The Atlantic's Sommer Mathis argues that a major party cannot win again in the US without competing in the cities. Vindicated New York Times statistician Nate Silver (@fivethirtyeight) puts it even more baldly in a tweet: "If a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican."
And that's a problem.
Only in the US has the conservative party so totally abandoned the cities. In the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, conservative parties compete for inner city seats and sometimes win there. That's because these national parties understand the need for cities to function and that this requires a government role.
Conservative parties in those countries are also careful about managing elements of their base that thrive on the demonization and exclusion of some kind of demographic Other, such as racial, religous, or sexual categories. Messages that disparage these groups are now so unacceptable in major cities that they cut off voters who might otherwise support a conservative message. The daily experience of city life is all about sharing small spaces with people who are different from you, and prospering from creativity that arises from that mixture of perspectives and experiences, so demonizing diversity amounts to demonizing the very idea of the city.
All this is very related to public transit, this blog's core concern. I've argued in the Atlantic that transit thrives on thinking that embraces diversity instead of presuming fixed divides. To me, that embrace of diversity must include the richness of views, passions and human experience that are currently trapped and concealed inside the word "conservative."
Conservatives can help make good transit policy, once they are engaged in conversation about it. Conservative-dominated places like Alberta and Utah have made remarkably aggressive transit investments, justifed in part on sensible bipartisan understanding of what cities are, and what they need to thrive as engines of prosperity and innovation. When I've worked with elected boards or officials on difficult choices facing public transit in a city, I've noticed that self-identified conservatives are as least as likely as self-identified liberals to lead on the hard choices, by which I mean angering a core constituency or risking public complaint in order to meet some urgent large goal such as balancing the budget or establishing a clear policy.
The conservative-liberal or Republican-Democrat divide, as the media has constructed it, is not a real story. Delusional narratives are supposed to be entertaining, but this one is both delusional and boring. We will leave this story behind only when we start pointing out how searingly boring it is. The media are desperate to entertain, so only that message will get through to them.
Here is the real story: There is a polarization-vs-consensus divide, with large forces arrayed on the side of those who are terrified that people might begin listening to each other. There is an information-vs-ignorance divide, with large forces arrayed on the side of stopping the flow of information and rational argument.
Cities are places where, over time, the power of listening and information is most likely to prevail. They're not the only places; thanks to the internet, you can stay informed and immersed in conversation even if you're surrounded by 100 acres of sheep. But cities make the process involuntary; it happens to everyone to some degree. You cannot walk down the street (here's where sidewalks matter!) without encountering diversity and seeing how essential it is to city life. You cannot help meeting people of different races, religions, and sexual identities. That's what a city is. It's why polarizers and will always hate cities, and why tyrants will always find them hard to control. But it's also why they are such engines of growth and creativity in a world where information is power.