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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The municipal public/non-profit/eds/meds apparatus......


I am an avid follower of your articles at New Geography, but was actually surprised that you were the author of this effort because I think some of your premises are wrong. Just to mention a few:

You saying that Republicans are abandoning cities is incorrect. Cities are abandoning Republican and conservative / constitutional/ classic liberal policies and theory of governance and the Democratic party has captured voters through patronage programs, corruption and policies that create voters as clients, not as citizens. Free market, limited government type policies simply cannot win votes from "client" voters.

When you refer to Tea party policy prescriptions that say everything government does is bad, you are engaging in the same sort of caricaturing and demgoguing of the Tea Party that Democrats and the left do. Tea Party members are for limited government and local control of government, not for no government, which would be anarchy.

Basic services for urban areas is something that Republicans and Tea Party members would absolutely support, but it is the unrealistic and corrupt pension arrangements, and debt laden public patronage projects that collapse a city's finances that they oppose. This is not radical, it is rational. Zero based budgeting would be a mechanism to solve this problem, by the way......budget and prioritize first for all basic services and see what you have left. Today blue cities and states are cutting basic services to pay for pension obligations, bond obligations, etc. which is backward.

As for public transportation, again, I think that many Republicans believe that public transportation is a public good and should be paid for with taxes, provided it does not result in a growing negative operating deficit that bankrupts a city, county, or state. Much of the recently proposed transportation projects are in fact boondoggles that are based on flawed studies and economic assumptions and even poor location decisions. Do you really think Republicans oppose the high speed rail segment in the middle of Central California because they don't like transportation in general or because that is just a really bad idea that is a waste of taxpayer money that the bankrupt state doesn't have?

Last, one of the things that is often not remarked upon that is destroying our cities is that the employment base over time has become comprised mostly of a large public sector, non-profit, education, (and even to some degree health care) apparatus that relies on taxes, donations, or government subsidized tuition or insurance for their livelihood. Additionally there is a large consulting class that would nominally consider themselves private sector, but actually derives their fees and livlihood from government contracts (economists refer to this class as "political entrepreneurs" and "rent seekers"). So this apparatus grows and votes in their rational (short term) interest to extract more and more from government and it is ultimately fiscally unsustainable.

But, Aaron, this is where I agree with you and I think Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin is a good example. If the Republicans are willing to be statesmen and risk all the vitriol that will be hurled at them by entrenched interests and be willing to sacrifice their political careers by taking courageous stances, there is hope. I think the example of success by some of these Republican governors that have solved previously intractable issues at the state level could be a good model for cities. But they have to get elected!

Cities are abandoning Republicans


I fear you are quite correct. In my post, I cited that the City of Columbus, Ohio has ZERO Republicans on city council and has a Democrat for a mayor. Some of the democrats to republican ratios has it 5 to 1. The GOP ain't making no inroads here. Period. They plan to run two candidates for the 2013 elections (off year here) and they will lose...probably wholesale.

You said it best right here: "Cities are abandoning Republican and conservative / constitutional/ classic liberal policies and theory of governance and the Democratic party has captured voters through patronage programs, corruption and policies that create voters as clients, not as citizens. Free market, limited government type policies simply cannot win votes from "client" voters."

I call that the "gimmedat voter". Welfare would not be accurate since it can be argued that retired people collecting social security would be on welfare. I chose "gimmedat" because the group of people you describe want government to take care of them, regardless of their race or gender. I see almost a "soviet"/"eu" type of system. It seems there has been a generation of people living off the 99 weeks of unemployment, can't or refuse to find a job, and are realizing this is a way of life. I also fear this group is growing. Remember the 47% that would never vote for Romney. That's them (minus traditional groups such as homosexuals and minorities whom would never vote for a Republican or a white candidate, regardless). Most of the gimmedaters are white.

The GOP has never been in the business of backing welfare populations, instead they promote pro-business, low taxes, and creating opportunities for people whom work hard and what to empower themselves. Those are values I believe in yet I am in the minority and that minority will get smaller and smaller as the New America Soviet starts to take hold.

I think the GOP has it hands full trying to stay in the offices they have versus trying to get ahold of the cities. I won't lie about their chances (as I am a Republican) but I also know what ROI is and from my perspective, the ROI on cities like Columbus, Ohio are simply not worth the dollar investment...considering whom you're trying to convince to vote for you hates you to begin with.

Obvious race-baiting

Keep it up with the "gimmedat" talk. It's so clear that a large number of Republicans want to turn the Democrat/Republican fight into a race war. But considering that whites are on the decline in the United States, it's a losing strategy. But hey - if you want to continue losing the big elections, please keep it up.

