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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Between %9 and %13 federal taxes. Compare that to the CEO's secretary. Consider the liability cap on damages from an oil spill? That's a subsidy.

Also, can you find the source, that indicates the highway trust fund has been raided to pay for education, miliary spending, medicare or public pensions? The reality, is that the gas tax is way, way too low. If the fuel tax was corrected, to actually fulfill the requirements to maintain the infrastructure that is in place, a gallon of fuel would cost up to three times as much as it does now.


You can re-arrange data all you want, to attempt to forge an argument, but reality always comes creeping in.

Partial Agreement


Thanks very much for responding, I appreciate it. I don't doubt that you run into people that say one thing but don't actually act consistent with what they are saying. Let me give you a very real example of what I am talking about. I am a commercial property owner in a small city that was working with consultants to develop a rail transit loop which would connect much of the downtown office, civic center, local university, etc. Great idea, even though it was a small city with probably limited ridership demand, I still thought it was a good amenity, public service, helped business. The consultants were testing the affected property owners willingness to accept a property tax increase to fund the design and construction of the project (basically a bond distict affecting specific property owners.)

I told them I would absolutely support it as long as they considered privatizing the operations, showing me the projections on how it would merely break even operationally, or if it didn't break even, what was the plan to fund operating losses without hurting the City's budget for police, fire, teachers, etc.

Answering that question or even analyzing it or evaluating it was a non-starter for the City and the consultants. In other words, the consultants were afraid of the answer and sought to avoid it. These are, of course, the same consultants that make big fees project managing the construction (previously mentioned "political entrepreneurs".)



There is no "public transit" anywhere that pays for itself. It's a public good, a piece of urban infrastructure like a bridge, street or highway.

So the "pay for itself" hurdle allows you to claim you support transit, but really you're one of Aaron's category of tea party/NIMBY folks who can't actually name a project that they would be willing to pay for.

We're close


We are almost on the same page, but please don't just put me in a categorical box such as "Tea party / Nimby folks", as you actually know nothing about me and mis-characterizing me doesn't suport the discussion. I actually agree that public transportation is a public good and I believe public transportation enhances urban environments and can even encourage economic development.

When you read what I said, I qualified my "pay for itself" argument to include some form of taxation if not self-sustaining. The problem is not disagreeement on policy (should we do transit projects as a public good), but how we do it, which right now is subject to corruption, public union execesses, suboptimal and politically oriented routing decisions, bad economic planning and ridership forecasts, etc. In other words, if you really believe in the policy goal of public transit, have some creativity into how it is done and be willing to evaluate some form of property taxation to support the capital investment, some blend of fares, taxes, privatization of operations, rationality of pension structures, etc. to make it operationally sustainable.

The problem today is that many transit projects are set up in a way that creates a long-term and growing liability for cities, counties and states with costs spiralling out of control, resulting in competition for economic resources (a well managed and responsible city would not have to choose between teachers, police officers and transit workers, pensions and bond debt, but that is happening today).

Unfortunately, my experience is that the policy goal of sustainable public transit gets subordinated to corruption, intractable positions by public unions and politicians, and bad faith and self-justifying economic analysis. It is heard to break through that resistance with creative solutions.

The GOP is baked

The GOP has lost me. Completely.
I am a 64 year old white male who grew up in the Northeast voting republican.

Not anymore.
GOP = Guns Over People
GOP = the party of hate (homosexuals, latinos, women)

Dave Barnes

In some places, why bother?

I live just outside of Columbus, Ohio now (moved) and there isn't a single Republican on city council there. Some numbers have republicans outnumbered 3.5 to 1...some claim its 5 to 1 inside the city of Columbus. The Franklin County GOP plans to run a couple of guys again but they'll lose. They lost huge in 2011. So bad in fact the Mayor basically mocked them in the local paper. I agree the GOP needs to focus on the cities but it needs to pick and chose the right cities. Columbus, Ohio is not worth it. There are not enough Republicans living in the city to matter. Most see the one-party run city and haul for the suburbs, as I did. Who's left to vote Republican? Nobody except maybe for the single people/yuppies with money but they don't vote because they know there isn't enough of them.

