Why Republicans Need the Cities

Chicago pro immigration rally.jpg

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.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.

Flickr photo by jvoves: Immigrants protest a Republican-sponsored proposal in Chicago.


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Confusing fellow

It's not easy to keep track of your communication. What I can tell, is that you're only getting the very surface bits of detail. You have to look deeper. First of all, welfare, is a tiny, tiny aspect of government spending. What pays for the roads to your lovely suburban enclave? Gas taxes? Yeah, only 12% in most cases. The rest is payroll, property, or local sales taxes. That's automotive welfare. So much for personal responsibility, eh? What of the massive petroleum subsidy that's currently in place? Republicans in Congress guard that with everything they have. That's more automobile/suburbia welfare. Charge what gasoline really costs. Do, that, and what what happens to suburbia. Most would be returned to nature, converted to farmland, or multi-family housing for the destitute.

As for Norquist, he's an absolutist. There is no place in either economics, or politics for him. His activity alone, could be the end of the Republican Party.

Look deeper. Don't just talk the party platitudes. Enlighten the discussion.

Urban imperative

Having spent most of my career as a lonely conservative in the urban revitalization business, I found this article heartening. Why are cities important? Look at the map for the 2012 presidential popular vote. All the big, blue splotches are in metropolitan areas. The red area is spread widely but the blue is concentrated where there are large numbers of voters. You want to know where the election was lost, look for the big, blue splotches. As a practical matter, if the trend is for those areas to continue to grow, conservatives either take up the challenge of winning votes there or accept that they will lose many national and statewide elections.

Can we win those elections? Not often, at least in the first generation of effort. But an election campaign can have two positive outcomes. First, you can win the election. But even if you don’t win, you can use the platform to shape the public debate. You can start getting your issues in front of the voters and get them thinking about it. Sure, you won’t win many of them over at first. Perhaps you’ll convince 5% or 10% of them that you have something to offer. But if the Republicans had peeled off another 5% or 10% of the urban minority vote in a couple of key cities, it could have made the difference.

And republicans will find that there is more common ground than they expect. Many minority groups are socially conservative. While there are plenty of freeloaders, there are also many who want to work and make good for themselves and for their families. Conservatives have much to offer these voters; we just aren’t bothering to reach out to them. We have allowed the opposition to define us in those communities, so when election time comes, those conservative souls aren’t aware that they have a viable alternative. We have decided that since we clearly can’t win there, we shouldn’t bother to try. Thus, our message is never heard. That is a huge mistake. Will we win a majority? No. A meaningful minority? Over time, yes. Very meaningful.

Matthew Sternberg


Funny, I voted for Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton twice, and Gore. But my Democratic party's deranged responses to the 2000 election, and to 9/11 just a year later, turned me into a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage conservative (or does that make me a libertarian? Anyway).

The Democrats abandoned me with their insane hard-left turn, not the other way around.


This was supposed to be a reply to DaveBarnes' post below. Sorry for cluttering the thread.

If we can't provide a secular defense for the male-female bias..

My initial reactions to you and Dave Barnes on Gay Marriage: I think if the GOP cannot defend it's positions with secular defenses, it should not defend biblical positions. There is a secular case to be made against gay marriage, but 95% of GOP'ers don't know it, or how to effectively articulate it. The biblical position was reactionary against the fluidity of gender that was common in all societies around it, including within Israel, and societal constructs permitting arrangements beyond the biblical preference for the male-female bias. Remove biblical from that statement, and you are well positioned to argue a secular case against gay marriage.

Realistically though, my hope is that the GOP can cleanse itself of the homophobia that pervades many religious circles. It is unwarranted. The homosexual is made every bit as much in the image of God as heterosexuals. They didn't choose their sexuality, nor are they possessed by a Gay Demon from Satan. And though it's far too late to have any meaningful credibility, for what it's worth, those of us who oppose any redefining of marriage beyond adult males and adult females, should, as a gesture of acceptance, support civil unions in full.

The message from those of us in the GOP who don't want Gay Marriage should be that we don't want you to live out life alone, and we want to treat and love you as equals. But... at the same time, considering the fluidity of gender, we'll trade off marriage for the status of civil unions, accept you as equals, while you affirm the male-female preference, for the sake of society. A gender-neutral society will not last, Sweden has no idea the fire they are playing with, a fire whose harvest will come to fruitition in a few generations.

That said, I won't even mind gay-marriage if there were meaningful attempts on part of those who support it to uphold the male-female bias that has defined western civilization for the last 1500 years, for the sake of the 60-70% of people who comprise the large middle.

You really feel threatened by same-sex marriage?

Tradition is nice, but if the only reason for continuing with a tradition is, "Well, that's the way we've always done it", you're going to lose the argument. Actually, you already have.

