Scranton versus Park Avenue

Scranton, Pa., October 23, 2019. (Mark Makela/Reuters)
Complicating factors: Trump almost won Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County in 2016, while Park Avenue is now Democratic turf.

Responding to the (illegal) leaks of President Donald Trump’s tax return, Joe Biden’s campaign trotted out their slogan that the campaign pits “Scranton vs. Park Avenue.” Biden grew up in Scranton, Penn. Donald Trump lives on Park Avenue. Joe stands up for working people. Don just cares about Wall Street.

Or so Biden says.

Donald Trump is in no danger of winning the vote in Manhattan, most especially from the Park Avenue set. Trump is going to come a lot closer in Scranton. Democrats carried Lackawanna County 63 percent to 35 percent in 2012. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won with 50.2 percent of the vote, with Trump at 46 percent.

Scranton was once a center for iron production, later for coal and the railroad industry. It was bottoming out for decades, until roughly 2012, and has started to rebound as a cheaper cost of living made it attractive. Joe Biden will likely do a little better than Hillary in Lackawanna County, but the long-term trends are pretty clear. Democrats are moving to Park Avenue. In a 2016 forum sponsored by the Washington Post, Chuck Schumer described their thinking: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,” he predicted.

Maybe it didn’t work out perfectly four years ago. It was exactly the improvement Trump made in counties such as Lackawanna that put him over the top in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and in the election as a whole.

With his age and in his political mannerisms, Biden tries to appeal to blue-collar voters. He appeals to them primarily through his suffering — particularly his pain over the death of his first wife and two of his children. As with many blue-collar workers, his religion is less about doctrinal adherence to faith and morals than solemn and inexpressible sentiments attached to rituals, embedded in a community.

Trump’s team has tried to paint Biden as an empty suit trying to disguise the threat of socialism. But in a somewhat absentminded way, Biden’s politics have always represented the newer American economy of global free trade and finance. Elected from Delaware, he was the senator from Mastercard. He supported legislation that the credit card industry supported. Biden was the big champion of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which toughened bankruptcy procedures, limiting the kind of debt that could be discharged. Spend too much on “luxury goods” (most anything that costs more than $725) via a credit card? That won’t go away in Chapter 7 anymore. You can’t discharge your student debt in bankruptcy, either. Thanks, Joe.

A nationalist Republican such as Trump and an old-school moderate Democrat like Joe Biden should probably recognize that the cultural breach in our country is intensified by the economic breach between Manhattan and northern Pennsylvania. Maybe it will be Joe Biden’s economic populism that ekes out a win. But it could be Trump’s cultural populism.

One job that nationalists usually set for themselves is the task of integrating the interests of megacities and their surrounding countryside. Globalism has always been with us — it is the soft alliance of cities trading with one another. If New York’s ruling class today thinks more of London and Tokyo than Scranton, that’s not much different from the Venetians of the Middle Ages who thought more of Baghdad than of San Biagio. Eventually, as Venice took on the role of a larger political entity, rich Venetians built their country villas in San Biagio.

For now, the Democrats are content to feed Scranton a palliative liberalism of redistribution and dependence. Republicans feed it envy and resentment. But the vote in Scranton doesn’t have to be close. It can be won overwhelmingly someday, the moment that one party figures out a plan to creatively channel Park Avenue wealth into solid investments in Scranton.



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