Friday, January 25th, 2013

Why Republicans Need Cities

In my latest post over at New Geography I make a rare foray into political writing to call the Republican party to task for failing to compete for the urban vote. It’s called “Why Republicans Need Cities” and is a call to arms for Republicans to take cities seriously again. Here’s an excerpt:

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.
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.

Ed Glaeser has a related piece in the current issue of City Journal called “The GOP and the City.” The American Enterprise Institute says “the GOP can’t be an urban myth.” By contrast, the American Conservative says, Republicans won’t compete in cities. Too bad for the GOP if they don’t.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Public Policy, Urban Culture

24 Responses to “Why Republicans Need Cities”

  1. Rico says:

    The republican party has been anti-fact, anti-science, anti-compromise for the last decade. Every thing I used to like about them is no longer true (used to be a registered republican).

    I can’t go more than a day with out some right-wing person spouting some hate filled ignorant rhetoric at me.

    Why would increasing their appeal be good for society? Let their movement die.

  2. Steve S. says:

    “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…[which] has left it on the outside looking in on many debates, as culture is shaped in large urban centers where Republicans have little voice” is perhaps the most succinct summary I’ve ever found for why suburbanites find today’s national-level Republican Party unrelentingly, and unappealingly, reactionary. I think you’ve struck gold here.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Aaron, I agree with you that Republicans have ignored large metro areas at their own peril. However, if they want to even have a chance of being heard, they will have to engage in the kind intersectional analysis that they abhor, which means taking seriously (and thus taking into account as demonstrated by rhetoric and policy) the ways race and class affected, and created, those so-called “inner city cesspools.” There need to be sincere, non-pandering efforts to listen to concerns of citizens in urban communities(which in place like NYC, L.A., etc. can vary widely in just a matter of blocks) and not just tell them that lifting regulations will create a free market that will sort it all out for them.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    A lot of what you (and Glaeser) are saying is more applicable to the suburbs than to the cities. Conservatives almost everywhere in the world lose in the cities: Harper lost inner Toronto, most Inner London constituencies are held by Labour, Seoul voted for Moon and the provincial capitals voted for Park by smaller margins than their respective provinces, Paris voted for Hollande by a large margin, the major cities proper are Social Democratic strongholds in Switzerland and Germany. The US was like this in the Carter era, too. A culturally conservative, anti-spending, anti-tax agenda only appeals to urbanites on the most superficial level, when cities transparently depend on government services for education, health, sewers, public transit, and street maintenance, and are too diverse to be governed in any way other than consensus or something like it.

    The US innovation is that the favored quarters and the older suburbs vote Democratic.

  5. @Anon 2:24, I agree with you, but I should note that Democrats haven’t done much of this either. They’ve heavily patronized minorities and paid lip service to their concerns, while ignoring them and often co-opting ethnic leaders into the ruling machine. (Chicago is Exhibit A here).

    @Alon, keep in mind that Republicans had their own versions of urban machines in previous eras, so I’m not convinced they don’t know how to compete in that arena.

  6. pete-rock says:

    I agree with your points, Aaron, but I think the current GOP is a long way from taking the policy positions necessary to be a player in cities and inner-ring suburbs. In many ways this is like asking post-Reconstruction conservative southern Democrats to embrace citizenship of African-Americans and the shift of the plantation economy to an industrial one. They not only couldn’t do it, they resisted it for decades at their own peril.

    And that’s what I see the GOP doing now. Instead of getting behind transportation reform, reducing regulatory barriers for urban entrepreneurs, or even immigration reform, republican state legislatures are focusing on changing Congressional district boundaries and Electoral College vote rules to give more sway to rural GOP areas and less to urban Dem ones. This is taking place in Virginia, Ohio and Michigan right now.

    I think a much more likely scenario is that attempts to co-opt the system like this will lose court challenges, and the GOP will end up being marginalized as the rural/Southern party, just like the GOP is marginalized at the state level in California and Illinois. I hope we don’t follow that path on the national level.

  7. EJ says:

    Aaron, along with your article, there has certainly been a lot of talk lately across the media and blogosphere about what the Republican Party needs to do in order to save itself and remain a viable entity. What if it simply cannot accomplish this, for whatever reason rational or otherwise? Is the death of the GOP really such the epic crisis that some are making it out to be?

