David Schoengoeld of the Witherspoon Institute has penned a much-linked piece on “Why Conservatives Should Care about Transit.” Note that he’s talking to social conservatives rather than fiscal conservatives. Throughout my lifetime, the default position of American social-conservatism has been one of ignorance and disinterest regarding all aspects of urban life. Schoengoeld counters:
They are a precondition of the strong, inter-connected communities that
social conservatives desire. It is not difficult to envision how these
communities can make our lives comprehensively better. Americans are
not obliged by any law of nature or rule of the market to live in
mediocre, anti-social places. With changes in public policy, over time
we can begin again to create neighborhoods that promote real community.
I’ll be curious to see the reaction to this. I’d expect enthusiasm among many principled intellectual conservatives (Andrew Sullivan, for example, is enthusiastic) and among those (such as the newly minted Democratic Senator Arlen Specter) who would like to be conservatives but feel they’ve been thrown out of the club.
But here’s the rub: Dense, walkable settlements may be the precondition of strong, interconnected communities, as Schoengoeld writes, but they are also the precondition for daily confrontations with difference and diversity, and American social conservatism, at least in its practical and (for a time) effective form, has always been predicated on the notion that “we” are a bunch of good people under threat from “them.” It is an ideology rooted in the outer-suburban and rural experience where life is lived in cars, and where diversity and difference manifest themselves mostly on television. Adapting this ideology to an urban world will require throwing out much of what is most comforting about social conservativism today, notably the tribal sense of belonging that comes from associating mostly with people who are just like you.
Of course, as America urbanizes, social conservativism will have to be reborn in a more reflective form that reflects the daily engagement with difference and diversity that is the essence of urban life. The results, I expect, will be unrecognisable to most social conservatives today.