Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Livin' for the Cities
One of my big frustrations as an urban-based policy analyst is that both political parties have all but neglected issues that affect cities in running their national campaigns. Right after the Republican Convention was staged here in NYC, I wrote on the Center for an Urban Future blog that neither party platform nor either candidate's website had anything of substance on urban affairs. This doesn't seem likely to change in the near future; the Republicans won the election without doing well in any city of size, and the Democrats continue to chase the Republicans to the right, apparently convinced that the key to an electoral majority is further genuflection at the altar of "heartland values."

Sites like this one question how worthwhile those values are in an objective sense, but politically maybe it's time for a counterintuitive shift to embracing the cities, rather than shying away from them in apparent embarrassment. Salon.com today raises the question of a Democratic embrace of states' rights, noting correctly that "...it's liberal enclaves that feel threatened by the federal government, and who will likely need to muster states' rights arguments to protect themselves from Bush's domestic policies."

Considering the well-documented (at least in the blogosphere) phenomenon of "Blue states" subsidizing "Red states" with federal tax dollars, this seems fair to me. Some argue that this atomization of the country should be taken even further, as the Seattle-based publication The Stranger calls for the "United Cities of America" to turn inward and essentially build a country within a country:

It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion--New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on. And we live on islands in red states too--a fact obscured by that state-by-state map. Denver and Boulder are our islands in Colorado; Austin is our island in Texas; Las Vegas is our island in Nevada; Miami and Fort Lauderdale are our islands in Florida. Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country.
If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that's as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents. John Kerry won among the highly educated, Jews, young people, gays and lesbians, and non-whites. What do all these groups have in common? They choose to live in cities.

...Democrats need to pursue policies that encourage urban growth (mass transit, affordable housing, city services), and Democrats need to openly and aggressively champion urban values. By focusing on the cities the Dems can create a tribal identity to combat the white, Christian, rural, and suburban identity that the Republicans have cornered. And it's sitting right there, on every electoral map, staring them in the face: The cities.

At the least, it's a pretty interesting argument. I can tell you from my own policy work that transit, housing and services are the issues, along with "quality of life" (a phrase that embraces transit, services, crime and cultural amenities) and sustaining a good business climate, that matter most to city-dwellers. Republicans are capable of doing some of this--but it seems pretty clear that Mike Bloomberg, Richard Riordan and Rudy Giuliani are fairly exceptional within the Republican Party. They all won by running away from their national party; I hope Bloomberg manages to do the same next year, though I fear that New York is going to be delivered into the hands of a clueless machine Democrat just out of voters' spite over the results this year.

What would a "politics of the cities" look like? The Stranger article offers some good thinking, mixed in with rhetoric that we'll chalk up to ongoing pique about the electoral outcome:

To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: Fuck off. Your issues are no longer our issues. We're going to battle our bleeding-heart instincts and ignore pangs of misplaced empathy. We will no longer concern ourselves with a health care crisis that disproportionately impacts rural areas. Instead we will work toward winning health care one blue state at a time.

When it comes to the environment, our new policy is this: Let the heartland live with the consequences of handing the national government to the rape-and-pillage party. The only time urbanists should concern themselves with the environment is when we are impacted--directly, not spiritually (the depressing awareness that there is no unspoiled wilderness out there doesn't count). Air pollution, for instance: We should be aggressive. If coal is to be burned, it has to be burned as cleanly as possible so as not to foul the air we all have to breathe...

...Liberals in big cities who have never seen the inside of a Wal-Mart spend a lot of time worrying about the impact Wal-Mart is having on the heartland. No more. We will do what we can to keep Wal-Mart out of our cities and, if at all possible, out of our states. We will pass laws mandating a living wage for full-time work, upping the minimum wage for part-time work, and requiring large corporations to either offer health benefits or pay into state- or city-run funds to provide health care for uninsured workers. That will reform Wal-Mart in our blue cities and states or, better yet, keep Wal-Mart out entirely. And when we see something on the front page of the national section of the New York Times about the damage Wal-Mart is doing to the heartland, we will turn the page. Wal-Mart is not an urban issue.

Neither is gun control. Our new position: We'll fight to keep guns off the streets of our cities, but the more guns lying around out there in the heartland, the better...

We won't demand that the federal government impose reasonable fuel-efficiency standards on all cars sold in the United States. We will, however, strive to pass state laws, as California has done, imposing fuel-efficiency standards on cars sold in our states.

This progressive "urban federalism" strikes me as a smart policy response to a federal government dependent upon tax revenues that originate in cities but somewhere between indifferent and outright hostile to city policy goals. The problem is that what would be good for urbanites would not be good for the Democratic Party; unless this urban agenda proved electorally compelling to folks living in those smaller municipalities of between 50,000 and 500,000 people too, such a strategy could never lead to an electoral majority. (One reason Bush won is because he did okay in the suburbs, and great in the "exurbs"--those regions that are largely economically dependent upon cities but are culturally much closer to rural America. As the above suggests, their issues ain't our issues.)

Personally, my loyalty is to the cities and what's best for people who live in them; the Democrats haven't done much for us aside from taking our money and racking up our votes. Any political party is a means to the end of good public policy, not an end in itself--something I wish the more thoughtful Republicans that remain such would keep closer in mind.

Zell Miller's manifesto for leaving the Democrats (in fact, if not in name) was titled A National Party No More. The crowning irony of this political year would be if new electoral realities, and the need to preserve something, led the party to actually embrace his formulation.

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