Argument: individualistic political arguments don’t work in cities since they require contributing to the “public good”

After looking at the Democratic vote advantage in cities for the 2012 election, here is an argument about why individualistic political arguments don’t work in cities:

If Republicans are ever going to earn real votes in cities in the future, though, they’ll have to do more than just talk about them differently. The real problem seeps much deeper. As the Republican Party has moved further to the right, it has increasingly become the party of fierce individualism, of “I built that” and you take care of yourself. Cities, on the other hand, are fundamentally about the shared commons. If you live in a city and you think government – and other people – should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighborhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no back yard?

In a good piece on the GOP’s problem with geography earlier this week, The New Republic’s Lydia DePillis interviewed Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, who made this point succinctly: “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good,” he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially.”

The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of “public good,” and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher (in jobs created through transportation spending, in the number of citizens touched by public expenditures, in patents per capita, in the sheer share of economic growth driven by our metropolises).

Density makes all of these things possible, and it requires its own kind of politics. There’s no reason why the Democratic Party should have an exclusive lock on this idea. Investing government money efficiently – as Republicans want to do – is also about focusing on how it’s spent in cities. While Republicans are mulling this over in the next four years, it may help to look at Howard’s map. What is going on in those dark blue dots? What does it mean to live in those places – and to live there and hear from politicians that “government should get out of the way?”

This reminds me of some of the observations of early sociologists about the transition from more rural village and farm life to urban life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cities aren’t just different because there are more people who are living and working closer together; this changes the social interactions (think of Simmel’s talk of the blase attitude in cities) as well as the social interdependence (think of Durkheim’s discussion of the division of labor).

One way Republicans could positively argue about cities: along with their surrounding metropolitan regions, cities are economic engines. A thriving economy needs thriving firms in these regions that encourage innovation, provide jobs, and interact with and operate in nearby communities.

Are there cities that are more individualistic than others? Can you have a global city that has a more individualistic ethos?

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