By KEVIN BAKER
Published: October 6, 2012
A LEADING Republican columnist, trying to re-stoke her candidate’s faltering campaign before the first presidential debate, felt so desperate that she advised him to turn to cities.
“Wade into the crowd, wade into the fray, hold a hell of a rally in an American city — don’t they count anymore?” Peggy Noonan lamented in The Wall Street Journal. “A big, dense city with skyscrapers like canyons, crowds and placards, and yelling. All of our campaigning now is in bland suburbs and tired hustings.”
But the fact is that cities don’t count anymore — at least not in national Republican politics.
New York views of the Lower East Side, 1905.
The very word “city” went all but unheard at the Republican convention, held in the rudimentary city of Tampa, Fla. The party platform ratified there is over 31,000 words long. It includes subsections on myriad pressing topics, like “Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service for the Twenty-First Century” and “American Sovereignty in U.S. Courts,” which features a full-throated denunciation of the “unreasonable extension” of the Lacey Act of 1900 (please don’t ask). There are also passages specifying what our national policy should be all over the world — but not in one American city.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Right after “Honoring Our Relationship With American Indians” and shortly before “Honoring and Supporting Americans in the Territories,” the Republican platform addresses another enclave of benighted quasi-citizens: the District of Columbia. Most of what it has to say is about forcing the district to accept school vouchers, lax gun laws and the fact that it will never be a state. It also scolds the district for corruption and “decades of inept one-party rule.” Only a city would get yelled at.
The very few sections that address urban concerns contain similar complaints about cities’ current priorities — not to mention the very idea of city life. The Republican platform bitterly denounces the Democrats for diverting some highway fund money to Amtrak and harrumphs that it is “long past time for the federal government to get out of the way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service to the Northeast corridor. The same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country.”
The Obama administration, the Republicans conclude damningly, is “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”
Unsurprisingly, the chairman of the Republican platform committee, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, is from a state that has no city with a population of 500,000 or more. One of his two “co-chairmen” was Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, which ranks 47th among the states in population density. The other was Marsha Blackburn, who represents a largely suburban district of Tennessee.
IT could hardly be otherwise. The Republican Party is, more than ever before in its history, an anti-urban party, its support gleaned overwhelmingly from suburban and rural districts — especially in presidential elections.
This wasn’t always the case. During the heyday of the urban political machines, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, Republicans used to hold their own in our nation’s great cities. Philadelphia was dominated for decades by a Republican machine. In Chicago — naturally — both parties had highly competitive, wildly corrupt machines, with a buffoonish Republican mayor, “Big Bill” Thompson, presiding over the city during the ascent of Al Capone. In the 1928 presidential election, the Republican Herbert Hoover swept to victory while carrying cities all across the country: Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Detroit; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Houston; Dallas; Omaha and Los Angeles.
With the possible exception of Houston or maybe Omaha, it’s all but inconceivable that Mr. Romney will carry any of those cities. And that’s due in good part to the man Hoover defeated, more than 80 years ago.
The rise of Alfred E. Smith to the top of the Democratic Party confirmed a sea change in American life. Smith was not simply the first Catholic to lead a major-party ticket. He was also a quintessentially urban candidate, like no one who has ever seriously contended for the presidency before or since.
Born in 1873 on Oliver Street, on the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown, he was forced to leave school after the death of his father. He never went back, toiling at the Fulton Fish Market for $12 a week. Elected to the New York State Assembly by Tammany Hall’s political machine, he worked his way up to speaker, then governor.
In Albany, Smith pushed through some of the most important social legislation in our history. Yet everything about him remained unacceptably “ghetto” to much of America: the way he dressed; the stogies he smoked in public; his heavy New York accent; and the way he enjoyed singing old Bowery tunes while enjoying a beer with the boys.
It was almost as if today a candidate from the projects — a high-school dropout who still dressed in hip-hop fashion and liked to occasionally drop in to a club to D.J. for a couple of hours — were to become a serious presidential candidate.