    I think sometimes organizations just fail to keep up with the times, collapse in on themselves and die. After all, how many businesses and non-profit orgs, like newly hatched baby turtles on an ocean beach, die right out of their shells or never even break through? How many live just long enough to end up a tasty morsel or merger acquisition for a predator. Even for those that do survive long enough to make it into the sea and live a full life, at some point death can still arrive at the tail end of a long and successful arc when they are confronted with a new technology or a more nimble adversary that they simply cannot overcome or adapt to. Why should our political parties here in the US be any different?

    Maybe instead of trying to help a terminally ill Grand Old Party find a new cause for its raison d’etre, we should instead be trying to help causes found new political parties, and reform our system to allow voters to clear out so much of the ossified dead weight and poverty of ideas and fresh thinking that both the Republican and Democratic parties represent.

  8. Nathanael says:

    The Republicans are dying. It’s not just cities they’ve written off; it’s also women, anyone under 30, anyone who isn’t of European descent, the non-religious, the anti-war…. and I’m only getting started.

    You’d think they’d represent rural areas. Well, maybe rural areas where the main industry is resource extraction. Possibly areas owned by single giant agribusiness corporations.

    In areas which have *either* small farmers *or* organic farms *or* depend on tourism, the GOP has been resolutely in favor of slash, burn, drill, mine, and destroy. I think the GOP has only survived in rural areas due to GOP control of the TV and radio, and poor rural access to broadband Internet.

    The Republican Party is dying and good riddance. Time to replace it with something better.

    We could actually use an small-government, isolationist, government-out-of-our-bedrooms, disband-the-police, freedom-to-do-drugs, party. We don’t have one.

    We could actually use a genuine rural party, like the old Farmer Party in Minnesota which merged in the the DFL. We don’t have one.

    Of course the Republican Party is still the Party of Racism, which will keep it alive in the Deep South for a while. We don’t need THAT at ALL.

  9. Nathanael says:

    “@Anon 2:24, I agree with you, but I should note that Democrats haven’t done much of this either. ”

    Lack of competition.

    We have a crummy election system. Single-member districts with first-past the post leads to a two-party system thanks to Duverger’s Law (look it up). With the Republicans an unmitigated disaster, the Democrats don’t even need to try to run government well, they just need to be better than the godawful Republicans. Democratic party primaries help some, but not enough.

    We need (party)-proportional representation. And for single-winner offices, we need range voting or approval voting. This would eliminate the “spoiler effect” and mean that Democrats could get a serious challenge, from Greens or Libertarians or, hell, a brand new party. At that point Democrats would improve due to the pressure.

  10. James says:

    I would say that the biggest reform big cities need is to bring labor and administrative costs down. Part of this is the legacy of retirees and part of that is not. There are many ways to fix this problem, one of which is to bust up the labor unions that control the city labor force. And there are many people in the city that would welcome a moderate Republican to come and run on fixing the trains rather than shutting the trains down.

    At the end of the day the Republican Party has a national brand. This might really hurt Republicans’ overall strategy. It would be good for cities to have a two party system but it isn’t clear to me that it is actually good for Republicans.

  11. Ziggy says:

    I think one could argue that today’s right of center Democratic Party is very similar to the Republican Party of Nixon and Reagan, and is probably even to the right of the Republicans of those eras in many respects. The greater reality is that the leadership of both parties has been largely co-opted by establishment interests representing by the 1% and multi-national corporations. Collectively, they comprise America’s true third party – the Purple Party.

    The more pressing need is for a bona fide liberal party that represents Main Street America and good government in general. One that also incorporates contemporary family values, many of which remain very traditional in regards to the need for advancing equality, morality and integrity. We need a true Main Street Party.

  12. TMLutas says:

    I would submit that urban dwellers’ willingness to submit to one party rule and not to staff and create urban GOP parties is, to a great extent, their own fault. Urbanites slit their own throats when their city becomes a one party town. Democratic republics don’t ever work well when that happens. Urbanites kid themselves if they think that they are not suffering from their current electoral mix.

    In most areas, you can just file to be a committeeman and if you have no opponents who live in your precinct you just win. Becoming a committeeman gains you a seat at the table and lets you assert whatever you think urban GOP policies should look like.

    Legitimate GOP positions just waiting to be championed by you brand new, newly minted committeemen would include governmental transparency to show exactly how the liberal machine is playing hide the pea with taxpayer money. Another would be opening up service provision to private competition. Another would be education reform. And let’s not forget legalizing a great deal of work that is currently strangled by regulation into nonexistence or outright disallowed.

