Keeping Donald Trump in front of impressionable suburban voters

Several November 2021 political races involve a consistent invocation of former president Donald Trump:

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The suburbs have always been competitive political territory, but they have taken on a different significance with urban and rural voters spinning further and further away from one another. Last December, a top Democratic operative laid out for me one way of thinking about the party’s future: Had Democrats just rented the suburbs under Trump, or do they own them? The suburbs’ highly educated, middle-class, family-oriented, moderate, predominantly white, and (in terms of actual swing votes) mostly women voters may be ready to stick with the Democratic Party for the long haul. But just in case, McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats are doing their best to make sure that the former president is still a part of this year’s elections.

The battle for suburban voters continues (most recent posts on the topic here and here).

A twist not mentioned in this article is that Trump had a particular vision for suburbia that he expressed multiple times in the summer of 2020. The particular current issues might be different or in a different form – COVID-19 has ongoing implications for suburbanites in year two of the pandemic, especially in places devoted to raising kids – but there are some underlying questions Trump raised: should suburbs be exclusive to particular groups? Should communities be free to exercise local control? The suburbs have changed in recent years and will likely to continue to change but what narratives will be told about this could still be up for grabs.

While Trump is the focus here, this seems to continue a pattern employed by both parties in recent years: tie local or state issues to who the parties think are disliked national figures. Democrats want to tie Republicans to Trump, Republicans want to tie Democrats to Nancy Pelosi. While these national figures might have some influence over more local contexts, there are also important local issues to consider.

Naperville: large suburb built through decades of suburban sprawl now wants to be a leader in sustainability

The Naperville City Council recently approved several plans from the report from a sustainability task force that made a number of recommendations:

Aerial view of Naperville, Illinois

Highlights include transitioning to clean and renewable energy, incentivizing energy efficiency, developing a plan for electric vehicle infrastructure, increasing public transportation use and recycling efforts, and focusing on the maintenance of natural resources.

Other objectives include a 4% annual reduction in waste, energy use and vehicle miles driven in conjunction with an increase in tree planting to help decrease greenhouse gases by 4% each year.

One of the recent steps taken by the city was hiring Ben Mjolsness as Naperville’s first sustainability coordinator. Mjolsness on Tuesday talked about the many options and incentives residents have with energy efficiency and recycling.

Councilman Patrick Kelly said he looked forward to showcasing Naperville as a front-runner in sustainability.

Many communities will be pursuing such plans in coming years. But, the particular context of Naperville is interesting to consider for multiple reasons:

  1. It is a large and wealthy suburb. It has the resources to pursue this.
  2. Naperville likes to be a leader among suburbs and this may help further this status in coming years.
  3. Sixty years ago or even forty years ago, Naperville was much smaller in population and had a smaller footprint in land use. Today, it has nearly 150,000 people and roughly 39 square miles of land with much of this involving single-family homes.

In one sense, the growth patterns that helped make the Naperville of today possible – explosive growth in the postwar era built around homes and driving – also make pursuing sustainability more difficult. Take the reducing the miles driven goal from above. Some residents of Naperville could do this but many are in subdivisions whose roads then feed to large arterial roads. This does not work as well for biking (and the weather in the area may not help). Additionally, the sprawl makes mass transit more difficult. In the past, Naperville has tried buses in the community but they do not get much use (even as the train stations are some of the busiest with commuters going toward Chicago). The best way for Naperville to achieve this goal may be to encourage local businesses to allow employees to work from home, thus limiting commuting needs.

Not mentioned in the news article above (it could be in the report) is the density of the community. One way to improve sustainability in the long run is to have denser housing, particularly near locations where other forms of transportation other than driving are possible. This could be in and around the downtown. It could be in different nodes around the community where there are jobs or where it would be possible to pursue transit-oriented development. As a bonus, denser housing might also provide more opportunities for affordable housing. Naperville has thought about these options in the past but they are not always popular given the single-family home character of the community.

As Naperville pursues sustainability, some actions will be relatively painless given what the community can do. Other conversations about long-term changes or how to address sprawl might take much longer for a consensus to emerge.