If cities abandoning Republicans, your kind of rhetoric is why

You demonize urban city dwellers as a version of welfare leeches. That seems to be a dominant conservative attitude towards urban areas with large populations of minorities. How you think you can politically engage urban voters when you describe them as this worthless breed of citizen is beyond me. That's a very cynical and inaccurate view of people who live in cities, even cities as off track as Detroit.

What people want is leadership that leads and inspires, not demonizes. Republicans lose because all we seem to offer is this bitter brew of demonizing groups of people rather than focusing on solutions that solve problems. But if you blame the people as too stupid or lazy to be engaged with, then you don't have to bother to try.

A lot of it is about branding

I think the divide between Republicans and cities is less about policies than about social issues, and more specifically, branding. By catering to rural and exurban voters--who practice this Middle-American notion of God, family, and country--they repel urban professionals who are more secular and global-minded. These professionals would probably agree with most conservatives, say, on the issue of municipal unions and their wastefulness. But not on social issues that mask an urban-suburban lifestyle divide, like gay marraige, immigration, and the role of science. To read more about this, check out Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort. You can also read my most recent blog post at a site called Big City Sparkplug.

Well stated


I think this is a good point. When Republicans and conservatives focus on these social issues they lose the audience that might listen to the more secular policy issues on freedom, limited government, fiscal management, etc.

Frankly, Republicans lose credibility when they talk about freedom and liberty and then want to impose laws like limiting gay marriage. It sounds like "freedom for me, but not for thee".

I think there are a lot of young voters and urban voters that are classic liberals in values (economic freedom and social freedom) that would listen to a (sincere) Republican message along the same lines.

Good point.

cities are a lost cause?

" 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."

From my experience, these my neighbors in urban central cities have not been people open to new ideas. If anything they've seemed to be more dogmatic than what I'm used to encountering. At the risk of sounding like a pompous jerk, these people are less rational and willing to compromise as the population as a whole.

These tend to be the sort of people who want rail transit no matter how inefficient it is; no matter how much bus service is sacrificed for it. They want to preserve as much history as possible no matter how unaffordable development becomes and thus drives out the poor. These are people who would burst a vein over the mere idea let alone actually doing what Indianapolis did, privatize it's water service ( yet again, BTW ).

I think you have a good point Mr. Renn. But I'm not sure it there's enough possibility of change to make it worth the bother. I see these people as the policy drivers, the taste makers of politics, so to speak. I don't see any politicians in most old, small land constrained central cities making much headway with ideas that differ from their. But maybe this is because I'm only picturing certain types of cities? Maybe it's a lost cause for PDX, MPLStown and Boston. But maybe some cities like Charlotte, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix this sort of thing may work?

The Republicans Are Hopeless

They truly are. The character of our nation has changed. It is no longer about what the people can do on their own, but what the government can solve. Even if it is a stupid question or issue, such as "food deserts" or whatever the next social war the Left constructs to battle, it cannot go unanswered. There is an old talmudic saying: "Silence is agreement." You must answer every critique.

When the GOP aren't offering a rebuttal to assumed Truisms flung from the Left, they leave the poly-sci heavy technocrats to do their business in DC and think tanks, removed entirely from the public, with their only presence being amongst a few conservative journals that are beyond the reach of the average citizen.

When the Left knocks our motives and assumes our intentions as selfish or evil, then though we answer with numbers, statistics, and figures, and though that may be true, they fall on deaf ears as they do not resonate with the hearts of sidelined observers. When they knock our hearts with anti-equality, anti-compassion, anti-tolerance, anti-multicultural, anti-woman, anti-poor, anti-environment rhetoric, we must defend our ambitions, explain our motives, frame the issue correctly, while launching a counter-offensive on the often, under-reported cruelty that results from compassion-based arguments and policies. The Left has gained in converts precisely because of it's ability to knock the motives of those they differ with, and mock them, no end!

To win this Aaron, Conservatives must enter the fields of media, science, design, and areas that carry a lot of cache with the bohemian counter-culturals that dominate many of these fields today. We need a presence in the "Social Studies" as we are seeing with New Geography, Forbes, Urbanophile, and City Journal. But more important then entering any of these fields is simply knowing the arguments. Most do not. They can give you a heart felt summary of why they are on the Right, but that is not enough.

Some books that have shaped my recent thinking:

1.) "The Paradise Suite: Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive" - By David Brooks
2.) "Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph" - By Dennis Prager
3.) "Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left" - By Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell

(Feel free to suggest other books as well.)

And that is just a beginning. We need to "Get" our history, to "Get" the current zeitgeist, and to have a narrative we can then construct that will resonate with the masses of the vision we want for this country. We also have to "Get" the enemy, play as little as possible into their hands, and attack them intelligently, no end. But to sum this up, we need a presence in media, a presence in science, and a presence in design. We have a story to tell, and we have to be at the forefront of culture.