Letter from Washington: Cities need conservatives
…and conservatives need cities
Maybe the most misleading cliché about American politics is that the country is divided between its coasts and the “flyover country” heartland in between. It’s wrong not because there aren’t divides between big coastal cities and the rest of the country, but because the urban/rural divide exists wherever in America you happen to be.
Quintessential Trump country is just a two-hour drive from Manhattan while big “heartland” cities, like Dallas and Houston, voted for Joe Biden. Density is destiny. Cities get bluer, rural counties get redder and the two parties scrap for the suburban sprawl in between. And it’s not just national politics. Just one of America’s ten largest cities, San Diego, has a Republican mayor.
For many on the right, their unpopularity in big cities is a point of pride. Being loathed in New York and San Francisco is proof you’re speaking for “real” America. Witness, for example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s clumsy attack on Donald Trump and his “New York values” during the 2016 Republican primary. (We all know how well that worked.)
While Republicans may not talk to urban America, they talk about it all the time. Violent disorder and rising crime rates in American cities was a major theme of the party’s campaign this year. And while there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the lunacy of defunding the police, for example, Trump and his colleagues weren’t hunting for votes from disgruntled urbanites. Instead, cities were presented as a window into America’s future, a glimpse of “Joe Biden’s America” that those elsewhere could avoid by voting for Trump. Don’t let your town end up like that town.
Rather than gloating about anarchic hellholes, Republicans should ask themselves a difficult question: If the failure of Democratic leadership in American cities is so blindingly obvious, why do city dwellers keep voting for them? A big part of the answer is that Republicans haven’t bothered to offer up a serious alternative.
This isn’t just a missed opportunity for the Republican party, it is a major blow to the cities themselves. Part of the problem is simply a question of political competition. One-party systems generally aren’t breeding grounds for good governance. In New York, for example, the lines between the state and the Democratic party machine are too often indistinguishable. Unions and interest groups know that if they capture the party, they have captured the city. But America’s biggest cities need more than opposition for opposition’s sake. They need conservative ideas and elected officials who are willing to take them seriously.
On crime, education, housing, infrastructure and much else, there’s a straight line between Democratic policies and the problems that blight America’s cities. Consider San Francisco’s twin epidemics of homelessness and drug overdose deaths; or look at what happened when Minneapolis’s city council decided to “end policing as we know it”; or contrast the cost of housing in tightly zoned New York and laissez-faire Houston.
Schools are becoming the site of a contentious and high-stakes ideological battle. The right favours choice for parents, autonomy for schools and academic rigour. The left thinks the answer to racial inequality is to abolish testing.
The tragic irony of the one-sided nature of urban politics is that the rebirth of America’s big cities at the end of the 20th century was build on conservative ideas. Those cities are safer and more prosperous today than they were a generation ago because of Republican politicians.
Much has been made about the possibility of the GOP becoming a “multi-ethnic, multi-racial workers’ party”, something I wrote about in our December issue. But if Republicans are serious about realising that ambition, they need a message that resonates in the places where tens of millions of non-white working-class Americans are battling, often against Democrat imposed barriers, to fulfil the American dream. The metropolises that so many Republican politicians disdain as deep-blue dystopias are hotbeds of entrepreneurship and striving. A GOP that fails to see that is a GOP that doesn’t know what is good for its own electoral future, or the future of this country’s greatest cities.
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