  13. the urban politician says:

    There is two majors flaw in Aaron’s argument:

    1. The notion that Republicans are fiscally disciplined.
    2. The notion that Republican policies in cities will somehow lessen the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished.

    What in your experience, Aaron, leads you to believe that Republicans in the past 30 years have been better than Democrats than any of this?

    Republicans (i) invented trickle down economics and (ii) have expanded Government spending (while cutting taxes at the same time!), vaulting the debt to astronomic levels in the past several years.

    So to cities really need Republicans, or do Republicans need cities? I’d go with the latter. I’m not sure Republicans can contribute anything to the discourse of budgetary matters for urban regions that moderate Democrats aren’t already doing.

    In other words, in the absence of fiscally conservative Republicans in urban leadership, Democrats have had to “fill that void” themselves. Rahm Emanuel is an example of a Democrat who is doing exactly what Republicans are known for: going after unions.

  14. the urban politician says:

    ^ Pardon my rather redneck English in the first sentence of the above post. Please reread as:

    “There are two major flaws in Aaron’s argument”

  15. Richard Lewis says:

    It is interesting to observe the Republican-bashing going on here and across the political spectrum (including the “self-bashing” of the likes of Gov. Bobby Jindal)from the perspective of Texas, reddest of the “red” states.

    I would call to the attention of readers here at Urbanophile that Texas is an urban state: 3 of the 10 largest U.S. cities are in Texas; 7 of the top 50. By all relevant economic measures, Texas is in the forefront of the nation. This, somehow or other in the face of the “fact” that Texas is governed by “neanderthal”, anti-science, ant-woman, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum, Republicans.

    Gee! One would expect just a speck of rational reflection on how this can possibly be. Consider this possibility: Most Texas Republicans, were, until just a few years ago, Democrats, scions of LBJ, Sam Rayburn, Mark White and Ann Richards. Remarkable, isn’t it, that Democrat Ann Richards was Texas’ governor until 1995, to be followed in office by George Bush. Could it be that the traditional Democratic Party values have been abandoned at the national level but preserved and enhanced at the Texas level?

    The bankruptcy of the blue state model (the “new” Democrat model, thoroughly rejected by Texas Democrats since 1995) is evidenced on a daily basis by the reports from debt-strangled Washington D.C., California, Illinois, et al.

    Spare us Texas “Demopublicans” (or is it “Republicrats”?) the bashing. We seem to be on to something good.

  16. DaveOf Richmond says:

    I’m old enough to remember the last time the Reps were “dead”, after Watergate in the mid to late 70’s. That death lasted about 5 years and ended with Reagan in the White House and a Republican Senate for the first time in decades. By 1984 it was the Dems who were “dead” – they took the Senate back in ’86 and the WH in ’92, only to be rolled by the Reps in ’94, then see Clinton win a near landslide in ’96. And so on and so forth.

    The Dems are giddy with their enormous November victory at the moment, a victory so overwhelming that they could not win back the House, and which sees 30 of the 50 states with Rep governors, including such “blue” and “purple” states as New Jersey, PA, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Virginia and Nevada (yes, I know, not all of them were up this year, but still – 30 out of 50 for the “dead” party?). Mind you, all this against a primary opponent who was a rich finance guy, four years after the economy almost imploded due to rich finance guys, and who made a speech saying that half the population were a bunch of no-good slackers. How is it the the “smart, capable” party didn’t win a 50-seat advantage in the House against this?

    Both parties have shown the ability in the past to realign their constituencies when needed, so all this dreaming of “demographic obsolescence” is likely wishful thinking. Both parties have also shown the amazing ability to completely screw up whatever advantage they’ve been able to gain – this since Johnson in the mid-60’s. I’m confident that something similar will happen again.

    Disclaimer – I’m an Independent and can’t stand either party, though I have held my nose and voted for Dem and Rep candidates at various times.

  17. the urban politician says:


    Unfortunately, Republicans at the national level have nothing in common with Republicans in Texas. They just don’t.

    There is no fiscal discipline in spending money you don’t have on endless military endeavors that most Americans don’t even want.

  18. DBR96A says:

    The worst thing the Republicans did in the last 50 years was welcome all the old Democrats into their tent. Within 20 years, they completely pissed away the Republican Party’s heritage as the political party of forward progress in race relations and opposition to foreign interventionism. It’s no coincidence that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. voted for Dwight Eisenhower twice, or that the majority of votes in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were Republicans. (Tip of the hat to Lyndon B. Johnson for signing them.)