Losing friends when moving from the city to the suburbs

When people move from the city to the suburbs, do they lose their friends in the city? Here is one recent example from an advice column:

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Q. Not urban, not yet suburban: One of my best friends just informed me, after I called him out on avoiding me for weeks, that because I am moving from the city where we both live to suburbia, he is no longer “feeling the friendship” and wants to end it. The TL;DR is that he has an enormous fear of being abandoned, and I think proactively decided to abandon me so I couldn’t do it to him—except that I had no intention of abandoning him, and was caught completely off guard.

He is single; I’m married with a preschooler, who adores him, by the way, and will definitely notice the lack of his presence—and he talked about how now I could be a “suburban mom” and forget all about my city friends. He gaslit me, making it sound like I had told him I wouldn’t miss him, wouldn’t come visit the city ever again (I’m moving 20 miles and a direct train ride away; it’s hardly a hardship to come see friends!), and because he doesn’t have a car and can’t come see me, there was no point to staying friends at the same level we have been. I never said or even came close to any of this! I admit that I’ve been talking a lot about my move very positively—it really does feel like a fresh start to me, having a home and yard after living in 750 sq. ft. apartment for the pandemic with a toddler—but he claims I’m just too happy about leaving the city and he loves the city so much that we can’t be friends the same way.

I’m so angry at him right now that I can’t see past any of this to consider contacting him again, but to not contact him would mean that he’s right, I moved away and abandoned him. But…is this a friendship worth salvaging? And if so, how? This all feels like so much bull to me. We’re in our 40s, by the way!

A: I can very much imagine getting a letter here from a single man saying, “One of my best friends moved from the city to the suburbs and all she talks about is countertops and lawn care and finding a nanny and it’s so boring and I just don’t feel like we connect anymore and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” I would probably tell him to make an effort to talk about things that interest him, to give you a little space to be excited about your new life, to be deliberate about making plans together, and to hold off on declaring the friendship dead until trying these things.

But instead, he just cut you off. To me, that’s a sign of being a bit immature, selfish, and inflexible—and that he only valued you for the way you fit into his current life rather than who you are. If you don’t feel like contacting him, don’t—after all, he’s basically ended the friendship without your input. But maybe, like you said, this is just a tantrum over feeling abandoned. If once you get settled, you decide you’re still thinking about him and want to be the bigger person (and the person who rides the train to meet for dinner), tell him you miss him and offer to meet up somewhere convenient to him. If he accepts, you can feel out whether you enjoy the new iteration of your friendship and what it takes to maintain it. If he declines, you have your answer and you can live your suburban life in peace.

There are multiple factors at work here:

  1. Even in an era of social media, video calls, and the Internet, proximity matters for friendships and relationships. Being further away makes it more difficult to get together. Twenty miles from city to suburb is not insurmountable but it is not necessarily easy depending on transportation and traffic. People can often form relationships with neighbors, people at work, and others they see regularly at groups and places even as they have the option to date and meet people through apps.
  2. Suburban life is often focused on different things than urban life. The priorities can be different. Here is my list of why Americans love suburbs: single-family homes, family life and children, race and exclusion, middle-class utopia, cars and driving, local government and local control, and closer to nature. This leads to an everyday experience centered on private homes and family lives, driving, limited diversity and cultural opportunities compared to many cities, and distance from the big city. This could be contrasted with what residents of cities often say they value: being close to activity and cultural opportunities, more people around, less driving, and more diverse populations. Life in the suburbs and cities can look very different, though some of the things people like in each kind of place can be found in the other.
  3. Possibly losing a close friend is hard. Social media makes it possible to hang on to relationships for a long time without much interaction but that is not the same as regular, in-person interaction.
  4. Individual preferences and actions. The letter above speaks to a particular situation between two people even as it hints at broader patterns (#1-3 in the factors above).

Can city/suburbs relationships work? Yes. Does it have particular obstacles? Maybe. Do people like it when their friends move away? No.

“Soccer moms” replaced by “mad moms” in current California gubernatorial race?

According to one grassroots leader, the California gubernatorial recall election has been driven by “mad moms”:

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Now, as recall ballots are dropping in mailboxes, children are returning to school amid heated battles over mask mandates and skyrocketing cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Leaders of the effort to remove Newsom for office are confident that women, exasperated by the effect of Newsom’s policies on their children, are the reason they will prevail.

