MAGA Attacks on Cities Are Not Working


We’re 13 months away from the 2024 presidential election, and just 3 months away from the primaries. The dominant themes of the election are forming. The Republicans have let it be known that one theme will be the crime, drugs, homelessness, and the general lawlessness of “Democrat-run” cities is a disqualifying factor for Dems, and a point in their favor.

Several cities around the country have been featured prominently on television and social media for frightening criminal acts and intractable social problems. Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Philadelphia have been noted on many outlets at different times; New York is increasingly being described as a dystopic environment. The message? Republicans can get tough on crime and end this nonsense.

However, for the first time in memory, the strategy is not working.

Origins of the Urban Demon

How did demonizing cities become a political strategy? Well, there’s always been at least a slight anti-city bias in America since its formation. The nation was founded on the principle of self-determination, and the agrarian lifestyle was often viewed as the pinnacle of American living. Cities, however, were viewed as complex, interdependent places that made personal success more complicated.

The rise of the modern industrial economy after the Civil War was centered on cities. Labor was needed to fulfill the mass production needs of large corporations and immigrants from around the world were willing to meet the rapidly expanding need. Cities became the landing spot and training ground for a new group of Americans. However, the rapid economic and social changes of the time caused many people to question whether growth came at the expense of American values, and whether the urban lifestyle was anathema to the self-directed American Dream. In the late 19th and early 20th century, cities were gaining a reputation as disruptive and unmanageable places at best, and disorderly and violent places at their worst.

People who had the desire and ability to escape the chaos of cities did so, fueling the rise of early suburbia. The development of suburbia expanded modestly before World War II and accelerated following it. By the 1960’s there were competing narratives on American living: suburbs on the rise, rural areas in decline, and cities in flux.

And yes, it’s the 1960’s where city demonization goes to the next level. Protests against the Vietnam War, in favor of (and against) the Civil Rights Movement, and the urban riots in several cities in response to poor conditions and treatment in cities became the rule at the time. This all came to a head in 1968. Vietnam War anger forced President Lyndon Johnson to forego seeking reelection. The release of the Kerner Commission Report detailed the inequity in cities that was at the root of the frustration that powered urban riots. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy symbolized an America out of control.

The Impact of 1968

Enter Richard Nixon and George Wallace.

The 1968 U.S. presidential election between Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and segregationist independent George Wallace led to an American narrative of cities that continues to resonate until today. Nixon ran on a “law-and-order” platform, promising to restore control in tumultuous cities. Humphrey’s campaign sought to continue President Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs, while maintaining a commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Wallace was essentially a single-issue candidate, opposing desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

The election was close. Nixon won a narrow victory (less than 1%, or about 500,000 votes) over Humphrey. The election was made close by the strong showing of Wallace, who won 13.5% of the national vote, carried five southern states and won 46 electoral votes. It didn’t take long for Nixon to realize that Republicans that they could secure a stronger national majority if they made appeals to Southern voters who voted for Wallace.

After Nixon’s close 1968 win, he focused on a strategy that merged traditional “Middle America” conservative values with the populist and distinctly segregationist Southern voters who supported George Wallace. That merger brought together small town and rural Midwestern voters, an increasing number of suburban voters, and Southerners, who could agree on one thing – their dislike of large cities and the problems they incur.

Nixon’s silent majority and southern strategy plans paved the way for the GOP for the next 40 years. Nixon was able to win in 1972 in a landslide, and Northern Democrats would not win another presidential election until Barack Obama won in 2008.

Cities in the wilderness

What did this mean for cities between 1968 and 2008? Essentially it meant a 40-year period in the wilderness. Federal funding directed at cities during the Great Society era began to wither away by the mid-1970’s. Prominent issues of the Civil Rights Movement, like fair housing, poverty reduction and school desegregation, became issues of the past. Cities were left to their own devices to find a way out of the wilderness.

Cities chose one of two ways to prosper during this avidly anti-city period. One way was to tap into the still-expanding suburban development model. Younger cities largely developed as super-sized versions of suburbs, particularly in the South and West. Older cities tended to double down on their economic strengths as a growth strategy, but with a twist that led to diverging fortunes. Manufacturing centers struggled to keep good-paying manufacturing jobs in the face of international competition. Cities that were already strong in the information and service sectors took advantage of the economic winds that favored things like technology, finance, healthcare and biotechnology, advanced professional services like law, science and engineering, elite higher education, and entertainment.

Things have worked out well for the cities that became super-sized suburbs or relied on information and service sectors that would benefit from a transformative global economy. Things did not work out so well for former manufacturing hubs.

Cities and suburbs today – near-equal footing?

So here we are, in 2023. Republicans are using the same kind of attacks on cities that they used in 1973. Why is the attack that worked then not working now? Five reasons come to mind.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: Former president Donald Trump's infamous photo op in front of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, June 1, 2020. The photo op was meant to demonstrate successful "law-and-order" efforts to quell violence in the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd protests. The photo op was later viewed as a failure after being condemned by military and religious leaders, as well as elected officials from both major political parties. Source: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, in Public Domain.