The Progressives’ War on SuburbiaPosted: November 18, 2014
Joel Kotkin writes: You are a political party, and you want to secure the electoral majority. But what happens, as is occurring to the Democrats, when the damned electorate that just won’t live the way—in dense cities and apartments—that you have deemed is best for them?
This gap between party ideology and demographic reality has led to a disconnect that not only devastated the Democrats this year, but could hurt them in the decades to come. University of Washington demographer Richard Morrill notes that the vast majority of the 153 million Americans who live in metropolitan areas with populations of more than 500,000 live in the lower-density suburban places Democrats think they should not. Only 60 million live in core cities.
Despite these realities, the Democratic Party under Barack Obama has increasingly allied itself with its relatively small core urban base. Simply put, the party cannot win—certainly not in off-year elections—if it doesn’t score well with suburbanites. Indeed, Democrats, as they retreat to their coastal redoubts, have become ever more aggressively anti-suburban, particularly in deep blue states such as California. “To minimize sprawl” has become a bedrock catchphrase of the core political ideology.
As will become even more obvious in the lame duck years, the political obsessions of the Obama Democrats largely mirror those of the cities: climate change, gay marriage, feminism, amnesty for the undocumented, and racial redress. These may sometimes be worthy causes, but they don’t address basic issues that effect suburbanites, such as stagnant middle class wages, poor roads, high housing prices, or underperforming schools. None of these concerns elicit much passion among the party’s true believers.
The miscalculation is deep-rooted, and has already cost the Democrats numerous House and Senate seats and at least two governorships. Nationwide, in areas as disparate as east Texas and Maine or Colorado and Maryland, suburban voters deserted the Democrats in droves. The Democrats held on mostly to those peripheral areas that are very wealthy—such as Marin County, California or some D.C. suburban counties—or have large minority populations, particularly African-American.
This is not surprising since the policies and predilections of President Obama and his team are based on a largely exaggerated urban mythology. Former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, for example, has declared the move to the suburbs is “over.” People are, he has claimed, “moving back into central cities and inner ring suburbs.” To help foster this trend, administration policies at HUD and other agencies have been designed to fulfill Donahue’s vision of getting Americans out of their suburban homes and cars and into apartments and trains. These policy initiatives include large “smart city” grants for dense development, restrictions on new building, the promotion of high-speed rail links that would supposedly reconcentrate economic activity in the urban core. The administration’s strong support for regional governments, and its attempts to force suburbs to diversify their populations (even though they are already where minorities increasingly move) are thinly disguised efforts to promote densification and put the squeeze on suburban growth.
Yet, as census data and electoral returns demonstrate, the demographic realities are nothing like what Donahue and the administration insist. The last decennial census showed, if anything, that suburban growth accounted for something close to 90 percent of all metropolitan population increases, a number considerably higher than in the ’90s. Although core cities…(read more)
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
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