It's hard to find a subject that the modal American – poorly informed about most things and not terribly interested in becoming less poorly informed – does not think is useless. Math? Who needs it! A calculator can do anything I need to know! Literature? Oh my god who cares about Dickens, it isn't 1860 and I don't live in England. History? What does it matter what happened in 1700, I just want to get to work on time lol! But of all subjects you won't find one Americans are worse at than geography. Don't get me wrong, we're bad at the other ones too. But Americans don't even understand much about the geography of their own country let alone the rest of the world. And while not everything in the world can be tied to the current election cycle and Donald Trump, fundamental ignorance of American population geography underlies the inability of a lot of people to understand what is about to happen in November.
Not everyone likes trivia as much as I do, but give this a shot. And feel free to ask your friends and coworkers to give it a shot, too. As of 2015, what are the 10 most populous cities in the United States? How about the 10 biggest metro areas (which would include the adjacent suburbs of major cities)? What percentage of the U.S. population lives in the two biggest states?
Take a minute.
Everyone can spit out the three biggest cities in order: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. After that things get dicey for most people. They throw out the most recognizable cities: Boston, Washington, Miami, San Francisco. Maybe cities well known and presumed "major" because they have professional sports: Seattle, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and so on. In reality, the top five is rounded out by Philadelphia and Houston. But numbers six through ten would probably shock your friends: Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose. Oh, and #11? Austin. Austin, Texas. How many people do you think realize that San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US? That San Jose and San Diego are bigger than Boston, Miami, Washington, and so on? That Austin frickin' Texas is knocking on the door of the 10th largest city in the country?
Looking at Metro areas, do your friends believe that places like Kansas City, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans are not even in the top twenty?
And now, the fact I resort to most often when I want to tell people something they'll refuse to believe. The two largest states, California and Texas, now hold 20.75% of the US population. One out of every five people in this country lives in those two states. In those states, the population overwhelmingly lives in megacities like the SF Bay Area, San Diego, Los Angeles, the DFW "Metroplex", Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston, and so on. If we round out the top five states (adding NY, FL, and distant fifth place Illinois) 37.5% of the entire population lives in those five states. And of course those states have heavily urbanized populations as well.
So. Who cares, right?
Very few Americans who are neither demographers or real estate investors understand the staggering rate of growth in America's urban populations in the past twenty years. Some of today's fastest-growing cities – Austin, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Las Vegas, anyplace in Florida, etc. – are adding something on the order of 100 new residents every day for years on end. As is the case in most developed countries around the world, America is becoming a country of very, very big cities surrounded by vast expanses of empty countryside with little to recommend it as a place to live. Small cities and towns have been emptying out steadily since the 1980s, when agriculture and manufacturing began to decline in earnest as components of the nation's economy. The Youngstown, Ohios and Muncie, Indianas across the country no longer had a compelling way to attract people. Everyone who could leave did so. What remains – and if you're a Midwesterner like me you already know this story by heart – are the people who are too old, too poor, or too foolish to get out.
So when you visit areas where Donald Trump is popular – pick any postindustrial war zone across Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or the upper Midwest – you find a population of shockingly limited worldview who can say with perfect sincerity that they don't know anyone who's voting for Hillary Clinton. The people of Altoona, PA naturally believe that only election rigging could produce a Trump defeat because locally his popularity is off the charts and, crucially, they have no concept of how tiny and unrepresentative of the population of their state and the country a place like Altoona is in 2016. To live in such a place is to fail to understand that very little of America, population-wise, looks like that anymore.
Living in Peoria for three years I often had to endure conversations with locals (many of whom, believe it or not, had never been farther than an hour or two away in any direction) who complained as all "downstate" Illinoisans do of the dominance of Chicagoland in state politics. And I would have to point out that there are 13 million people in Illinois. About 150,000 of them live in Peoria. The Chicago metro area has 9.8 million. Three quarters, conservatively, of the state lives in Cook or the collar counties. Of course it dominates state politics. Of course "downstate" is pushed aside in most decisions. Nobody lives there. And people who live outside of the major urban centers that increasingly dominate our landscape simply do not understand the math of modern population geography. They think that because most of the country looks rural or small-urban in terms of area, that makes them a political majority. But in reality we are a nation of vast, effectively empty spaces around megacities which dominate representative institutions with sheer numbers.
This is a mistake even – or especially – journalists make. The myth of "real America", small town America, or whatever they choose to call it overlooks the reality that when people who live in such places complain that they are ignored or marginalized it is usually because they are ignored and marginalized. And there is cold, hard math that explains why. The more we lead people to believe that rural America is Real America, the more we feed the insistence that the majority of us are living in small towns or rural cities under 100,000 people. We're not. We're at a point at which almost all of us live in a major city or its immediate suburbs, and that percentage grows every day. Ignorance of the world outside their immediate surroundings makes it natural that your average old white Trump supporter in Rustville believes that he or she is part of a Silent Majority that simply isn't.