“It’s gas on the fire,” said Anne Hyde Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the main recall groups. “The whole time, it’s probably the single biggest ingredient in the campaign, in our success.”

Newsom “didn’t understand mad moms, which are the same as soccer moms,” Dunsmore said, referring to the pivotal group of suburban female voters. “Don’t piss off mommy.”

Newsom and his allies agree that these women are critical, but they point to polling that shows that well over a majority of the state’s women approve Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. If these women turn out, they will be a major factor in helping the governor retain his job.

Multiple recent election cycles have included efforts to sway suburban women. These two labels seem particularly aimed at suburban women, not all women in California or the United States. The two major political parties both think they can convince enough suburban women to care about their priority issues under the right conditions (examples here and here) and the suburbs are the spaces where elections are won or lost.

The shift from the “soccer moms” label that goes back decades to “mad moms” in mid-2021 could be worth examining further. In the label itself, soccer moms referred to driving kids to and from local practices. They cared about the future of their children and their communities. Mad moms suggests women are fed up with what is happening and/or what the future might hold for their families and communities. Especially in 2021, anger can be a powerful mobilizing force in politics.

Presumably, the mad moms are conservative women who want different political outcomes. For the women of California who disagree with their perspective, what is an apt moniker for the other side?

What explosive growth looks like, Austin and New Braunfels edition

It is not a coincidence to see two recent articles about effects of growth in Texas communities as this part of the country – and the Sun Belt more broadly – is growing fast. One is the story of a big city where housing is in high demand while the second is a small town that is now a booming suburb.

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First, thousands of Austin properties are going for far above list price:

Nearly 2,700 homes in the Texas capital have sold this year for $100,000 or more above their initial listing price, according to an analysis by Redfin Corp. that examined sales through Aug. 11. While a few other U.S. cities have had more properties sell at that premium to the asking price, none have experienced as big a percent rise in homes transacting at that lofty an increase, Redfin said…

The number of homes sold year-over-year for at least $100,000 over asking price has grown nearly 10-fold in Seattle, and fivefold in Oakland, according to Redfin. In Austin, that figure grew by 57 times the number for last year at this time.

The jump in these sales at six figures above the listed price shows how Austin, which has attracted young professionals for years, has become an even more competitive place to buy in recent months.

Second, the community of New Braunfels between San Antonio and Austin is going through growing pains:

Today, the cattle are gone, replaced with clusters of sleek apartments, gated communities and big-box stores. And New Braunfels, the third-fastest-growing city in America, tucked in one of the fastest-growing regions, finds itself at a crossroads…

A once quaint town known for its German roots and the Schlitterbahn water park, New Braunfels grew a whopping 56 percent over the last decade, adding about 32,500 residents…

Newer residents to New Braunfels have been drawn to the region for its affordable cost of living and by larger employers who have settled there, including several distribution centers and technology companies. Over the past decade, the median salary has jumped to $90,000 from $65,000 in Comal County, which includes much of New Braunfels, one of the highest averages in the state…

The community has also grown more noticeably diverse, with the presence of Latinos particularly evident on the city’s West Side. Residents flock to eateries like El Norteño for typical Mexican dishes, such as menudo, a spicy stew known colloquially as a hangover remedy. This week, a server took orders wearing a red T-shirt that read “Menudo Para La Cruda” or “Menudo For the Hangover.”

The emphasis on growth is a long-term pattern. When Census data is released, many like to highlight the fastest growing areas of the country. This can shine a spotlight on places that are changing but it also reinforces a consistent American narrative: growth is good for communities. Indeed, discussion of the opposite trend – losing population (or somehow not losing residents) – reinforces the notion that growth is good.

At the same time, focusing on population numbers is worth considering alongside what is happening to the character of communities with population growth or loss. These two articles highlight both phenomena. In Austin, what happens to a local housing market when so much competition drives up prices? At the least, this means some are priced out of the adjusted values, existing community members may see their property values rise, and builders, developers, and local officials respond to the changes. And the rising prices are often interpreted as a sign that Austin is a desirable place to live.

In New Braunfels, this is both a common American story – small town outside big city turns into a sprawling community in a relatively short time – and a story with particular traits as the community has a particular character. The German roots of the community now sit among a more diverse population. A quaint town is now much bigger and there is a lot of building activity. The businesses there for a long time are now joined by new ventures.

