"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why Cities Vote Democratic

Emily Badger writes in the Atlantic (11.15.12) about an electoral divide often overlooked – that between urban and rural areas of the country.  Cities are more liberal, she argues, because their density forces people to think more in terms of community than individualism. 

Cities are fundamentally about the shared commons. If you live in a city and you think government – and other people – should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighborhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no back yard?

In a good piece on the GOP’s problem with geography earlier this week, The New Republic’s Lydia DePillis interviewed Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, who made this point succinctly: "There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good," he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially."

While this is one explanation, another perhaps more compelling is that cities have always been the engines of civilization – the loci of innovation, creativity, technology, and the arts.  Residents of cities are more exposed to a larger worldview than those in small towns and rural areas. Although this spatial dynamic may be less important in The Age of the Internet where ideas flow more quickly and far more extensively through cyberspace than within dense and specialized urban quarters like Wall Street, the Garment District, or Madison Avenue, cities still are exciting, dynamic informal cultural environments. 

A walk through New York is a kaleidoscope of ideas.  Retail shop windows display a staggering variety of food, clothes, and technology.  Contemporary architecture displays technical virtuosity with spatial innovation and artistic insight. Complex traffic patterns indicate logic, management, and technology. River, train, and truck traffic are visual signs of a vital and dynamic private sector.  Major universities are centers for art and learning and display – despite persistent pernicious attempts at PC control – new and challenging idea.  In short, one does not have to be an architect, financier, or fashion mogul to appreciate the diverse, electric environment of the city.

It is hard to retain racist notions when one sees a city filled with successful blacks, Hispanics, and Asians; or to believe that only rural America has true belief when seeing the thousands of worshippers praying at New York’s cathedrals or hundreds of neighborhood churches; or anti-immigration when enterprising new immigrants are at work everywhere.  Storefront churches are largely urban phenomena, and are alive and well because conformity to established religion is not a social requisite in urban America.

In addition to seeing the private sector vigor of cities, the importance of public investment cannot be overlooked:

The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of "public good," and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher (in jobs created through transportation spending, in the number of citizens touched by public expenditures, in patents per capita, in the sheer share of economic growth driven by our metropolises).

Cities, in fact, are the crucibles within which not only do public and private investments co-exist, they are co-dependent.  Business cannot survive without public infrastructure and services; government cannot survive without business taxes. This practical, everyday balance is often lost in national politics where the argument between public and private is academic and philosophical.

Finally, as Badger points out, cities force us to be communal citizens.  The raw individualism preached on the stump, the romantic and idealistic cries for personal freedom and independence are far more muted in an environment where you depend on the kindness, respect, and tolerance of strangers.  Every act is a public act in the city.  Where you park your car, walk your dog; how you walk down Subway stairs or ride in elevators; how you dispose of your trash or play your music are all individual actions with civic consequences.

Of course, then, cities are Democratic.  Urban dwellers are less individualistic and more community-minded.  They understand the essential role of government.  They see the vitality of minorities and recent immigrants.  They are cosmopolitan and outer-looking in attitude, philosophy, and perspective; and are not afraid of new ideas. 

The concern of Republicans is that America is quickly becoming an urban country.  The United States Census Bureau stated in March 2012.  Over 80 percent of the US population lives in urban areas:

The nation's urban population increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, outpacing the nation's overall growth rate of 9.7 percent for the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau released the new list of urban areas today based on 2010 Census results.

Urban areas — defined as densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas -- now account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, up from 79.0 percent in 2000. Although the rural population -- the population in any areas outside of those classified as “urban” — grew by a modest amount from 2000 to 2010, it continued to decline as a percentage of the national population.

The ‘heartland’ has always been important in America, for it is seen as the romantic home of the early days of the Republic.  Small farms, single-family homes with rose-covered trellises and white picket fences, steepled churches, the open prairie and Western range are iconic images.  They represent the core of American values – family, opportunity, rugged individualism, and faith – and they are hard to forget.  Republicans have never forgotten them but have done so this time in a losing cause.

Other countries are no different.  Britain’s countryside was memorialized in Shakespeare:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. (Richard II)

France and Japan have protectionist policies to preserve their rural patrimony.  For years Japanese rice was artificially protected from foreign competition to assure the longevity of small farmers.  Rice in Japan is more than just a staple crop, but a part of the culture, and the preservation of ‘a rice way of life’ had added salience.

The 2012 election was many things, but it was indeed about vision.  In the fading light of old-fashioned values, Republicans were able to put on one more rural performance.  There will be no more.

1 comment:

  1. The author leaves out a number of "Inconvenient Truths" about why urban populations vote Democratic.

    1. Welfare dependency is massively higher in cities. People dependent on handouts don't tend to vote against them.

    2. Crime is much higher in cities. Much of the urban population has an ambivalent attitude towards crime ("don't snitch"). Law and order doesn't much appeal to people who can't decide if violent criminals are actually the bad guys.

    3. Educational failure is essentially the norm in urban areas. Since educational failure presages failure in life, it's no surprise that the locals vote for the Democrats.

    4. Family instability (as in no families) is the norm in urban areas. The vast majority of children are born out-of-wedlock and onto the welfare roles. Voting Democratic only makes sense under the circumstances.

    5. Racial resentment is commonplace in urban areas. Obama spent 20 years attending a church steeped in anti-white hostility. It never occurred to him that there might be anything wrong with that because if was the norm of his community. So far, the Democratic party is far more successful in playing the identity politics game than the Republicans.

    6. Studies have shown (notably Putnam) that "diverse" cities are fragmented, alienated communities with very high levels of mistrust and hostility. Communal sentiment is actually much lower in cities vs. rural areas. Not exactly fertile ground for Republicans. Good for Democrats.

    7. Cites have notably high levels (extreme actually) of inequality. A smattering of smug elites and vast numbers of poor people. The elites support the Democratic party to show how noble they are (and to express a rejection of traditional cultural norms). The poor vote for handouts.

    Dysfunctional communities vote Democratic. Democratic ideas don't work better for urban people (LBJ's "Great Society" failed 40 years ago). However, they accommodate failure. None of this should surprise anyone.

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