Conservatives Are Right to Write Off Big Cities

City to Conservatism: Drop Dead. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The modern conservative movement cherishes America’s cities — as generators of wealth for its patrons to hoard, and reservoirs of non-white criminality for its media outlets to decontextualize and demagogue.

It has less fondness for America’s urban centers as actual human societies; to the contemporary conservative, New York City is a nice place to vilify (and/or invest in), but you wouldn’t want to campaign there.

Donald Trump has spent much of his political career validating exurban conservatives’ most hallucinatory prejudices about “inner-city” life. In the mogul’s telling, America’s urban centers are “crime-infested” disaster areas where there are “no jobs,” no educational opportunities, “you get shot walking to store,” everything is perpetually on fire, and beleaguered white workers are constantly “rioting” against an imperial liberal elite that insists on helping MS-13 murder their daughters.

Meanwhile, in the telling of “normal” Republican politicians, people who chose to live in such Gomorrahs don’t necessarily deserve the franchise. Last week, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly argued that his legislative majority (which was elected by a minority of voters) had more political legitimacy than the incoming Democratic governor (who was elected by a plurality of them) because, “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority … We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.”

It might seem unwise for a national political movement to make “open contempt for all of the fastest-growing parts of the country” a pillar of its messaging. But the structural biases of America’s governing institutions — which grossly inflate the electoral clout of low-density areas — make the gambit politically viable for the medium-term future (with a healthy dose of voter suppression, anyway). And anyhow, there is simply no way for the conservative movement to reconcile its ideological commitments with substantially improving its electoral performance in urban centers.

Or so I (and, ostensibly, most GOP operatives) believe. The National Review’s Kevin Williamson begs to differ. In a column titled, “We’ll Always Have Fort Worth,” Williamson chastises his fellow reactionaries for assuming that the GOP’s electoral impotence in cities “indicates a problem with the cities rather than a problem with … us” — before clarifying that by “us” he means “conservatives who are less worldly and more nativist than I.” Specifically, Williamson suggests that if Republicans would only dial down the xenophobia — and turn up the paeans to free enterprise — they could paint Manhattan red:

Republicans do very well with people who drive an F-350 to work — and God bless them. Republicans — and, more important, conservatives — do not seem to have very much to say to people who take the subway to work. Which is a real missed opportunity: If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and work in Manhattan, then you get an object lesson in the failures of statism and centralization every damned work day — twice. If you live in Philadelphia and have school-age children, you don’t need to read Milton Friedman: You know from bitter experience what a blessing it is to be free to choose — and what a curse it is to have choices taken away.

…American conservatives have always been at their best when they speak to Americans’ aspirations. Alex P. Keaton — or, in the real world, William F. Buckley Jr. — never worried about being denounced as an “elitist.” Ambition for advancement, and the wealth and status that comes with it, was until five minutes ago part and parcel of American conservatism. That was the best message American conservatives ever had: “Being rich and happy is awesome! Here’s how you can do it, too.”

And there are still millions of Americans who want to advance and to enjoy the best things that American life has to offer, many (though by no means all) of which are to be found in the greatest abundance in American cities and in the cosmopolitan culture that America conservatives once took for granted as something of their own. What do we have to offer them? When is the last time we asked them what it is they like about Brooklyn and Austin? When is the last time we considered their personal and cultural aspirations with anything other than resentment, contempt, and outrage?

At a time when Republican officeholders are openly championing urban America’s disenfranchisement, these sentiments are mostly beneficent. But they’re also delusional.

Williamson offers few details about what he believes a politically viable “urban conservatism” might look like. But the substance of his vision can be gleaned from his past writings. Williamson’s brand of conservatism has always been rooted in a meritocratic misanthropy. The columnist managed to climb up America’s socioeconomic ladder, even as the class he hails from was tumbling down it. He credits American capitalism for his success — and thus, insists it played little role in his peers’ failures. As Williamson wrote in 2016, “the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.”

Much like Ronald Reagan, Williamson harbors contempt for the poor but no ill-will toward immigrants — who, by and large, appreciate the opportunities for self-betterment that American capitalism provides, and work hard to make good on them. Unlike Reagan, Williamson has little patience for anti-intellectualism, or right-wing populism of any kind; this is a man who once threw a philistine’s smartphone against the wall of a theater because her texting was detracting from his enjoyment of an “electro-pop opera” based on War and Peace.

Thus, it’s fairly clear what aspects of contemporary conservatism Williamson is prepared to dispense with, for the sake of winning metropolitan America’s hearts and minds — he could do without the xenophobia and demagogic hostility to cultural elites (i.e., the aspects of conservatism that actually have some mass appeal). And it’s equally clear which aspects of GOP orthodoxy Williamson considers non-negotiable: Given that he’s described Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for giving workers representation on corporate boards as “the wholesale expropriation of private enterprise in the United States” — and (infamously) championed the death penalty for women who abort their pregnancies — it seems safe to say that he isn’t suggesting conservatives make peace with the New Deal and sexual revolution.

Which means that he isn’t suggesting a remotely viable strategy for building conservative power in America’s big cities.

Williamson is correct that many New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the quality of public transportation in their city. But to say, “Brooklynites are sick of subway delays, ergo they’re natural supporters of the Republican economic agenda” is a bit like saying, “Comcast subscribers are sick of service outages, therefore, they’d love it if you smashed their television screens, and then force-fed them shards of glass.” The problem with the New York City subway is not that it is centrally operated, and state controlled. Most of the world’s highest-performing metro systems are monopolies that are (at least partially) owned and operated by the state. The MTA’s shortcomings can be more plausibly attributed to Republican opposition to federal funding for mass transit than its status as a public benefit corporation.