    During the 1970’s, the Republican Party did a 180° turn from libertarianism to populism while the Democratic Party did a 90° left turn from populism to pure liberalism. To put it another way, the Old Left became the New Right, and all the hippies and beatniks became the New Left. Meanwhile, the Old Right got pushed out into the cold by the Old Left/New Right and haven’t been heard from since. The United States would be much better off today if the Old Left/New Right got pushed out into the cold instead of the Old Right.

    I say all this as a registered Republican who desires the party to become the domain of the libertarian Old Right again soon.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, don’t think of liberalism and conservatism as fixed ideologies within the US with a long history; think of them as global, or at least first-worldwide movements, whose present forms took place from the 1960s to the 80s with trends including civil rights/decolonization, feminism, mass migration to the first world from the third, the rise of neo-liberal economics, the rise of environmentalism, deindustrialization, and so on. Some of those even affect developing countries or newly industrialized ones; for example, when you ignore the PRI and look just at PRD vs. PAN, Mexican political geography is very similar to its American counterpart.

  20. Demographer says:

    “…Texas is an urban state: 3 of the 10 largest U.S. cities are in Texas…

    This is misleading. The proper level of analysis for your statement is the Metropolitan Area, not the city. Cities are simply lines on a map. Its the functional economic unit that matters – not political units.

    That being the case, Texas has 2 of the 10 largest Metros in the US: Dallas-Ft. Worth (#4) and Houston (#5). It has 4 of the 50 largest Metros: add San Antonio (#24) and Austin (#34).

    All data based on Census 2010 MSAs.

  21. Richard Lewis says:

    Funny (as in LOL!) that my use of city populations when commenting upon an article entitled, “Why Republicans Need Cities” can be viewed as misleading. Even funnier (as in LOL+!) that “its (sic) the functional economic unit that matters – not political units.” After all, “Cities are simply lines on a map.” What, pray tell, is a political unit if not “lines on a map”? Was the article entitled, “Why Corporations Need Cities”?

    Perhaps I have missed the import of the comment. Is there a perhaps an implied contention that Texas is not an urban state? An expansion of Demographer’s comment is welcomed.

    Going back up the line of comments a bit ….

    The Urban Politician commented in my direction, “Unfortunately, Republicans at the national level have nothing in common with Republicans in Texas. They just don’t”

    I would genuinely appreciate an amplification. (Mitt Romney, “Republican at the national level” if I recall correctly, didn’t need to campaign in Texas … all he did was raise money here. :) )

  22. Nathanael says:

    Richard Lewis: Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville, and El Paso all vote consistently Democratic. Look it up.

    Yes, the Republican Party is dying. Gerrymandering is the technique they’re currently using to stay alive. More than half the voters voted for Democrats for the US House; Republicans used gerrymandering to get a majority.

  23. Nathanael says:

    “I would submit that urban dwellers’ willingness to submit to one party rule and not to staff and create urban GOP parties is, to a great extent, their own fault…..”

    Nonsense. It would be idiotic to tie oneself to the dying GOP brand.

    What *should* happen is the rise of new, different urban parties, rather than the reuse of the corpse of the GOP. There is no reason why a city has to have the *same* two parties as we have on a national level. The only way to get a two-party system in a city is to kill the zombie corpse of the GOP so that (for instance) Libertarians or Greens or what-have-you have a chance.

    Of course, if a city adopted approval voting or single transferrable vote, you could have three or more parties which would be simultaneously viable. Our current first-past-the-post, gerrymandered-district, single-winner election system sucks, as I’ve said.

  24. Richard Lewis says:

    Nathanael: I “looked it up” for the 2012 presidential election. In total, the counties in which the cities you named are located voted (in total)”overwhelmingly”/sarc for President Obama 53% vs 47%. Given the enormous sociological impetus for minority voters not to see Obama defeated, Romney’s performance was surprisingly strong in those communities and contributed significantly to his 58% vs 42% victory state-wide.

    With regard to gerrymandering, consider this deliciously (from a Republican perspective) ironic reality: Democrats/Liberals insist that minorities have “safe” districts, and to assure this outcome insist on gerrymandering. So, yes, Republican legislatures willingly assist. The outcome is to to assure minorities that their votes are for “machine” candidates without the slightest chance to influence election outcomes in what might otherwise be “swing” districts. When do you think the House Black Caucus might seek to change this cozy arrangement?

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