If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”This reminded me of a conversation I had with an old man in Renovo, Pennsylvania back in 1993. He was bemoaning the closing of a Cessna aircraft plant in nearby Lockhaven, and he said, "soon there's not going to be any jobs left." Even in their heyday big factories employed a small percentage of Americans, but they loom larger than life in the way many people of certain American generations imagined the economy. People under 50, who by and large do not remember a time when big factories dominated so many towns, don't see the economy in the same way.
Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.
Some of the other disputes that divide us are even more about generational change. My children not only support gay and trans rights, they absolutely do not understand why these things might be controversial. At the moment the most famous young conservative in America is Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay man who often cross-dresses, at least on stage. Just a dozen years ago George W. Bush and Karl Rove got anti-gay marriage amendments put on state ballots across the country to bring "values voters" to the polls and boost Republicans. Things have changed fast since then, less because of people changing their minds than just old people dying and younger people coming of age.
Not that young Americans are united; they argue savagely among themselves. But the things they argue about are not the things older Americans argue about. They are passionate about, for example, the clash between free speech and freedom from harassment, and the implications of feminism for male-female relations. I suppose at base the economic argument is the same, but the tone of the argument between Occupy and the libertarians is quite different that what I listened to growing up.
It's going to be interesting to see how this unfolds.