Republicans took an all around shellacking in the 2012 elections. Part of the reason is that Democrats dominated the cities. President Obama won 69% of the big city vote, according to a New York Times exit poll analysis. Some of this is perhaps on account of the racial makeup of the cities, as blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Yet it’s clear that, even among the upscale white urbanist crowd, Republican policies and candidates are finding few takers.
This bodes ill for the Republicans, but also for the future of cities. Most places suffer when under single-party rule, whether liberal or conservative. This has plagued big cities. Chicago, for example, doesn’t have a single Republican member of its city council. For a long time Republicans dominated large tracts of the suburbs.
These geographically discrete monopolies have resulted in a thoroughly corrupt bi-partisan system that Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass has dubbed “The Combine.” Some competition remained at the state level, but it should come as no surprise that as the state as a whole as gone solidly blue, state and city finances have cratered, leaving Illinois as a national basket case.
Cities can benefit from Republican ideas on a variety of fronts. As Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser points out in City Journal, Republicans have been leaders in ideas around urban crime reduction, education reform, and privatization and rationalization of city services.
Unfortunately, Republicans have largely abandoned the urban playing field, preferring to condemn the cities as cesspools of Democratic corruption, high taxes, and decay. The Republican party today is largely driven by exurban and rural leaders, as well as populist movements like the Tea Party, with values that are not widely shared by urban dwellers. This has not only cost the party votes, but, critically, it has left it on the outside looking in on many debates, as culture is shaped in large urban centers where Republicans have little voice.
It’s well past time for Republicans to take cities seriously again. This starts with valuing urban environments, and respecting (or at least taking time to understand) the values of the people who live there. For example, urban dwellers expect and indeed require a higher level of public services than many suburban residents. The suburbs might not need quality street lighting, for example, but cities do. The rural area I grew up in can rely on people passing by in pickup trucks with chain saws to clear away trees that fall on the road. Cities can’t. Thus, Tea Party-type policy prescriptions in which basically everything the government does is considered bad, and in which cutting taxes is the main political value, aren’t likely to sell. Urban dwellers actually want to know how you are going to deliver services more effectively. Similarly, just bashing transit as a waste of money, lashing out against location-appropriate density, opposing all environmental initiatives, and shrill anti-immigrant rhetoric only turn urban dwellers off.
If Republicans took urban concerns seriously, they would find that they have much to offer urban residents and voters. For example, Democrats pay lip service to transit, but much transit policy in America today (heavily shaped by Democrats) is more oriented towards protecting entrenched constituencies than it is towards actual effectiveness. A serious Republican-led effort to reform the federal process and reduce the insane construction price premium (effectively a transit surtax) for American transit versus overseas systems would be welcomed, as long as it was not a Trojan horse for undermining transit. Republicans have so abandoned transportation (other than highway spending), that ideas which Republicans invented, like congestion pricing, have been claimed by the left as their own.
As an example of what a more urban focused Republican/conservative could be, consider the Manhattan Institute, a free market think tank (full disclosure: I have been a writer for their City Journal magazine). Because they are based in New York City, demonizing transit and such is just not realistic. Hence they’ve focused on policy ideas that are actually relevant to the city. They’ve also not hesitated to praise Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation reforms, and even gave an award to Rhode Island Democratic state treasurer Gina Raimondo for her leadership in pension reform. If more conservatives were similarly focused on driving better urban outcomes in the inner city rather than demonizing it, or on scoring political points, Republicans might be back in the game.
Republicans have a huge opportunity in the enormous income and wealth gap in inner cities, which Democratic policies, focused on things like greening the city, have done little to address. Indeed, all too much urbanism amounts to a sort of trickle down economics of the left, in which a “favored quarter” of artists, high end businesses, and the intelligentsia are plied with favors and subsidies while precious little ever makes it to those at the bottom rungs of society. A key lever to end this is to cut away at the massive regulatory burden that stifles small scale entrepreneurs, particularly minorities and immigrants. Regulatory relief is right up the Republicans’ alley.
Republicans also need to take on cities, especially the biggest ones, in order to get more of a voice in the cultural debates. Culture and media emanate from big cities, particularly New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Major academic centers also are idea generation factories.
Republicans became all but excluded from the cultural/media industry as the 60s generation took over. The party's response has been to create a parallel infrastructure of think tanks, talk radio shows, web sites, and even its own TV network, Fox News. This worked well in the era immediately following the end of the Fairness Doctrine, but as the so-called mainstream media reacted by shifting to the left, this has left the Republicans often talking mostly to themselves while the national culture gets shaped by Hollywood, etc. A good example is the web site Atlantic Cities, which fully embodies the values of the international urban elite left, with few identifiable conservative ideas.
The 2012 election shows the limits of this strategy. Just as evangelical Christians have decided that they must look to plant their flag in the inner cities – both to reach an increasingly secularized, ,upscale population, and to engage with culture where it is made – Republicans need to start showing up seriously in the cities again if they want to influence the culture. There are already some top-notch conservatives participating in and writing about serious culture (e.g., Terry Teachout). More ambitious, talented young conservatives should seek to enter culture and media industries apart from simply writing for conservative magazines. This battle won’t be easy by any means, but defeat is certain if you never fight.
One thing is for sure: if Republicans want to have any future in America, they can’t afford to cede any more constituencies as monolithic Democratic voting blocks. Urban America is one constituency the Republican Party can’t afford to ignore.
Flickr photo by jvoves: Immigrants protest a Republican-sponsored proposal in Chicago.