Granted, one could argue (as New York’s Josh Barro has) that the MTA’s main problem is its extraordinary construction costs, which are themselves the product of overly powerful labor unions. But in the United States, insisting on the necessity of increasing investment in public goods — while promising to deliver higher returns on those investments, by taking on organized labor — is the vocation of moderate Democrats, not conservatives, who oppose increasing investment in just about all public goods that can’t be used to kill people overseas. (Somewhat similarly, its generally technocratic liberals who advocate for increasing housing affordability by relaxing existing zoning laws, not conservative activists.)

Williamson’s jab at the quality of urban public schools is even more of a non sequitur. The conservative movement’s leading lights have spent the past decade pushing cuts to public education so steep, they forced many red-state school systems to adopt four-day weeks — and inspired many red-state teachers to go on strike. Meanwhile, in Congress, Paul Ryan has been trying his darndest to cut federal funding for education by roughly $150 billion. If you live in Philadelphia, and send your kids to an underperforming public school, you (almost certainly) don’t need to read The Upshot to know you’d benefit from an increase in federal funding for education; nor, for that matter, would such a parent typically need to read Ta-Nehisi Coates to think “structural racism” a genuine problem (rather than a big lie propagated to ensure “full-time jobs for graduates of grievance-studies programs,” as Williamson has suggested).

The fundamental problem with Williamson’s proposition is that there is no mass constituency for his ideological commitments anywhere in the United States — let alone, the rest of the developed world. In democracies with less archaic and anti-majoritarian constitutions than our own, conservative parties do not share the GOP’s maniacal hostility to social welfare spending, or its fanatical commitment to the upward redistribution of economic resources — because virtually no voters, rural or urban, believe that poor people should die preventable deaths so that rich people can write off the costs of their private jets. The U.K.’s Tory prime minister, Theresa May, recently called for £2 billion in new funding for public housing, while lamenting “the stigma that still clings” to such accommodations. Meanwhile, Canada’s conservatives proudly support single-payer health care, boasting earlier this year that, under Stephen Harper’s leadership, the party “increased funding for health care to record levels,” and promising that if Canadians return the right wing to power, it will “continue to increase funding for health care at 6 per cent a year to ensure that all Canadians have access to high-quality health care regardless of ability to pay.”

By contrast, America’s ruling conservative government has attempted to slash funding for public housinggut federal health-care spending (from a baseline that leaves more than 40 million Americans without any form of health insurance, and in the middle of an official “public health emergency”), and provide trillions of dollars in tax breaks to an economic elite that was already claiming a far higher share of after-tax income than their peers in Western Europe.

The Republicans’ aberrant ability to advance an unabashedly plutocratic economic agenda, while still winning elections, may be partially attributable to America’s exceptional individualism. But it is nevertheless (almost certainly) dependent on our country’s abysmally low voter turnout rates; a two-party system that gives the Republicans a monopoly on cultural conservatism; and the potency of racial demagogy in a nation founded on white supremacy.

Which is to say: American conservatism’s electoral viability rests on the anti-democratic features of our political system, combined with the resilient strength of our nation’s cultural traditionalism, racial animosities, and vestigial distrust for centralized authority.

Unfortunately for conservatives, those last three enabling factors are inherently less operative in big cities. That peculiarly American, anti-statist ethos that imagines churches and families as adequate stand-ins for the welfare state — and government regulation as inherently dubious — has long been anachronistic, even in rural America. But to the residents of major urban centers, the frontier ideology of “rugged individualism” is manifestly absurd. Millions of people can’t efficiently move about a 23-square-mile island without heavily regulated, centralized systems of public transit. Nor can human beings feel safe in the company of so many strangers, unless the state aggressively restricts the prevalence of deadly weapons. And since a significant portion of any city’s population consists of transplants seeking opportunity far from their hometowns, the idea that social welfare should be provided networks of kinship, rather than public programs, has little purchase in high-density zip codes. There is a reason why there were “sewer socialists” in Milwaukee before the 19th century even ended (and social democracy in New York City, before Ford let it drop dead): The logic of urban life bends toward collectivism.

Further, metropolitan areas have always been less hospitable to cultural conservatism than rural ones. In most urban environments, a modicum of tolerance for cultural pluralism is less of an abstract value, than a prerequisite for comfortably navigating social life. Without question, there is no shortage of racial and ethnic tensions in American cities. And reactionary, racial politics have often prevailed in urban centers (particularly, in eras with higher crime rates than our own), while just about every municipal government in the United States is implicated in an indefensible level of de-facto segregation, and discriminatory policing. Nevertheless, it is the case that, in the aggregate, urban whites tend to have an easier time identifying with their non-white compatriots than rural ones do. And mass opposition to redistributive programs is much harder to sustain in presence of cross-racial solidarity.

Finally, since time immemorial, sexual mores dictated by familial and religious authorities have proven less compelling in such economically dynamic, pluralistic environments than in small-town, U.S.A. In America’s cities — where women are far more likely to be unmarried than in rural areas — Williamson’s authoritarian attitudes toward reproductive rights makes his libertarian economic vision less politically palatable, not more so.

In sum, Williamson is right to insist that conservatives respond to their movement’s eviction from America’s cities by asking what they can do to win over urban voters (instead of how to disenfranchise them). But he’s wrong to presume that the answers to that question would he compatible with his worldview. If there were a brand of cosmopolitan “conservatism” capable of winning power in urban America, Kevin Williamson wouldn’t want anything to do with it. And, more importantly, neither would the conservative lawmakers who are trying to nullify the votes of Madison and Milwaukee.

Conservatives Are Right to Write Off Big Cities