The Suburbs May Not Be As Progressive As Democrats Would Like — But They Could Be

If Orange County voters can get fired up about Elizabeth Warren protégé Katie Porter, that’s good news for progressives. Photo: Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images/Digital First Media via Getty Im

On Election Day socially liberal, suburban voters helped Democrats win back the U.S. House of Representatives — and that could complicate efforts to shift the party to the left, New York Times posited on Monday:

Election outcomes in America have become increasingly correlated with population density, a pattern that also appears in other industrialized countries. Rural areas are now reliably Republican, urban areas overwhelmingly Democratic. The suburbs are lodged in between, with many economically conservative but socially liberal voters who have a foot in each party — or for whom neither party is a perfect fit.

“There is this idea that if all these suburban areas are blue, that will mean they’re automatically more progressive,” historian Lily Geismer told the paper, noting that while these voters may support progressive candidates, they also show “commitments to a lot of kinds of inequality.”

Geismer’s skepticism isn’t entirely unwarranted. Orange County may look blue right now, but as the Times notes, California voters also rejected Proposition 10, a rent-control measure backed by a coalition of progressive grassroots organizations and unions, like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the California Teachers Association. A successful opposition campaign persuaded voters that rent control would, in the words of one ad, “take rental housing off the market, reduce construction of affordable and middle-class housing when we need it most and make it harder to find a place to live.” It’s hard to imagine an ad better suited to play on the most deeply held fears of suburban homeowners. Similarly, Colorado voters elected a Democratic trifecta the same day they rejected a ballot initiative that would have increased taxes on incomes over $150,000 a year to provide new funding for public schools.

For some suburban voters, Democratic candidates were clearly more palatable than progressive policies. It’s reasonable to ask whether suburban victories in the 2018 midterms will ultimately backfire for Democrats. But there is no singular answer, partly because the party itself is so fragmented. Fiscally conservative Democrats won’t be dismayed by the possibility that suburban voters will vote against increasing taxes to fund expansive welfare programs. But left-wing Democrats may need to reckon with the possibility that a suburban bloc will oppose some of their initiatives.

The party’s left flank may face significant obstacles in the suburbs, but evidence suggests that these problems are not insurmountable. First, suburban voters aren’t totally responsible for the Democratic Party’s midterm success. Democrat Jared Golden flipped Maine’s heavily rural Second Congressional District with a platform that included Medicare for All. In other districts with significant rural populations, Democrats like Richard Ojeda lost while improving on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance. Leftward movement is not limited to neighborhoods with Panera Breads, and the party need not pin its hopes entirely to suburban voters.

Plus, even within suburbs, political commitments are more complicated than they may initially seem. If the Democratic candidates who flipped suburban districts were all fiscal conservatives, perhaps someone could reasonably argue that suburban voters are categorically opposed to more progressive economic policies. But that’s not the case. Democrat Katie Porter, who flipped a seat in Orange County, is a protégé of progressive stalwart Elizabeth Warren. And while it’s true that the election of a Democratic representative does not prove by itself that a suburban congressional district will embrace a full range of progressive economic and social-welfare policies, it is important to remember that suburbs are not monolithic places. “Suburban” is not a stand-in for “white middle class,” as Jack Metzgar recently argued in a post at Working-Class Perspectives. “An important political shift is happening in suburbs, where half of all voters live,” Metzgar wrote, “but it is only one part of what generated the blue wave, and these suburbs are much more diverse and complicated places than the punditry allows.”

In fact, suburbs are diversifying, as Brookings Institute demographer William Frey has noted, and living in a suburb doesn’t protect an individual from the effects of certain inequalities. A 2016 study by the Penn Institute for Urban Research found that “declines in homeownership have occurred in both cities and suburbs at the same magnitude.” Rents, meanwhile, have increased in suburbs, just as they’ve increased in urban centers. As explained by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a 2017 study by Zillow Research found that “suburban rents increased 2.5 percent while urban rents increased 2.3 percent,” a trend that can be linked in part to the lingering consequences of the foreclosure crisis. Rising rents are themselves symptoms of another, underlying trend. Poverty, too, has increased in suburbs at speeds that outpace those documented in cities, a problem that spawns a cascade of burdens. The specters of medical bankruptcy, student debt, and unaffordable child care all trouble suburban households. Suburban inequalities afflict white working-class voters and non-white working-class voters alike, albeit not to the same degree. As tends to be the case, these burdens are borne disproportionately by people of color.

The interests of suburban voters are not universally opposed to the interests of the urban poor, or of the rural poor. If the party’s base does shift to the suburbs, left-wing Democrats won’t necessarily have a policy problem. Low- to middle-income suburbanites don’t really have material reasons to oppose a child allowance, for example, or really any policy that increases taxes on wealthier voters. Rather, the party’s left flank has a messaging problem. They must convince white suburbanites that they have interests in common with their non-white neighbors, and not the one percent — that the precarity they fear is real, and that the prosperity they desire has been hoarded by the wealthy enclaves they aspire to enter. That political task did not spring fully formed from the aftermath of the midterms. A suburban base won’t create new problems for progressives as much as it will reinforce old challenges.

The Suburbs May Not Be Very Progressive — But They Could Be