Perhaps the only way to turn scholarly attention to the suburbs is to focus on their politics

A long piece comparing the disparate fates of Parma and Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland, Ohio suggests it is politics that makes it worth examining suburbs:

We don’t spend much time thinking about the suburbs. That’s sort of the point — they’re purposely and pleasantly boring, a cul-de-sac monolith of culture. But the suburbs also form the worldviews of 175 million Americans. Whom you live next to, where your parents went to school, what store opens down the street — all these small things shape the politics of Americans before they even know what politics are.

In the past few years, the suburbs have also shown themselves to be the heart of the shifting politics of the nation. According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton lost the suburbs to Donald Trump in 2016, continuing a slump for Democrats — Obama lost the suburban vote in 2012 after nabbing it in 2008. But in the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats took back the House on the strength of their showing in suburban districts.

Lots of theories for the changing political proclivities of suburban Americans have been floated, and white Americans are front and center. (White people are the majority in 90 percent of America’s suburban counties.) Class has something to do with it. Over the past few years, college-educated white people have been increasingly more apt to vote for Democrats, while those without a college education skew Republican.

But what do we mean when we talk about “class” and politics?

Indeed, there is a growing body of research from political scientists and others as well as plenty of media interest (example I am quoted in here) on political changes in suburbia. The general pattern is this: Democrats tend to win in communities closer to the city, Republicans tend to win in the exurbs, and the two parties are now dueling over middle suburbs. While these are broad patterns, there can be communities within metropolitan areas that do not exactly fit the mold (as this article notes).

At the same time, I find it odd that this may be the only reason scholars and commentators may pay attention to the suburbs. If the majority of Americans live there (175 million residents, according to the number above), isn’t this enough reason to focus on them? Or, is everything today about counting votes and political races, to the exclusion of the other important factors in suburban life?

This analysis of two Cleveland suburbs also has the pieces for a more accurate and ultimately interesting look at these two communities. In discussions of social class along with race and community history, the article hints at how two suburbs can come to such unique outcomes in a particular election cycle. Think inertia plus community decisions and outside pressure. But, since the goal is to illustrate the issues Democrats face in the suburbs, we are not allowed to consider these suburbs in their own right. Instead, they serve as fleeting communities that are not worth considering more deeply except for their votes.

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