Even as population growth is usually viewed as a good thing, it comes with costs and changes. Few communities would reject growth just to avoid change but there can tension over how to respond to growth. Many cities and suburbs have struggled to match their existing character to changes and what the community will end up being once a construction boom and/or sprawling subdivision growth subsides.

Getting more suburban churches to develop affordable housing

As churches in cities develop affordable housing, how about more suburban churches doing the same? First, what some Atlanta churches are doing:

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The project is one of several in Atlanta where faith leaders are investing in affordable housing for the sake of their communities. Across the country, churches with property in prime locations are turning over one block, one building, one lot at a time through movements like “Yes in God’s Backyard” in California. Atlanta-area pastor Rev. David Lewicki discusses the calling of affordable housing as a ministry.

“We are increasingly convinced that affordable housing is the foundation of beloved community,” the Presbyterian minister wrote at Faith & Leadership. “Housing is a profound and even holy good.”…

Lewicki’s church got involved in lobbying for more inclusionary zoning policies to allow for lower-priced options in their area and began to create a land trust so they could get involved in addressing the legacy of racial and economic segregation in the city…

Affordable housing and community development can seem like just business ventures—which they are—but pastors know how much these issues directly affect their congregants and stem from biblical calls for community.

Here are a few compelling reasons why suburban churches should follow this course:

  1. Affordable housing is needed throughout metropolitan regions. For example, in the Chicago region, experts suggests there is a need for tens of thousands of units. And the need is not limited to Chicago or just specific communities; it is needed in many locations.
  2. Welcoming people goes beyond Sunday morning and indicating to people that they are wanted in the community all week round. It is one thing to be part of a church community; it is another to be fully welcomed into all of the community.
  3. Housing is critical in a suburban environment as it helps in access to jobs, schools, parks, and other amenities that lead to a higher quality of life. Plus, homeownership is highly valued in suburbs so if there are opportunities for congregations to provide affordable single-family homes, this helps attendees match suburban aspirations with reality.
  4. Suburban churches have funds and local power to make this happen. It takes money to buy, develop, and maintain properties. It takes expertise and influence to work with municipalities and concerned neighbors. Congregations are often viewed as assets in communities and they often have built up goodwill over the years.

While this may not be an easy task in many suburban locations as neighbors and communities resist providing housing for residents with fewer resources, religious congregations could help lead the way.

Walking to go somewhere or interact with people in contrast to walking suburban loops for exercise

Several months ago, I heard Andrew Peterson discuss “The Mystery of Making.” As he talked about places and suburbs, he mentioned something about walking: suburbanites walk in loops instead of having walks that go somewhere or involve interacting with people.

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As a suburbanite who walks both for exercise and in order to get to places, this is a thing. This could occur for multiple reasons:

  1. The design of suburbs limits walking options. Because of the emphasis on single-family homes and separating them from other uses, suburbanites may not be able to access many places as pedestrians. Can they get to schools, libraries, stores, workplaces?
  2. Perhaps suburbanites do not want to interact with many people. Suburbanites want to avoid conflict and interaction happens when people want it, not necessarily because of proximity or an orientation toward the community. Add headphones/earbuds/smartphones to this and pedestrians can be in their own waking cocoon.
  3. This sounds like a focus on walking as exercise as opposed to walking as a means to accomplish other worthwhile goals. Such a focus sounds like it would fit with American emphases on efficiency or productivity.
  4. If you really need to get somewhere, Americans often opt for a car, even when the route is walkable.

Having more walkable places would likely help here but it does not necessarily guarantee sociability or walking as transportation.

Ghost town, suburban O’Hare industrial property edition

Ghost towns in the American West are well-known. Recognized less frequently are suburban communities or neighborhoods that disappear. A neighborhood of over 100 homes in Bensenville will be demolished to expand industrial facilities near O’Hare Airport:

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The 106 houses where people had raised families since 1956 will be gone.

Rising in their place will be 1.2 million square feet of top-of-the-line industrial space in four buildings…

By knocking down the houses, the new owners will have a 68-acre site in a very hot O’Hare International Airport industrial real-estate submarket…

When the project was proposed, “I thought about what happened to Bensenville with the O’Hare project,” DeSimone said. He means the loss of about 600 homes and businesses near York and Irving Park roads in 2009 when Chicago bought the properties to expand the airport.

