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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We don't do grievance politics

The cities are chock full of grievance groups, looking for special consideration and subsidies. It is not a natural constituency for Conservatives. Occasionally a moderate like Giuliani comes along, gets elected and does a great job. Does that translate to Republican support in the cities? No.

A Conservative message isn't going to resonate in a place like Detroit or Chicago, the interest groups are too entrenched. Blaming Republicans for this is absurd. Democrats are willing to use the tools of corruption and vote buying and it is the fault of Republicans they can't gain traction in the big urban areas? No.

The writer also brings in the straw men of Republicans "hating" government and not wanting decent public services. That isn't the case, we merely prefer a smaller, more efficient model for government and believe the private sector does a better job of delivering most services.

Try using that message in a place controlled by unions and their buddies in the Democrat party. In the end it doesn't matter what the actual Republican message is, the media will characterize them as evil, bigoted, cruel, what have you. The folks in big cities engorge themselves with this propaganda.

Republicans didn't write off the cities, it is the other way around. Once the libs figured out how to buy off the interest groups the game was over. Now they are running out of money and the big collapse is drawing near. This is no time for Republicans to be pandering to people, our message is going to be proven true by upcoming events.


Good luck with that. You see no need for Republicans to reach out to new voters. You think that just sitting back and acting smug will be enough to win people over? LOL.

I'm not a 'Grievance' Constituent-- I'm a Voter

"...The cities are chock full of grievance groups, looking for special consideration and subsidies. It is not a natural constituency for Conservatives. Occasionally a moderate like Giuliani comes along, gets elected and does a great job. Does that translate to Republican support in the cities? No...."

You have a very Suburban view of the City. As a Black Republican New Yorker, Guiliani struck me as flat out hostile to my neighborhood. If anything, all I wanted from him was GOOD, reliable services and Police Protection.

What he gave was Good Reliable services to the White parts of the city and Hostile contempt to mine.

Just Bus Service alone as an example. During Rudy's reign, I would have to wait an HOUR at 9PM to get home on a busy avenue in my neighborhood and the bus (Singular) was packed to the gills. But if I took a longer route thru a white part of Brooklyn, there were 3 buses every 15 minutes..and if you counted the driver, it had maybe 5 people on it.

That part of Brooklyn LOVED Rudy. And he spent a lot of MTA $$$ and MY Tax money making them happy. No Fiscal Conservatism There!!

Then came Bloomberg. He was a TRUE Conservative. He initiated Use Studies. That same Bus in the white area got slashed back. That Neighborhood screamed. They were upset that they had to wait more than 20 minutes for that same bus.

My Neighborhood ABRUPTLY saw 2 buses every 15 minutes. And since the people on the Bus Stops were WORKING people who needed to get to their Jobs, we sighed and said: "About Time." We also said: "This Mayor LISTENED to us...Giuliani Didn't."

Bloomberg, who is NOT a Democrat, Won TWO re-elections with a Strong Black, working class Vote. Guiliani, got nothing from us and we were pleased as punch to see him go.

Back to the wider argument of this article-- the GOP should steer away from the Guiliani Model of Governance if it wants My Vote. I'm not a welfare recipient. But I sure as heck ain't gonna vote for a neo-suburban GOP candidate who only talks about 'Controlling' me to the white voter while NOT giving me services my Taxes are Paying for. And when the candidate DOES talk to us, don't prepare a speech that excoriates us for having too many welfare moms who don't work. All that speech does is anger all the WORKING conservative Blacks sitting in the audience, and garantees that that Candidate will NOT get either our $$$ or our Vote.

How does this work?

"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."

In my suburb my local and property taxes pay for my streetlights, transit, etc. and our "taxpayers per square mile" is much lower than your city... so you should have a lot more money.

If you want something, pay for it. Why is that so offensive?

I'm not sure why you need my approval from my suburb to take money for your streetlights; unless you somehow can't manage to get that money except by taxing me... why should I pay for my streetlights AND your streetlights?

I get that it would make you happier... I'd be happier if you paid my mortgage. Does that mean you're going to do it?

How it works now

My city taxes pay for big streets, bridges, streetlights, police, fire, EMT, sewers, 911 operators, snowplows, TIF-funded parking garages, etc. that suburbanites use daily in commuting to their jobs in the city. I'm paying for services suburbanites use free of charge.

If you want something, pay for it! Why is that so offensive?


The city generates a lot of business from the suburban dwellers. Suburbanites who commute to the big city are very productive, and their productivity in the urban core for big companies generates the taxes that help subsidize your public transit systems, trams, things that the port oversees, etc. We cannot view the two as independent entities. There is a web of relationships that don't always seem apparent, and the suburb/urban pairing are not always 50/50 but they certainly benefit off of each other in ways beyond those services you list. Do the urban types power the downtown shopping districts on their own? Do only people who live in SF or Seattle eat at SF or Seattle estaurants, or empower the urban entrepreneurs and the goods and services they provide? No.

Planning agencies, public transportation, and the flow of business in general depend on the fluidic flow from one municipality to the other. It is not a zero-sum game where we siphon all of your funds for nothing in return. If that is the case, people in the urban core should not commute outside the city into the suburbs with their suburban corporate business parks to do their work.