On the other hand, larger cities like NYC and Chicago have ample numbers of Republicans yet they don't bother with voting, either. The mass corruption that is the city of Chicago, for example, could be exploited by Republicans to get their people onto city council there. But you're looking at 3 to 4 election cycles of work and millions in investment. I question if that is even worth it.

What do urban voters care about?

It seems that the GOP needs to focus on what urban voters care about. The top three are jobs, education/schools and crime. There have been successful GOP politicians that did well with urban and minority voters and really focused on these issues. Rudy Guiliani and Jack Kemp come to mind. Also, business leaders and high profile figures who support values like personal responsibility and family need to invest in the inner cities. They should setup community centers and affordable private schools that promote values and teach skills to kids, men and single moms. Getting down to the street level with urban & minority voters could change their share of the vote by 5-10%. Just think of the difference that would make in statewide and national elections.

Left's Policies Damage Minorities

The Republicans need to put more emphasis explaining to minorities how so many Democratic policies put them at a disadvantage. The loading up of colleges with so much administrative staff has propelled college costs out of reach for so many young, who are ever more made of up minorities. Their opportunities for education and getting ahead are being denied them or leaving them saddled with debt that will limit their options well into middle age. Housing quotas that may be 50% multi-family affordable housing units (meaning they are uneconomic to build), can not help but to reduce the amount of new housing built. That limits construction employment, but also drives up prices of existing housing stock (especially desirable single family homes often owned by older whites) making them harder for younger (often minority) families to afford. The decreasing ratio of worker to Social Security recipients means that fewer and fewer younger (often minority) workers will support more and more (often white) retirees.

The left says they love minorities and that the right hates them, but plenty of old white guys have come to terms with their kids or grandkids dating and marrying minorities. They probably even love the resulting offspring and don't want to see their opportunities impinged.

One of the more notable demographic trends is the substantial migration of blacks from the north (where they are supposedly loved) to the south (where they are supposedly still oppressed by the KKK). They are moving, of course, for opportunity. People will do a lot for opportunity, such as move across the world, walk through deserts, or even shift from Democratic controlled states to Republican controlled ones. We do a terrible job of discussing how the Democrats squelch opportunity for many people, particularly young people who are now pretty much synonymous with minority.

Yes, thats the trick, tell minorities they are dupes

This is a loser political engagement strategy with minority (black) voters. Conservatives are constantly saying we need to show black voters how liberal policies are bad for them because they just don't understand it. You're essentially calling this group of voters stupid and telling them they don't understand why they vote. Why? Because they don't agree with you, don't vote the way you vote. Instead of telling black voters how they just don't understand what's wrong with democrat policies, you need to be advancing conservative policies which respond to this voting constituency's concerns effectively.

But instead, you think the focus should be on telling black voters how they just don't get it and you know whats best for them. I hear this point of view from conservatives all the time, its a very commonly held idea and I'm always shocked because at bottom, this is a victimization approach. This approach is about convincing minority voters they are victims of democrats and only the GOP can save them. It's the wrong approach. Lead with our principles and good policy based on them that effectively address the concerns of this constituency and you'll win.

It's not that they are stupid...


...it is because they have lived under a fixed set of paradigms their whole lives. This is the result of policies of BOTH parties but in reality, the black man's worst enemy is not the white man, its Democratic party policies. Same with poor whites and the other minorities. Democrats require that people are "victims" of those whom will not or can not achieve the American dream, i.e. get rich. Republicans don't want to save anyone. Remember Romney's 47% remark. He wasn't being a racist. He was being too honest. How do you convince people whom don't pay taxes and live off welfare to vote Republican? You can't. How do you convince retired persons depending on social security to vote Republican? You can't. Gays and non-religious people? You can't. So what is the ROI on investing in those people by Republicans? It's a negative number. Why bother except for the fact they need to win elections. I think the GOP is going to contract for a period of time and maintain its base out in the sticks and walk from the cities wholesale. Take a look at the red/blue map of Ohio, where I live, and you'll see the problem for yourself. White flight backfired. You'll never convince whites to move back to the cities wholesale. They're not welcome, at least at this moment in time.

Obama is the first president ever to win because the economy was bad and he was able to capitalize on it. Democrats need to keep running non-whites for president and they'll never lose. I also believe what Valerie Jarrett said, get ready for revenge...and I believe her.