The area surrounding O’Hare Airport is desirable because of the amount of passenger and freight traffic that goes through the airport each year. Because of its particular location, the airport is near all sorts of land uses, including residences. This has caused noise problems over the years and this agreement seems to be a mixed bag: the residents got a lot of money for their money and they were not forced into the change but an established neighborhood of 65 years will be gone and the suburb of Bensenville continues to lose residents.

How will the neighborhood be remembered? Will it be commemorated in any physical way beyond the memories of the residents who used to live there? This is the opposite of what many assume will happen with suburbs and American communities. The expectation is for continual growth while population stagnation or loss is seen as undesirable. To have a neighborhood with its homes, families, and activity disappear is not a thought many would want to dwell on.

Adding social norms and social pressure to seeing lawns as “a window into your soul”

Do lawns say something about a homeowner?

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To our neighbors, our lawn was just another suburban expanse of green. But to my dad, like millions of other yard-having homeowners, it was a canvas, a psychologist’s couch, a playpen, a physical manifestation of his deepest fears and greatest joys. Our lawn was one of the few places in my father’s world where he could impose his will. Plus, it was a respite from his three children. It was a miracle he ever came inside.

Watching my dad out there year after year taught me this: A lawn can tell you an awful lot about its owner.

This fits with the American idea that things you own, ranging from a home to a car to your smartphone, say something important about you. They are not just items to use or enjoy; they reflect your personal brand, even as millions of others may have the same things.

People might also do this with lawns. If people keep up their lawn, they assume the homeowner cares about their property and home. Americans generally like this. Those who do not keep up their home and lawn are less trustworthy as are people who do not own homes.

At the same time, lawns are also the product of social norms. What do the neighbors do with the lawn? How might a messy lawn be perceived by neighbors? Are nicer lawns connected to higher property values? How do different brands sell grass seed and other lawn products? I have argued before that a well manicured and clear lawn is connected to social class. Communities have expectations about what lawns should look like and can exercise both formal and informal sanctions, whether mowing lawns for residents and sending them the bill if the grass is too long to dirty looks.

More broadly, the idea of a green and lush lawn is tied to the American suburban dream. The nice single-family home surrounded by an oasis of green hints at private property, nature, and an attentive homeowner. A neighborhood with such lawns is a sign of care and neighbors who value their community.

Trying to attract suburban voters by fighting Critical Race Theory

The ongoing struggle for suburban voters now extends to Critical Race Theory:

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“In suburban areas, the number one cultural issue is critical race theory. The suburbs are on fire with anger,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who works on congressional races. “We are at the beginning of this issue, not the end.”…

While critical race theory is animating the party’s base, Republican operatives say the issue will have wider appeal than other cultural wedge issues because some parents see it as having a direct impact on their children’s education.

Republicans are zeroing in on winning back the white college-educated, suburban voters that abandoned them during former President Donald Trump’s tenure. A new study from Pew Research Center found that Biden won suburban voters by 11 percentage points in the 2020 election after Trump won them by two points in the 2016 election.

“Parents all over the country have been mobilized because they do not want their children being taught they are automatically racist because of their skin color. I fully expect Democrats’ support for this controversial theory to be at the center of 2022 campaigns,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement to McClatchy. “The most compelling electoral issues are those that focus on the issue of fairness, and that’s why critical race theory will be incredibly damaging to every vulnerable Democrat.”

While it remains to be seen how effective this will be, multiple aspects of suburban life and history may fit:

  1. Many suburbs were built on exclusion where whites worked to keep particular racial and ethnic groups out. Even as suburbs overall have become more diverse in recent decades, this has not necessarily occurred in all suburban communities.
  2. Suburbanites are often viewed as individualistic and emphasizing meritocracy. They feel they made it there by their own success and then want to live in their private spaces (usually single-family homes).
  3. While suburbanites in regular social life might want to avoid confrontation with neighbors, the emphasis on local control in suburbs means that national issues can spark conflict at the local level.

As the article asks, will this issue that touches on what suburbs are crowd out other common election issues like the economy or taxes?