LT, I've spent a lot of time

LT, I've spent a lot of time debating Tea Party types of message boards. They all say what you say, that they support all types of government services. But for some reason they can never seem to find actual examples of investment to support. It's like the NIMBY protestors who claim they don't have a problem with development, just inappropriate development but can never seem to find any actual appropriate developments they can support.

Comprise can be had, but not only by one side.

In my opinion, I think most Conservatives would support a target-specific stimulus such as modernizing the grid to the tune of $120,000,000,000. And updating our decaying infrastructure, like our roadway, bridges, sewer systems, etc which were designed in another era that did not foresee our current population and economic expansion. Our sacred architectural works from eras long gone are worth civic funds to preserve them, and our public libraries, and local attractions such as recreational centers, city parks, and some public transit offerings are worth are tax dollars. So is beautifying our downtown in an aesthetic true to our local identity, making waterfront districts accessible for the public to enjoy, and other things that add to the quality of life of a city, attracting new residents, tourist foot traffic, business, and investment.

But this has to be paired with some major cuts to entitlements, and curbing the drain of public unions on the system wherein some state and local services are cut because of the drain of union pensions on state and local revenue. That is immoral. As public servants, serving the public should require the inverse wherein public servants should take a cut to their pensions, while services are spared.

This has to also be paired with increasing roadway, and not knowingly allowing its decay to blackmail people into supporting non self-sustaining public transit systems. Our roadways and the economy that is both built on the car-driving public, and dependent on it, produces revenue for the local, state, federal level, for every passenger mile traveled, whereas other forms of transportation are subsidized and yet there is a war on the car and the highway trust fund, and this shouldn't be so, considering public transportation and governments dependency on vehicles.

And finally, this has to be paired with some serious scholarship via NewGeography, City-Journal, Urbanophile, Atlantic Cities, and the many other sites of this type, on what people are doing everywhere, so that we don't kill off our local culture buying into someone else's image, or attempt to build stadiums, museums, or theaters that may sound beautiful and romantic but are not the way forward to spurr local economic enthusiasm, or import in a new wave of transplants. There is a powerful case to be made by conservatives in support of these things. The problem is that while we may make concessions to support many of these projects, it does not feel that elected Republicans or Democrats have any interest at all in dealing with meaningful reductions of our national debt, getting a hold of our state economies, limiting public union clout in the policy process and taking on their pensions, moderate tax policy, and reducing entitlements. There are acceptable levels of all of those things, but we cannot, in good faith, make meaningful investment in civic infrastructure and civic life a higher priority if those conservative issues are not addressed.

(That is the conservative view, in my opinion. My own view is to push through anyways with my suggesstions at the top, whilst fighting for those conservative principles, but whatever.)

The only stimulus that the Republican Party support

Is tax cuts, regulatory relief. Now, these folks aren't conservative at all. They're just as socialist as the ones they despise. They're just supporting different constituents. they're socialists to big monied corporate interests. Oh, they hate subsidies for solar power. they hate subsidies for public transportation. But don't you dare cut the petroleum subsidies, or the borrowing to build another freeway.

Look deeper, both sides are mirrors of the same problem.

That is a dishonest framework

How Can You Call This A Subsidy?
It is not a subsidy if you allow someone or something to keep more of their "earned" money. Money of which, was not "earned" in business done in America, but rather, abroad. Would you prefer Chevron left America just for it to be consistent? Taking with it hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs? You look at the top 20 energy companies, America has 3 of them, and only one(?) in the top10? All energy companies around the world are either heavily state-backed or owned outright by the government.

The least America could do is not tax Chevron for earnings it accumulated from activity in foreign markets, especially since they are already amongst the largest sources of revenue for the federal government, paying hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes. If a subsidy simply means not being taxed at a higher rate that you prefer, then we've just raped the term subsidy of it's meaning, and perhaps should find a replacement. Under this "honest" framework, this isn't the same as a handout to a solar company. Or subsidizing high speed rail on an assumed ridership & operation costs that have never been realized anywhere where high speed rail already exists.

Please Argue In The Correct Framework
It's fine if you still want to tax them then, in addition to barring them from drilling in the gulf while petronas and scandinavian oil companies feast on the bounty of the Caribbean. But at least do so in an honest framework. There are no subsidies given here. There is just a thank-you for being an American company that is the source of much of our revenue, and competing against other foreign companies that do their government's bidding.

The Infrastructure Problem
The problem with our infrastructure is that neither Democrats or Republicans care for it. The Democrats have the appearance of one who champions infrastructure, but are very often banking on its failure to service people in order to move folks into it's preferred alternative: mass transit. The Republicans don't care for infrastructure that enhances the civic experience lest it has great confidence in its market performance in terms of bringing in revenue, and that's wrong too. The automobile industry, and every business & service dependent on it produces more then enough revenue to pave roadway to the moon and back a few times over. But the highway trustfund and general revenue from all the commerce that cars/trucks enable do not come back into building or maintaining our roadways. They are instead diverted into things like education, military spending, medicare, public pension liabilities that the state has to fulfill, etc.