How Republicans became the party against cities

After noting Republicans barely mentioned the word “city” at the Republican National Convention, the rest of a review piece in the New York Times looks at how Republicans became anti-urban:

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…

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…

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.

Fascinating.  A sociologist adds an addendum through a letter to the editor several days later:

While I agree with much of Kevin Baker’s article, his statement that in the postwar years “newly prosperous whites and eventually blacks pursued the American dream out to the suburbs” suggests that postwar urban America became the bastion of the poor and minorities.

Mostly true. But in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, many members of the black middle class continue to live in proximity to their poor and working-class counterparts.

Indeed, in the postwar and post-civil-rights era, blacks have been inheriting urban America, hence the rise of black mayors and other elected officials across all levels of government. Mr. Baker’s analysis of the concerted turn away from urban America by the G.O.P. reveals that a major consequence of this strategy is not just a forsaking of cities but also the alienation of a large swath of poor, working-class and minority voters.

This has all led to the situation today where both parties try to cater to middle-class suburbanites as more exurban and rural voters are in the Republican camp and more urban dwellers are in the Democratic camp.

I have three other ideas about this:

1. Republicans have shifted over the years toward protecting “traditional” American life which sounds often like it can best be lived out in small towns. While the country may still hold on to some small town values (think of President Obama’s talk about Wall Street versus Main Street), the era of Main Street, even in suburbs and towns that have real Main Streets as opposed to the shopping mall kinds (see here and here), is over.

2. This is a bit odd considering that cities and metropolitan regions are massive economic engines. Aren’t Republicans for markets and a growing economy? Most of this is not happening in rural areas but rather in cities.

3. Tied to #2, suburbs are in part made possible by cities. On one hand, suburbs are more independent than ever before but they are still tied to cities for things like major cultural institutions, major financial institutions, airports and other transportation facilities, and sports teams. Additionally, we should be thinking more about metropolitan regions anyway rather than cities versus suburbs

Overall, we aren’t going back to a United States that is primarily small town or rural. The percent of Americans living in non-metropolitan areas in 1910 was 71.6% while over 80% of American live in metropolitan areas today – a complete switch. The population density of the country tripled from 25.7 to 79.6 people per square mile between 1900 and 2000. The United States of today is an urban nation – and both Republicans and Democrats have to adapt to this.

3 thoughts on “How Republicans became the party against cities

  1. There are a number of urban demographics that Republicans simply won’t win, but there’s one that they should: urban professionals. The two see eye-to-eye on many issues, from school reform to service privatization to policing. But they still lose this demographic because, alas, appealing to voters isn’t always about policy. It’s about party branding, particularly for social issues. And for decades, the GOP has branded itself as the party of God, family, and country, making it anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-immigrant. That appeals to Middle-America, but not to urban professionals who pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism. To them, the GOP is still the party of Bible-beating rubes like Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. Until the party realizes the flaw of this approach, it’ll keep losing cities. To read more, visit my blog:


  2. Pingback: Ronald Reagan lived in Chicago; conservatives for cities? | Legally Sociable

  3. Pingback: Cities and societies always at risk of declining? | Legally Sociable

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