on cities, conservatives, and getting past the boredom

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.

    22 Responses to on cities, conservatives, and getting past the boredom

    1. Robert Wightman November 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      You should be a political commentator; as in your transit writings you have the ability to cut to the core of a topic and explain it in a manner that even a reactionary should be able to understand. I started to use the term, “conservative”, but I realized that that is an insult to true conservatives who want to preserve society instead of the rights of a privileged few. Great article

    2. DF November 7, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

      Who are all these US conservatives/Republicans who don’t want cities to function or to have a government? There are of course those who prefer rural areas to cities – the converse of the kind of attitude that you endorse in this post. Luckily we have a big country that can accommodate both types (though the larger the federal government gets the harder it is to avoid acrimonious fights over how to allocate the money). But that’s a far cry from the strawman you’re attacking here, all while complaining about “delusional narratives”.
      If you are not satisfied with running a good transit blog and want to infuse it with windy political musings, it’s your blog and your prerogative. Personally though I think that would not be playing to your strengths.

    3. Beta Magellan November 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

      Although I don’t disagree with your views on governance and urbanism, I’m pretty sure there’s solid political science behind the idea that partisan polarization (and corresponding polarization in political views) is, in fact, real and not just storyline the media uses to entertain people.

    4. Alon Levy November 8, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      My theory: the UK and Canada today look a lot like the US did 30 years ago. Cities tend toward the left by a clear margin, obscured in Parliament only by the left’s split into two parties. In inner-urban neighborhoods, conservatives only win in the occasional very rich neighborhood. Outer-urban areas like Outer London and the outer parts of Toronto are a transition zone, and usually vote right-wing in local elections. Suburbs are deep blue, using non-US party colors. Historically working-class industrial areas are red; this is equivalent to how West Virginia was a strongly Democratic state in the 1970s and 80s. What we’ve seen in the US over the last 20 years is a realignment in which the suburbs have moved left, the right-wing urban holdouts have disappeared (Houston has a lesbian mayor), and conversely the poor regions and not-really-urban working-class areas have moved right.
      Arguably, the same trend will happen in the UK and Canada. The US suburbs were right-wing when they were new; the exurbs still are. Greenfield development tends toward the right both on the level of parts of a metro area and on the level of entire regions; regions with Sunbelt-style growth vote for the right not just in the US but also in Canada (Alberta), Mexico (northern Mexico), and arguably France (the Riviera, though not Toulouse). In such areas, the government is less visible, so an anti-government message is more persuasive. As they economically mature, they move left, as has happened in the US both to the Northeastern suburbs and to Southern California. Tellingly, the oldest suburbs, such as Westchester, switched to the Democrats first. Since the US suburbanized before Canada and the UK, it makes sense it will have more uniformly old metro areas.

    5. Jeff Wegerson November 8, 2012 at 11:38 am #

      Thanks for an interesting perspective.
      Running a city is a very different kind of job than running a region of multiple cities, say a nation or a state. My current city mayor and the previous (Emanuel and Daley of Chicago) are both of an authoritarian bent. Both identify with the Democratic party. As has Bloomberg of New York at times. In that sense one could call mine and New York’s mayor “moderate Republicans.”
      London has gone from a communist to a tory mayor. Yet the thing about transit, especially in non-USA cities, is that it serves both authoritarian business owners and progressive workers and therefore counts as a benefit to both.
      In the US it is the temporary ascendancy of the automobile that has damaged transit to the point that our local authoritarians began to believe that they could function, even within cities, without it. Exhibit A was LA in the 1950’s. As the city grids became locked with cars, what some have called reality based leaders quickly saw the fallacy of that notion, even the authoritarian ones that were engaged in actual city governance.
      And then you have the regional authoritarians, whether intelligent ones like the Chris Christies of New Jersey or ideology bound ones like the Scott Browns of Wisconsin, divorced from the realities of city governance, who then make anti-urban decisions like canceling a needed tunnel into New York or the higher speed rail improvements between Chicago and the twin cities of Minnesota.
      Christie’s reaction to Hurricane Sandy is comparable to the kinds of close to the people governance that city leaders must engage in.

    6. EngineerScotty November 8, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      There are a few other issues entangled with this:
      * In the US, political conservatives have aligned with the petrochemical industry to a great extent–and thus have, in recent years, taken to opposing anything perceived as “green”; which often includes transit and urbanism.
      * The US Republican Party, in recent years, has become an interesting mixture of religious fundamentalism and economic conservatism. In some ways, this is a recent development; thirty years ago, both parties had “liberal” and “conservative” wings that diverged on social policy–the inter-party areas of disagreement were mainly along economic and foreign policy issues. But now, the GOP is much more heavily aligned with religious whites–while maintaining its status as an economically right-wing party; and the Democrats are much more the party of the non-religious and non-white. And this happens to correlate nicely, in many places, with the urban/rural divide. Nationalist and/or regional parties in Europe (such as the BNP in the UK, the Dutch PVV, or the Front national in France) tend to be economically populist if not left-wing, and mainstream Christian Democrat parties (advocating social conservatism but political liberalism) abound on the continent as well.
      * Transit itself has, for some reason, become a cultural touchstone. Nobody engages in heated political arguments about city water vs wells, of sewers vs septic tanks, or about other infrastructure concerns–but riding the bus (or a bike), or refusing to do so, is often seen as a political act in many places.