Times Square, 1944.
“To hundreds of thousands of old-stock Americans, Smith might just as well have been Jewish or black,” the historian Lawrence H. Fuchs wrote. New York “meant night life, short skirts, prostitution, Jewish intellectuals and the Union Theological Seminary.”
In an openly bigoted campaign, Smith was assailed in millions of coarse, anti-Catholic pamphlets and handbills; even a Methodist bishop viciously attacked his “Romanism.” He walked away from the race a bitter man and the cities went with him. By 1930, over 56 percent of all Americans already lived in urban areas.
The Great Depression secured their loyalty to the Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the cities showcases for the New Deal — especially New York, under the liberal Republican reformer, Fiorello H. La Guardia. Federal money poured in, but in the end the New Deal was about more than building new bridges or getting people off the bread lines. Contrary to Mr. Romney’s contention that government aid automatically turns people into “victims” and “dependents,” Washington’s intervention turned urban Americans from subjects into citizens who could claim the necessities of life as a right, not a favor.
Subway graffiti, 1979.
In so doing, it began to shrivel the urban political machines, though it would take decades before they disappeared completely. The cities, which had been places of horrible suffering during the early years of the Great Depression, became alluring again, attracting a dynamic if volatile new mix of the rural poor, black, white and Hispanic. By 1950, almost two-thirds of all Americans lived in urban areas.
Save for mavericks like La Guardia, Republicans had little to add to this battle for the soul of the city. Increasingly, a Republican mayor of a major city became a curiosity. In presidential elections, big cities went Republican only during landslides.
This didn’t seem to matter in the postwar years, as demographic trends began to shift sharply away from the city. Newly prosperous whites and eventually blacks pursued the American dream out to the suburbs. The urban industrial base left too.
FOR Republicans, cities now became object lessons on the shortcomings of activist government and the welfare state — sinkholes of crime and social dysfunction, where Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” cavorted in their Cadillacs. The very idea of the city seemed to be a thing of the past, an archaic concept — so much so that Gerald R. Ford seriously considered letting New York go bankrupt in 1975.
This probably cost Ford the 1976 election — much as Mr. Romney’s opposition to “saving Detroit” may yet cost him this one, thanks to all the votes of auto-parts workers he stands to sacrifice in Ohio. Tragically, once-great cities like St. Louis or Newark never fully recovered from postwar deindustrialization. But urban living was far from dead. Instead, the American economy began to reinvent itself in cities, as they became cleaner, greener, safer, more prosperous, more fun. As the demographic wheel turned again, both new immigrants and a generation of Americans born and raised in the ’burbs moved back in.
Today, four-fifths of the population lives in an urban area — the highest percentage in our history. Although the country remains largely suburban, one in 12 Americans lives in a city of over a million people. More than ever, they are stakeholders, owning where previous generations rented, creating their own jobs and opportunities. Traditional liberal bastions like the Upper West Side of Manhattan are now filled with the owners of co-ops and condominiums worth hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Over 140,000 New Yorkers in all — or nearly 4 percent of the labor force — work out of their homes. The percentages are even higher in Los Angeles and Chicago. Most of these individuals are skilled, highly educated “job creators” for themselves and others — the very demographic that Republicans claim to want to attract.
The High Line park.
Some have managed it. The Upper West Side voted for the re-election of both the businessman Michael R. Bloomberg and the former prosecutor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Over the past 25 years, cities like Indianapolis, San Diego and even Los Angeles have elected — and re-elected — Republican mayors.
Yet the national Republican Party still can’t get seem to get past its animus toward the very idea of urban life. The only place that Amtrak turns a profit is the Northeast corridor — yet all Republicans can think to do is privatize it, along with the local rail lines on which millions of Americans have been commuting into cities to work for as long as a century and a half. Republicans promise to ban same-sex marriage, make it easier for anyone to get a gun, delegitimize and destroy what they mockingly call “public employees’ unions,” and deport the immigrant workers performing so many thankless but vital tasks.