Tradition Is Important

The tradition was born from something. It exists to commemorate a memory that was worth preserving so that future generations would know a seminal moment that shaped the ethos or spirit of our day, or, to pass on a value that is worth valuing.

So in a sense, traditions are symbolic. But if the symbol loses its symbolism, and becomes an end in and of itself where we do it just for the sake of doing it, then it is meaningless, and worth abandoning unless you are a habitual practitioner or like it for the fun(?) of it.

When Gays celebrate a day of silence, they are engaging in both preserving a memory and passing on a value. They remain silent for the entire day, to ritualize the importance of never forgetting that though we have it easier today then in the past, we can never forget all of those who have gone before us, but could not be open about their sexuality lest they suffer very unfortunate consequences. And the symbol is still symbolic, so it will remain a rich tradition.

That said, the rigid tradition of the male-female pairing comes from the assumption that, that living arrangement is the most elevated living arrangement, and a society can and should then be built upon it. We assume the male-female to be a given, but one does not realize the amount of social constructs that support our views of how we came to take on the sexualities that we do. For much of the human experience, sexuality has been largely fluid. It is not fixed as most pro-gay and anti-gay advocates like to say. It was present in almost every major military and military campaign of the pre-Christian world, and would be seen lived out in society, and even religion. Priestly prostitution was commonplace and men and women were easily interchangeable. All of the ancient Gods lived out aspects of human nature, often posing as models for human behavior, and from Zeus to Ishtar, and Krishna to Poseidon and Osiris, the Gods of the ancient world were bisexual, reflecting both the acceptable zeitgeist of the time, as well as a truer portrait of the human creature. That is why homosexuality may be epigenetic, and the triggers for it are far more easily triggered then we think.

The biblical ideal was a revolution, but I won't debate it out in full until there's another marriage thread, or unless you(or someone else) meaningfully respond to this.

I love reading your stuff.

I really do.

So, are you required to abide the "day of silence"? Do we give symbolic chains to black people, to remember? The issue with your belief, that tradition, is enough, is weak, and ignorant.

No one is proposing, making you marry someone of your own gender. Tradition or not, you wish to impose the churches will on people that would prefer not to. There simply is no secular reason. None.

That aside, the church, or ANY church has any business in politics. It's a strict requirement, as part of their religious tax exempt status. MANY churches violated that over the las fifteen years. I personally witness church officials passing out their "church voters guide". They should have their status revoked immediately, and be taxed at the fullest business rate possible.

You didn't read my posts.

The Day Of Silence
Without going in depth on the issue of Gay marriage, here are a few quick rebuttals. I wasn't knocking the day of silence. I even think that if practitioners observe it practically, it could be beneficial to both those who practice it, as well as those who around them observe the ritual and infer the dogma being expressed. It needs to be more uniform, with less rivalry and less stand-off-ish. I brought it up to provide a context for why I defend ritual that is practiced as a tradition, and the day of silence is an excellent example that I have no issue with, intellectually.

Please Provide Examples
Please point out where in my statements I have said anything about tradition as being sufficient, for anything… I will be more then happy to retract it if it exists, I'm beginning to think that you, low on substance, are resorted to cheap shots at my intellect.

The Main Secular Defense of The Biblical Preference
The secular defense of the biblical preference is the open acknowledgement that if we don't define this preference as the only ideal, it will compete with other alternatives that cannot construct a society that progresses. And this is important precisely because of the fact that gender is fluid for most of us who occupy the vast middle. If gender was fixed, and there was a built-in, biological impediment that naturally limited human beings from having sexual relations with others of their own sex, then there would be no case against supporting traditional, male-female marriage.

The argument would go, that, since it comes naturally to both men and women to only couple with the opposite sex, then, that is exactly what they will do, and children will not need to see gender roles modeled out by each sex since that is the natural human inclination. We then, under that amateur and unfounded presumption, don't need marriage beyond a contract over who owns what in the case of a divorce. But nothing could be farther removed from reality and history.

The Current Zeitgeist Does Not Promote Progress
We are dealing with many things that impact demography, such as secularization, singleness, using career as a reason to forgo having children, the policies that are antithetical to promoting families, our culture, and the obliteration of gender. Gay marriage lends to the obliteration of gender(like we're seeing in scandinavia, parts of asia), and all combine to form a zeitgeist that, will bring about the end of the human race.

alarmist rhetoric

End of the human race? My goodness. Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with the elimination of gender. Nothing at all. You're just pushing through the same lines that the evangelicals use when talking to atheists. Gender roles? perhaps some. but Gender roles need a good shaking up now and then. More men should be taking part in raising children. Women should have equal opportunities in the labor force. Will it cause a population catastrophe, I seriously doubt that's going to be an issue anytime soon.