Kotkin argues both political parties want to destroy single-family home suburbia

The single-family home may be the bedrock of the American suburbs and Joel Kotkin suggests both political parties ignore this at their own peril:

However much they might detest Trump , suburbanites are not likely to rally long-term to a party that seeks to wipe out their way of life. The assault on suburbia, both from the ultra-capitalist right and socialist-minded left, neglects the very reasons—space and privacy—people of all ethnicities move to suburbia. Just as Republicans can ignore the unintended consequences of ultra-free market policies, Democrats ignore the aspirations of their own voters.

More important still, the anti-single-family campaign undermines the foundation of our democracy. The essence of American civilization has been the pursuit of a better life for oneself and one’s family. Take away the ability to own one’s home and we are well on our road to a neo-feudal society where the masses will need to rely on the state not only for housing but, without meaningful assets, to finance their retirement.

The clamor to restrict single-family homes and thus push the American dream further out of many Americans’ reach, represents an assault on what both parties once espoused. An America without widespread homeownership is no longer an aspirational country, but a place where people remain imprisoned by their class and unable to pursue what they perceive as a better quality of life.

Kotkin’s argument seems to go like this:

  1. The suburbs are the way they are because the American people wanted to live in suburbia. Both political parties supported this mission for much of the 20th century through monies and programs.
  2. Unless Democrats and Republicans cater to suburban voters, they will have a difficult future as political parties.

But, this seems to assume that this suburban way of life based around a home and emphasis on family will always continue this way. To some degree, Americans did desire land and privacy from the beginning yet the suburban experience was really made available to the masses first around the turn of the twentieth century and then even more so after World War II. Younger or future Americans could decide they would prefer cities and denser areas or even rural areas and the political parties could help lead them in that direction.

All that to say, I think Kotkin is right in that a majority of Americans continue to profess interest in living in suburbia. At the same time, this could change in the future and one or both of the political parties could start leading in that direction. Not all Americans want to be suburbanites so there is political room to suggest alternatives.

Nixon’s liberal economic policies and other reminders that the major political parties can change

Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.

Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.

Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)

And an earlier example:

Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)

It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.

Should Trump promote a third wave of American suburbanization?

Walter Russell Mead suggests Donald Trump could help usher in a new wave of suburbanization:

What President-elect Trump has the opportunity to do now is to launch a third great wave of suburbanization, one that can revive the American Dream for the Millennial generation, produce jobs and wealth that can power the American economy, and take advantage of changing technology to create a new wave of optimism and dynamism in American life.

There’s a confluence of trends that make this possible. In the first place, the Millennials, like the Boomers, are a large generation that needs both jobs and affordable homes. Second, the shale revolution means that energy in the United States will likely be relatively abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future. Third, both financial markets and the real economy have recovered from the shock of the financial crisis, and, whatever hiccups and upsets may come their way, are now ready for sustained expansion. Fourth, revolutions in technology (self-driving cars and the internet) make it possible for people to build a third ring of suburbs even farther out from the central cities, where land prices are still low and houses can be affordably built.

For national politicians, this is a huge opportunity. Creating the infrastructure for the third suburban wave—new highways, ring roads and the rest of it for another suburban expansion—will create enormous numbers of jobs. The opportunity for cheap housing in leafy places will allow millions of young people to get a piece of the American Dream. Funding the construction of this infrastructure and these homes gives Wall Street an opportunity to make a lot of money in ways that don’t drive the rest of the country crazy.

This approach meshes very well both with the President-elect’s economic instincts and with the economic interests of the people who voted for him. It also works for the Republican dominated states around the country. It capitalizes on one of America’s distinctive advantages: less densely-populated than other advanced countries, the United States has the elbow room for a new suburban wave.

There are all sorts of fascinating things going on with this argument. Let’s just pick out a few.

To start, this argument suggests Eisenhower and Reagan were great because they helped make the suburbs happen. How much did they do in this regard? By the early 1950s, suburbanization was well underway with a postwar housing shortage and lots of developers and local officials interested in building out. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 certainly helped the process and is often credited for helping urban residents flee cities (even though highways were already under construction in many places). This is a good example of presidents getting credit for things that don’t have much direct control over.

Second, this equates Republicans with suburbs. There are certainly patterns here: suburbanites have tended to vote Republican for a long time (particularly the further out one gets) and both Republicans and Democrats have argued more sprawl leads to more Republicans. At the same time, not every conservative loves suburbs nor does every Democrat love cities. If you had to summarize Republicanism since World War II, would suburbs come to mind or other things?

Third, it sounds like this argument is in favor of government spending to promote a certain way of life. In other words, the federal government should subsidize more suburban growth because it helps generate jobs and housing. While this may fit older images of moderate Republicans (Eisenhower was one, Reagan not so much), it doesn’t fit well with more libertarian/small government Republicans. Why should the government promote certain ways of life?