In short, they promise to rip and tear at the immensely complex fabric of city life while sneering at the entire “urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” There is a terrible arrogance here that has ramifications well beyond the Republicans’ electoral prospects.
There wasn’t so much as a mention of cities in the debate on domestic issues the presidential candidates had last week. Nor did the Democrats have much to say about cities at their convention in Charlotte, N.C. They didn’t have to. Politically, Democrats don’t have to say anything about the urban experience; they embody it. But in too many cities this allows them to keep running corrupt and mediocre candidates.
Mr. Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg — both Democrats turned Republicans — saw their opportunity in displacing these tired party satraps. Between them, they embraced exactly the sort of “Chinese menu” variety of policy choices that Americans say they prefer. Between them, they backed tough law-enforcement tactics and strict gun laws, supported gay rights and major real-estate developments, opposed smoking in bars and a “living wage.”
Other Republican mayors have scored similar successes around the country. Susan Golding, the second woman and first Jewish mayor of San Diego, was a pro-gay-rights, pro-affirmative-action executive who also built that city’s first homeless shelter — and cracked down on crime while creating “one-stop shopping” for new businesses seeking permits.
The dynasty of Republican mayors begun by Richard G. Lugar in Indianapolis had a prophetic champion in the Buffalo congressman Jack F. Kemp, who tried hard to provide Republicans with a potential urban agenda when he was secretary of housing and urban development under the first President Bush. Mr. Kemp insisted that the party denounce racism and pioneered urban “enterprise zones” — there are over 800 of them today — and even tried to extend the idea of the urban stakeholder movement to the residents of public housing projects by allowing them to buy their own homes.
“This is my way of redeeming my existence on earth,” Mr. Kemp once told a group of reporters. “I wasn’t there with Rosa Parks or Dr. King or John Lewis, but I am here now, and I am going to yell from the rooftops about what we need to do.”
THE potential for change, should Republicans start shouting from the rooftops about cities, is enormous. Constituencies change parties — and in America, parties change constituents, opening them up to the concerns of others, because of the need to form broad, national coalitions. A Republican Party seeking to actively win cities, not just vilify them or suppress their vote, could open the party up to all sorts of new immigrant voters, like Asian and Latino Americans — and maybe even bring back part of an old voting bloc: black people.
At a moment when Republican Party’s “dog whistles” are more racially pitched than ever, this may sound crazy. Yet one got the impression this election season, for instance, that Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, would like some new place to turn. Mayor Booker has battled valiantly against the sclerotic, black political establishment in his own city as well as outside white indifference. A Mayor Booker who had someplace to go besides the Democratic Party with his city’s votes would be immediately empowered as never before.
Republicans in turn could show on a very human level that they are more than the mere radio ranters who constitute so much of what urban voters get to hear of the right wing. They would have to vie for votes in a manner that reflects urban realities instead of fantastical theories. Imagine a serious, practical discussion of educational reform or mass transit, instead of more heavy-handed attempts to demonize teachers’ unions or privatize the rails.
The prospects for any such change don’t seem high right now. But that may change, too, out of necessity. The Republican refusal to contest the cities has left them in a permanently defensive stance in national campaigns. This can’t continue. The courts have already struck down many voter suppression laws, and the party’s 2008 presidential results read like an actuarial table, with Republicans increasing their percentage of the vote mainly in aging districts that are losing population. In the meantime, as urban areas continue to grow, they become more and more intertwined with what were once distant suburbs, making “urban” issues all the more pertinent to everyone.
The old antagonisms between cities and suburbs will give way to cooperation over everything from where to build the next airport to how to combine municipal services to how to spread the wealth cities generate. And for that matter, over half of all minorities in metropolitan areas — including African-Americans — do not live in the inner city but in surrounding suburbs.
Republicans may not want to go to the cities. But that doesn’t much matter. The cities are coming to them.