    7. Beta Magellan November 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

      Building on EngineerScotty’s point, transit’s also a big political touchstone because it, in some cases, touches directly on issues of race and racial segregation in a way that doesn’t come into play in with other kinds of infrastructure (or other developed-world countries). Speaking from an area where I have first-hand experience, Milwaukee since the 1990s, much of the anti-transit, and particularly anti-rail (and sometimes even anti-intercity rail) rhetoric has been racially changed. I’ve often wondered whether greater Salt Lake City’s success at building a rail network has been a facilitated of its relative homogeneity.

    8. daodao November 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

      You state that “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.” This is no longer true in the big English northern cities, e.g. Manchester, which has not had a Tory councillor, yet alone a Tory MP, for many years; the same goes for Liverpool, Sheffield et al. In Scotland and Northern England (Lancashire, Yorkshire & further north), the limited Tory representation in parliament and local government is almost entirely confined to rural areas.
      Tories are better represented in urban areas in the Midlands and South of England and tend to dominate rural counties from the North Midlands (Cheshire, Shropshire) southwards; they are much less supportive of public transport, which in rural areas is now extremely limited outside the core period of 8am-6pm Mon-Sat.

    9. Nathanael November 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

      I think you do see what’s going on in the US; you’ve soft-pedalled in your article though. There is a difference between conservative and liberal politicians — *within* the Democratic Party.
      Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become the party of Denying Reality — supporting young-earth creationism, pretending that global warming isn’t happening, etc. Sane Republicans like Charlie Crist have simply been quitting the party and becoming independents.
      With its emphasis on disbelieving reality and instead listening to the Republican cult leaders, the only voters who can in good conscience stick with the Republican Party are religious fanatics — preferably religious fanatics who live far from any non-cult sources of information, which means rural areas.
      This is a unique situation in a world setting. One of our parties is barking mad. The other isn’t, and that’s all I can really say about it as a generalization. (There was a fanatically anti-rail pro-asphalt pro-car candidate on the ballot as a Democrat in Hawaii. He lost, which is nice.)
      This is not politics as usual, certainly. It will not be resolved by any reform of the Republican Party, because this sort of cult doesn’t allow reform — the Republican Party is busily expelling “heretics” and tightening control so that the grassroots have no power within the party. It will be resolved by the elimination of the Republican Party. (Then we can have an actual second party.)

    10. Nathanael November 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

      Alon: I think the two main political conflicts right now are:
      (1) plutocrats and their supporters vs. populists
      (2) conservationists vs. slash-and-burn extractionists
      The thing is that the groups don’t line up perfectly with each other, nor do they line up with the party alignments in any country I can think of, even in the countries with four or more parties. The conservation vs. extraction divide is new enough that it hasn’t taken on ossified political form except in the Green parties. Who represents the pro-plutocrat conservationists? They are stuffed in uneasily in every party I can think of.

    11. Rational Plan November 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

      Sorry Daodao I disagree that Tories are anti transit they have poured plenty of money into transport projects and have spared the big projects.
      Tory voters may live in the suburbs or rural commuter areas but they often use trains to access high paying jobs in city centres.
      It is Labour that has often been reluctant to invest in urban rail systems (remember all those cancelled tram plans) as there voters are much more likely to use buses than trains.
      Also the Tories dominate in the South, where rail travel is much higher because of the vast network that focuses on London and a local towns fortunes in the South is entirely dependent on how quickly one can get to London and on how many trains an hour it has.

    12. Rational Plan November 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

      Alon, while Canada may follow US trends ( I have no clue on this) I don’t think the UK will. The suburbs are not uniformly right wing in the UK. for example many planned new towns around the South East of England were populated from Inner London and became Labour strongholds in an otherwise Tory sea. It’s in recent decades that this has broken down and they much more marginal than they used to be.
      The White working class in the South are much more likely to Vote Tory than the equivalent in the North. Part of that maybe due to the greater likely hood that in the South they would be self employed or work for small businesses rather than large scale industrial employers.
      Also suburbanisation is quite old in the UK the biggest period of Suburban house building was in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
      There are also relatively few poor rural areas in the UK. Most have long been turned into effective suburbs of their big cities even if they still look old fashioned. The reach of London’s commuter belt is staggering.
      The inner commuter belts of many British cities have often been marginal seats, with them switching to whoever seems to have a clue.
      Besides there plenty of cultural differences between us. In particular God. In Britain ‘politicans don’t do God’ It would invite ridicule and suspicion. It’s class that is the grist to the British poltical mill.