To conclude, it is clear that all of this requires an optimistic view of suburban life. It is the fulfillment of the American Dream. This is a common American image. Does it match all of reality? Are the suburbs open to all? Would the new spending even further from cities open new opportunities for non-whites, immigrants, and the lower class (who are increasingly in the suburbs) or would it allow whiter, wealthier residents to flee even further from urban problems? What are the environmental costs of another ring of suburbia? What does it do to civic life to continue to promote automobile driven culture (even if those self-driving cars are safer and more environmentally friendly)? These are not easy questions to answer even if many Americans would enjoy a third wave of suburbanization.

The biggest urban problem is that all the major American cities are run by Democrats?

American cities face a host of problems but one common claim from conservatives is that the biggest issue is that all of them are run by Democrats:

The rapid growth of urban areas, increased population density, and a massive influx of immigrants—accompanying the explosion of manufacturing and commerce during the Gilded Age—hastened the rise of municipal political machines (such as Tammany Hall in New York City), official corruption, labor unrest, and the demographic diversity that continues to this day. Even though Americans’ standard of living generally improved during industrialization (people moved to the cities for a reason), the Progressive movement was in significant part a response to America’s nascent urban problems.

Progressivism is a legacy that endures, as we know, and for good or ill, urbanization has profoundly affected the American experience. Members of ethnic minorities disproportionately reside in U.S. cities, and their local governments are disproportionately (in fact more or less exclusively) in the hands of the Democratic Party. Cities expend substantial taxpayer resources to try to address poverty, crime, air pollution, congestion, substandard housing, homelessness, and the education of non-English speaking students, all of which are not as prevalent in suburban and rural areas.

Cities tend to have large numbers of unionized public employees, high (and rising) taxes and debt (including unfunded pension liabilities), and intrusive regulations. For a variety of reasons, urban residents favor liberal policies—and elect liberals to office—to a greater degree than suburban and rural voters. Some major American cities, such as Detroit, have become dysfunctional fiefdoms, forced into bankruptcy…

Cities present different challenges than they did a century ago, but the current problems are no less dire. Costly and ineffective public education systems, massively under-funded public employee pension plans, law-enforcement failures, high taxes, and uncontrolled spending imperil the security and solvency of America’s cities. Unless these problems are promptly addressed by responsible state reforms, more urban residents will face the tragic plight of Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Bernardino.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It would be interesting to see a recent example where more conservative policies helped a large city. Perhaps it is simply hard to find a case from today with most big cities having Democrat mayors. Is the historical record kinder? I recently read about “Big Bill” Thompson who was the last Republican mayor of Chicago, leaving office in 1931. He had all sorts of problems and Wikipedia sums up: “He ranks among the most unethical mayors in American history.” Maybe we could look to Rudy Giuliani in New York City who is often credited for helping reduce crime in the city (due to applying broken windows theory) and for strong leadership after the September 11th attacks. But, some of his legacy has been questioned as crime rates dropped in numerous other major cities and such policies may have come at a cost. All together, it is easy for one party to blame the other but why not have a discussion of exactly how Republicans have actually helped cities in recent years?
  2. Cities are complex places which is why they started drawing so much attention from social scientists and others in the 1800s. Having a change in political party of leadership won’t automatically solve issues: how do we tackle neighborhoods that have now been poor for several generations? How about income inequality? Development and economic opportunities throughout big cities and not just in wealthy areas? The presence and activity of gangs? Providing affordable housing? Avoiding police brutality? Maintaining and upgrading critical infrastructure? Again, it is easy to blame one party but these are not easy issues to address – there is a level of complexity that would prove difficult for a mayor of any party.

When conservatives move to squash local control

Republicans are typically known as the party in favor of more powerful local governments. Yet, this may not be the case in places where local governments limits their quest to power:

The strange spectacle of Republicans trying to roll back local control makes a bit more sense in context. For years, Democrats mostly controlled both the statehouse and the governorship. But Republicans captured the legislature in 2010, and the governor’s mansion two years later. Ever since, they’ve been busily passing a series of very conservative measures, some of which I explained here. The rightward shift inspired a prolonged series of protests in Raleigh and other major cities called “Moral Mondays.”

The large demonstrations, combined with their general impotence to stop the legislature—internecine GOP struggles, and not public opposition, have generally killed the most controversial measures—illuminate what’s going on. Rural-urban divides are a fixture of American politics, and they’re a particularly powerful force in North Carolina right now. Its urban centers tend to be far more liberal, while the rest of the state is far more conservative. The liberals can gather large, impassioned crowds to rally against conservative moves, but they don’t have the numbers (so far) to elect a majority in the state legislature—especially after post-2010 redistricting that made the map more favorable for Republicans. (Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008 but lost it in 2012.)

