What Isn't Wrong With Upstate New York?
by Chris Bowers, Sun Oct 15, 2006 at 07:00:57 AM EDT
There are only three areas of the country that actually dropping in population. One of those areas is the western Great Plains. Another one of those areas is the Mississippi Delta, that that was even before Katrina. The third area is the triangle formed by Utica, NY, Buffalo, NY, and Pittsburgh, PA. I am from the heart of the latter area, having grown up in Rochester and Syracuse. I am one of the many people who left the area, and at least once a week I feel I have somehow betrayed "my people" because of that.
Over the last decade or so, Democrats and progressives have produced innumerable treatises, studies, manifestoes and broadsides detailing how "the South" and "the Heartland" were lost to the conservative movement, and how progressives can supposedly win those areas back. By way of contrast, Tom Schaller's excellent Whistling Past Dixie might be the only book out there that explores how Democrats can and should win in areas like Upstate New York. Predictably, many people have criticized him for not instead writing about how we can win in the South too. This is, I suppose, because every Democrat in the country must be fixated on how to win in "the South" and /or "the Heartland" all of the time, in every election cycle, to the expense of all other areas. However, while few people are writing about politics in WNY and CNY, it should seem strange to people that this area, which for most of the 19th century was the most progressive area in the entire nation, was pretty conservative for the past few decades. As a testament to the progressive nature of the region back in the day, both the abolitionist and suffrage movements grew out of western and central New York. Given this, it strikes me that a book on how the most progressive area of the country became conservative is at least as worthy a topic for a book as trying to explain how always conservative Kansas is still conservative.
But something very interesting is happening to western and central New York that you don't see in the other two areas that are declining in population. Instead of being sucked into the conservative movement, CNY and WNY are actually returning to their roots and becoming more Democratic and progressive. As I discussed in an earlier post on my trip back home, at least from an electoral perspective, the region is definitely turning from red to blue--and quickly. While the Mississippi Delta and the western Great Plains grow even more conservative, western and central New Yorkers are moving to the left.
It didn't have to be this way. There is a strong sense that New York City undeservedly dominates the cultural, economic and governmental life of the state, all while consistently maintaining a dismissive and condescending attitude toward Upstate. This attitude is very similar to the "Great Backlash," anti-liberal narrative that, according to Thomas Frank, conservatives have spun against a variety of institutions in order to seize control of "the Heartland." Admittedly, I even still hold a vaguely anti-New York City attitude in my mind, which is one of the reasons I ended up in Philadelphia.
Maybe that backlash narrative was one of the reasons that western and central New York were fairly conservative in recent decades. However, the backlash certainly isn't working anymore. Besides, one of the things I would like this election to accomplish is that we stop writing books and treatises explaining why Democrats and progressives are losing, and we start writing books explaining why we are winning. I would rather try to understand why western and central New York is returning to its progressive roots than try to figure out why it was conservative when I was growing up here. I will be thinking about that question a lot during my time here. Coming up with a good answer is important not just to the continued transformation of western and central New York, but also to the nation was well. If you have any theories on why this has happened, I would love to hear them in the comments. Why are places like Colorado, Ohio, the Philadelphia suburbs, and upstate New York turning blue? Let me know.