    13. Wanderer November 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

      The Upper East Side “Silk Stocking” congressional district of Manhattan used to regularly elect Republicans up through, I believe, the 1970’s. But as the Republican Party has purged itself of moderates, the prospect of being an urban Republican has looked less and less attractive. The two processes have gone hand in hand and reinforced each other, deurbanization and moving right.
      Meanwhile voters in the inner suburbs have come to realize that their destiny is closed tied to that of central cities. Those suburbs, at least outside the south, have progressively turned Democratic.
      I guess that transit has become a cultural touchstone through its association with smart growth/TOD, which has always been a lightning rod. People have said that anti-transit sentiment has racial elements, which I agree with. But the cultural/political issue is still there even in cities which have small non-White populations, like Portland or Minneapolis.

    14. patfromigh November 9, 2012 at 9:27 am #

      When the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities was observed, it was read by a number of conservatives. Many circles of conservatives lament not seriously listening to her message after seeing what happened over the half century. The book now shows up on conservative book lists. Unfortunately there were other “conservatives” who read Atlas Shrugged instead. The difference is that one set of conservatives wants conserve a civic ethic from a Greco-Roman heritage. The other set of “conservatives” want to preserve their bottom of the bag (translation of cul-de-sac) lifestyle which is all they have known since childhood.
      Please remember that when discussing religion, conservative and liberal theology don’t always correspond to politics. Members of a faith community who reject the large downtown church of their great grandparents and hold worship services in the space of a former big box retailer can call themselves conservative, but betray themselves by their choice to reject the traditions of previous generations.

    15. DF November 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

      Michael Setty, while I have not read the book, I see nothing in the page you linked to that suggests Kurtz would agree with the opinions that I characterized as strawmen.
      Patfromnigh, perhaps you are referring to the conservatives/libertarians who agree with the anti-overweening-big-government aspects of her thinking (see link) – but this is different from the attitude you are describing. Maybe there are other conservatives/libertarians who read Jacobs and as a result of that changed their worldview, but a few examples would be helpful.

    16. patfromigh November 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

      The libertarian conservative divide over public transit played out a few years ago. Here are some examples of conservative public transit advocates and the urban advocacy that goes along with it.
      William Lind- http://www.theamericanconservative.com/cpt/
      David Schaengold- http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2009/04/209/
      Matthew Schmitz- The link to Sc’s article on Matthew Yglesias web article on Feb 26, 2010 is no longer active. Here is the the link to Yglesias’ article.

    17. Michael D. Setty November 10, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

      DF, yes, there are a lot of thoughtful conservatives who are not anti-urban or anti-transit at all, but there also many more who are in their attitudes and conspiracy theories.
      Kurtz’s book revolves around the half-baked claim that Obama et al policies supporting cities, transit and similar things are all part of a giant plot to rip off the suburbs and countryside in favor of cities. He also thinks the conspiracy includes forcing future growth to resemble Manhattan, e.g., high rise apartment buildings surrounding transit stops. For one thing, the Tea Party is full of people who buy Kurtz-style anti-urban nonsense.
      I presume you’ve seen the maps illustrating how “red states” generally receive a lot more federal largess than they pay in taxes, while the large much more urban “blue states” tend to be donor states, e.g., paying out a lot more than they receive back in federal spending. People like Kurtz believe the exact opposite of reality. For example, this: http://taxfoundation.org/blog/why-do-some-states-feast-federal-spending-not-others.
      In a nutshell, Kurtz’s entire book is only slightly less daft than the conspiracy mongers who think all this is a UN/Black Helicopters/Agenda 21 plot. And my point was that the entire book was nothing but battling strawmen. And Jarrett pointing out that a lot of “conservatives” (sic) are anti-urban is simply a fact, not a strawman.

    18. DF November 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Patfromigh, I don’t see what any of that has to do with your original statement about Jane Jacobs to which I was responding. Had you merely said that some conservatives are more in favor of transit than others, I would not have disagreed, just as I did not disagree when Jarrett said as much in the original post.
      Michael Setty, I was interpreting your original comment to be saying that Kurtz was an example of what I considered to be Jarrett’s strawman of conservatives who don’t want cities to function and/or to have a government. If you are saying that I don’t agree. If you are not saying that but just saying that Kurtz’ book is terrible that’s a tangent I am not in a position to discuss.

    19. Michael D. Setty November 11, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      DF, I think what Jarrett was saying was simply that there are some “conservatives” who don’t want to discuss transit in a realistic fashion or really effective policies (such as more paid parking a la Donald Shoup, among many other potential policies “less favorable” to the suburban/exurban lifestyle), such as transit and other policies more favorable to cities.
      I don’t think Kurtz, Jarrett or anyone else was saying Tea Partiers and others of similar persuaion literally want “no functional governments” in our cities; that would be more Haitis or Somalias.

    20. DF November 11, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      I think that’s what I meant when I said he was attacking strawmen. The effect is much as though you had a mostly nonpolitical blog you liked, and then you opened it up one day to find a post about how Obama is a Communist who wants a federal takeover of all industry.

    21. daodao November 13, 2012 at 8:51 am #

      @ Rational Plan
      While the ConDem government in the UK appears supportive of major rail projects, particularly to/from London, at local level they don’t appear to be interested in maintaining comprehensive/integrated bus networks – services are continually being cut.