When elected U.S. President in 2008, Barack Obama was dismissed by some Republicans as a mere public whim, to be tolerated momentarily and defeated in the next election. But his reelection last year spurred debates among these same Republicans as to why exactly that wasn’t achieved. One oft-touted reason is the GOP’s inability to connect with various demographics—from women, to millennials, to Latinos and Muslims—that are now more prominent in America. But another demographic that they lost, and one which encompasses all these other groups, is America’s rising number of urbanites.
Today the percentage of U.S. citizens living in metropolitan areas sits at eighty, up from previous decades, and many of these urban newcomers have followed their cities’ political traditions by voting Democrat. In the 2012 election all but four major cities—Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Fort Worth—voted for Obama, and it was little different in 2008. Both elections, and the ones before them, validate a recent study correlating the population densities of different cities with their degree of liberalism.
In some respects this is predictable. As localities urbanize their problems proliferate, creating the need for more powerful governments. But such singular dominance by Democrats has not always defined American cities, a point made by Kevin Baker in his recent New York Times article, “Republicans to Cities: Drop Dead.”
According to Baker, Republicans were competitive in cities, in both local and federal elections, from the Civil War to the Depression. But this changed with the presidential campaign of New York Governor Al Smith, a quintessentially urban Democrat, and with the New Deal, which helped employ jobless city workers. The divide was accentuated decades later by Ronald Reagan, who demonized inner-city minorities to gain favor with white suburbanites. It continues today, writes Baker, because of a GOP platform that warns against the “social engineering” behind Democrats’ “exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit”; and because of the GOP’s hostility towards gays, immigrants, and other urban constituencies.
While many of Baker’s ideas are misguided—e.g. that Republicans are unreasonable for wanting to privatize the deficit-prone Amtrak—his overall premise is sound. If Republicans are to appeal to urbanites, they must not only moderate their social views, but build alliances with these previously forbidden groups. To this I would add that they must also reignite a dialogue on the importance of urban growth, and then support policies favoring it. These could include easier citizenship for college-educated immigrants; looser permitting for entrepreneurial trades; market-oriented solutions to poverty; and, yes, construction of “dense housing” and light rail. These are things that many Congressional Republicans believe in anyway but rarely discuss, since it might offend, and redirect money from, voters in the low-density states they represent. Advocating for them nonetheless would reveal how such issues are now neglected in cities as a result of one-party rule.
But, alas, much of what determines how people vote is not policy. It has, according to Bill Bishop, more to do with branding. And here lies the real problem for Republicans.
Political branding today is centered on a divide in values that, while unstated, has a city vs. suburban undertone. The values supported by liberals include tolerance, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and, when not explicit secularism, at least the lack of a dominant religion.
Such values are often celebrated in cities, but seldom elsewhere in America, and by championing them Democrats win the urban vote. Republicans, in contrast, have for years mirrored the values of rural and exurban voters, meaning those favoring God, country, family, and the idea of American exceptionalism. This has alienated them from an increasingly influential urban professional class, who may not oppose those values theoretically, but resent the narrow way in which they’re defined by Republicans. To some professionals, the Republican party is now viewed less as the one of fiscal responsibility, and more as the one that remains tangled in tedious social issues in order to attract bigots, Bible-thumpers, evolution-deniers, and nativists. They view such provincialism, moreover, as the result of Republicans’ geographical isolation, via the suburbs and countryside, which they think barricades the party from modernity–a stereotype reaffirmed by the likes of Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.
These lifestyle distinctions may seem (and perhaps are) superficial amidst conversations about fixing the economy and trimming the budget. But in elections they matter. They matter to the increasing number of voters who’ve been shaped by, and want their leaders to reflect, the nation’s continued urbanization. President Obama, thanks to his background, already does reflect this. Republicans should strive to do the same, unless they want to see another Democrat waving back at them from the Capitol steps in 2017.