Pushing westward

REMEMBER the westward movement? Countless undergrads have studied it. Countless historians have chronicled it. And it continues, according to the Census Bureau. By 1990, the bureau says, the American West - that sprawling stretch of mountains, deserts, and valleys beyond the Great Plains - will for the first time overtake the Northeast in population.

Emigrants and Dust Bowl refugees heading west helped shape the United States. The effect of westward migration nowadays is less a matter of raising cities from the plains and deserts as of adding yet another mall or subdivision to the urban sprawl.

And the movement isn't just due west.

The South, defined by the census people as swooping from Delaware to Texas, is the most populous region - with 35 percent of the country's 243 million inhabitants. It is forecast to remain on top into the next century. The Midwest, despite a continuing slow drain of population, will stay No. 2 for the next few years, though it too should fall behind the West by the year 2010.

Not that long ago some viewed the shift of population to the West and South with alarm. The gap between a decaying ``rust belt,'' losing population, and a vibrant Sunbelt was worrisome. But the Northeast is doing well economically now, and the Midwest's outlook has brightened. Loss of population over time doesn't necessarily mean loss of vitality.

In general, regional identity may be fading as a part of everyday life. Suburbs have a lot in common no matter where they are. Popular culture streams in all directions. Slang, fashion, music, food, get so quickly absorbed and homogenized that their origins are lost.

Some political issues have, it's true, a regional flavor - farm subsidies in the Midwest, or immigration in the Southwest. Republican tenure in the White House has no doubt been aided by the tilting of population and economic might westward and southward.

But American politics tends to shake off easy generalizations. The West favors GOP presidential candidates, but Democrats hold their own in state legislatures and congressional delegations.

California, titan of the West, will gain five new seats in Congress by the turn of the century, according to a Library of Congress study of the census projections. But California's political scene defies pegging. Having gone from a strong Republican majority before World War II to a Democratic majority after the war, party registration now stands about even. Coordinated strategy within the state, or unified action by its 47 lawmakers in Washington, is rare.

The movement westward will likely trickle on indefinitely. This demographic current changes the landscape less than it used to, but after a couple of centuries of spinning myths around it, Americans might miss it if it stopped.

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