever white suburban women are going to do as if it’s a footnote, and there is not an acknowledgment of the raw power of what it means to have women activated via their anger.”
In Kansas, and I imagine in much of the Midwest, MAGA mostly goes unseen. The same is true, though, of women’s anger and agency.
Wichitans are confoundingly opaque about politics, and you won’t sense much economic anxiety in that prairie air. But behind the friendly nods and hellos, there’s plenty of sexism and anti-elitism. Including—and perhaps especially—among the affluent. You might suppose that a comfortable, middle-class suburban life would run counter to these tendencies, but, well, you’d be wrong.
As with so much else in the WASPy Midwest, anti-elitism mostly gets expressed in subtle norms and codes. In my case, it’s there in the particular way things get awkward when we say we’re from DC, or let slip that we have PhDs. It’s there in how much things relax when we add that we went to grad school in Texas, not at some Ivy League.
Given my circumstances while we were in Kansas—postpartum, dependent—I was especially attuned to the gendered character of these attitudes. For example, while people aren’t very interested in my husband’s PhD, they’re often plainly disdainful of mine. And I suspect it’s not just because I work in the “liberal humanities.” I have a friend in Wichita who is a successful engineer, but who only speaks of her impressive career in totally self-deprecating terms. It wasn’t “I got a promotion! Now I’m working on this big new project!” It was “So oh yeah, I forgot to tell you—I got a promotion. Now everyone I work with is way way smarter than me.” This says something to me about cultural expectations surrounding smart, ambitious women.
Several of our Wichita neighbors, upon hearing about my desire to do more writing, assumed that meant writing books for kids.
Then there was that awful October—the one full of ugly lines belittling Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Full of “took her long enough” and guy’s guys who “just like beer.”
There are forms of anti-elitism that I think are well-warranted. The fact that our culture looks down on non-economic ambitions and expertise—especially in women—isn’t one of them.
Of course, none of this felt unfamiliar, or exclusive to Kansas. As with most of our worst pathologies, this isn’t a Midwestern problem, it’s an American one. American anti-intellectualism is a very old story, and I’ve felt plenty of sexism on ‘woke’ campuses in DC.
What Kansas did make clear to me is that you can be anti-elite without being broke. If anything, I’d say that suburban affluence in places like Kansas exacerbates anti-elitism: the fact that our Wichita neighbors—on both sides of the aisle—are doing well only increases the annoyance they’re likely to feel at coastal condescension. Some of the progressives we know in Kansas are vegan social activists. They don’t like being lumped in with the Hillbilly Elegy crowd while they’re reading Naomi Klein. On the suburban right, anti-elitism is even more squarely aimed at coastal pretensions, but, again, it isn’t about money. In our conservative neighborhood in Wichita, anti-elitism looks like the embrace of “redneck” culture by people with three-car garages. It’s men in immaculate camo, driving shining, unworked trucks to play golf.
Contrary to what people often assume inside the Beltway, life in America’s suburban universe doesn’t revolve around personal experience of economic anxiety. In many instances, people are lashing out against so-called “elites” precisely because they don’t feel left behind.
By focusing on flyover guy we end up reinforcing the same patronizing condescension that we should be working to escape. We underestimate his civic potential, and let others off the hook too soon. We ignore the very real frustrations of American women (not to mention other vulnerable groups under Trump). And we reproduce the idea that America’s interior is composed of struggling victims waiting to be cared for by those on high.
Beyond the Bubble
About six months ago, we said goodbye to Kansas. My husband’s job is in DC, it’s been our home for years, and I want to write about national politics, not my kids. So we’re back on the East Coast now.
But Wichita left its mark. For one thing, we’ve opted to live out in the Maryland suburbs, where costs are lower and the sky is big. Apart from the MAGA and Confederate pride, it doesn’t feel that different from Kansas.
In Kansas, as in much of America, the heartbreaking story of failed trickle-down economics is also a story of sustained (if stagnant) middle-class wealth, with its attendant comforts and bourgeois conveniences. Which isn’t to say it’s a monolith. The suburbs everywhere are more dynamic than we tend to think, and social norms are changing across the country, including out in Kansas. There’s no issue that fully defines political life in America’s suburbs, any more than in downtown DC or a given country town.
If there’s a message here for people who care about polarization, it isn’t to keep quiet about the things that matter in the hopes of appealing to “centrists,” and it isn’t to pander to the heartland. It’s to stop treating any particular region as singularly needful of education and reform.
And it’s a mistake to call anywhere Trump country. There’s more going on in the suburban mind than meets the politely-averted eye.