Despairing of Raleigh, progressives have often pursued their priorities at the local level. That’s exactly what the state bill was intended to stop. When Congress does this to state and municipal governments, it’s known as preemption—it’s a bedrock constitutional principle that federal laws trump state laws. With a Democrat in the White House, though, there are limits to what the Republican Congress can pass. But the GOP has been gaining seats at the state level for years, and now controls most state legislatures. Cities often tilt left, even in very red states, but conservative state governments around the country have begun passing laws that preempt municipal legislation. Last year, for example, Matt Valentine chronicled how state governments are overturning much stricter gun laws passed by cities with preemption laws…

In other words, it’s a classic case for big-government uniformity. Faced with these bills, Democrats in turn tend to make a strikingly conservative argument: Local people know best, and they ought to have the right to make their own rules about how they live, as long as it isn’t negatively affecting their neighbors.

Local control is very important to many Americans, particularly if you have some means to get to a community where you can have a voice or be assured that local government generally agrees with what you want.

Let’s be honest: both parties today are willing to forgo some (most?) principles if it means that they can use their particular tool of power to get what they want. Opposed to executive power when your party is out of the presidency? Just argue your interests are too important when your party is in office. Control Congress while another branch isn’t doing what you want? Try to bypass their power and/or limit their abilities. This leads to a rhetorical question: how well can these levels of government or different branches work together to get things done if the primary goal is just to exert power?

 

2014 Democrats echo 2012 Republicans in arguing political polls are skewed

Apparently, this is a strategy common to both political parties: when the poll numbers aren’t in your favor on the national stage, argue that the numbers are flawed.

The [Democratic] party is stoking skepticism in the final stretch of the midterm campaign, providing a mirror image of conservative complaints in 2012 about “skewed” polls in the presidential race between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

Democrats who do not want their party faithful to lose hope — particularly in a midterm election that will be largely decided on voter turnout — are taking aim at the pollsters, arguing that they are underestimating the party’s chances in November.

At the center of the storm, just as he was in 2012, is Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com…

This year, Democrats have been upset with Silver’s predictions that Republicans are likely to retake the Senate. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) mocked Silver at a fundraising luncheon in Seattle that was also addressed by Vice President Biden, according to a White House pool report on Thursday.

“Pollsters and polling have sort of elbowed their way to the table in terms of coverage,” Berkovitz said. “Pollsters have become high profile: They are showing up on cable TV all the time.”

This phenomenon, in turn, has led to greatly increased media coverage of the differences between polling analyses. In recent days, a public spat played out between Silver and the Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang, which in turn elicited headlines such as The Daily Beast’s “Why is Nate Silver so afraid of Sam Wang?”

There are lots of good questions to ask about political polls, including looking at their sampling, the questions they ask, and how they make their projections. Yet, that doesn’t automatically mean that everything has been manipulated to lead to a certain outcome.

One way around this? Try to aggregate among various polls and projections. RealClearPolitics has a variety of polls in many races for the 2014 elections. Aggregation also helps get around the issue of celebrity where people like Nate Silver build careers on being right – until they are wrong.

At the most basic level, the argument about flawed polls is probably about turning out the base to vote. If some people won’t vote because they think their vote won’t overturn the majority, then you have to find ways to convince them that their vote still matters.

Examining the claim that “conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves”

The new report from Pew on political polarization reaffirms there is an urban/suburban divide in the electorate:

With disquieting predictability, 10,013 adults — respondents in the largest survey the Pew Research Center has ever conducted on political attitudes — answered according to their ideology. Seventy-seven percent of “consistently liberal” adults went with what sounded like the urban milieu: the dense neighborhood, the compact home, the “walkability.” Fully seventy-five percent of “consistently conservative” adults went with the polar opposite.

“It is an enduring stereotype – conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves – but one that is grounded in reality,” Pew concluded in the report released today.

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This is corroborated by other data: Democrats are centered in cities, Republicans in exurbs and more rural areas, and the parties fight over suburban votes.

Two interesting points from the tables above:

1. The first question describing more spread out areas versus cities is a double- or triple-barreled question that supposedly contrasts more suburban versus more urban areas. Maybe. Take the larger or smaller house part of the question. Plenty of wealthier urban residents own single-family homes or large condos or apartments – but these neighborhoods aren’t going to be as sprawling as many urban neighborhoods. But, even there, you would get some big differences between denser cities – the Northeast, Midwest, San Francisco – versus more sprawling city neighborhoods in places like Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and other Sunbelt locations.

2. In the second chart, the real difference between conservatives and liberals is not that they have different opinions about suburbs: that holds relatively steady at around 20%. The bigger differences are between preferring cities versus small towns or rural areas. I’ve seen enough other data about small towns on surveys to think that there is quite a bit of overlap between suburbs and small towns. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive categories. Even some rural areas might still be suburbs, depending on their location within a metropolitan region or their proximity from the big city.

All together then, the suggestion that it is suburban McMansions versus cities is a bit misleading. Adding the label McMansion gets the point across about larger houses but it also adds a pejorative element to the mix.