There has been considerable discussion in GOP circles lately about the party’s problems with Latinos, Asians, gay people, single people, young people, secular people, and half a dozen other segments of the electorate. This is a discussion worth having, but there is a part of this conversation that is not yet part of the debate: what these segments of the electorate largely have in common is they live in urban areas*.
Within my political lifetime the GOP has been all but driven out of the major urban areas of California… mostly into the deep suburbs, x-urbs, or rural turf. Take maps of what party holds which seats of the State Assembly or Congress in California over the last decade and you can watch our retreat in slow motion. As urbanity expands, the GOP contracts. Urbanity is continuing to expand. Seats that were considered ‘safe Republican’ are now in the mix.
This week I had the opportunity to speak as some length with one of the last Republican partisan officeholders to represent a major city. He got it: the culture of people who live in urbanized areas is simply different than people who live in other types of communities. Republicans, for ill rather than good, tend to represent regions further out from city centers, and to concentrate on issues that impact those further out communities.
This is a problem. Like it or not, cities are the entryway for new immigrants. They are where young people move to find jobs and start their lives. They are where single people of any age tend to live. They are often the centers of economic and cultural development. Like the internet, they are the cauldrons in which new idea’s are mixed and fermented… to emerge and slowly work their way into the culture as a whole.
So looking at it I see two major sticking points that make it difficult for Republican’s to attract urban voters: (1) in urban areas there is a ‘live and let live’ culture that tends to think of Republicans as anti-liberty, anti-freedom and intolerant on issues of race, religion, and lifestyle, an issue I’ll address in a later essay (2) urban dwellers have a fundamentally different relationship to and with government than the view of government often espoused by the GOP, our opinion leaders and candidates, an issue I’ll try to address in part.
So what’s wrong? The Republican Party does not do a particularly good job of addressing the real day to day concerns of people who dwell in major cities. In fact, we don’t have much of an urban policy at all, or at least don’t discuss it much. I’d wager that most GOP officeholders rarely enter physically into the major cities unless they are forced to in order to attend a ball game or eat at a non-chain restaurant. It just isn’t their turf.
If you live in a city you don’t really want to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub”. Leastwise would a city dweller want to shrink local government services – state and federal government might be a different story to some degree. However, much of our broad rhetoric would have the casual observer think that the GOP would gut government at every level. Republicans believe in local control in theory, in practice we should start thinking about what that means and how we can further engage our traditional ‘good government’ philosophy to start to move back into communities where we are facing an extinction event.
Simply making cities livable requires considerable government infrastructure. The concept of shrinking or eliminating this infrastructure is frankly not an option to an urban dweller who depends on these services… services which have already been slashed in most cities. The GOP should consider changing our rhetoric on this issue. At least in urban areas, and increasingly in the suburbs, we will always lose the “big government vs. emaciated government” argument. This may be considered heresy – but there are things normal people want government, particularly local government and the civil servants who work there, to do and do well.
(As part of this overall argument, it’s important for Republican rhetoric to recognize that not every civil servant is a diabolical leach just looking to suckle off the fat teats of the taxpayer. We want someone to mow the lawn. We want someone to walk the beat. We want someone to fill the pothole. Demonizing of these people on the ground level and the work that they do – work most if not many take great pride in – unites hard working, fair minded civil servants with their public employee unions, when in fact it should be our goal to divide the civil servants that do a good job at a fair wage for services we want from those who do very little or don’t perform a service we want at a high wage.)
One suggestion might be to re-frame the argument as “expensive, ineffective government vs. efficient, well run government”. Perhaps focus on the outrages in local government, the give-aways, the gutting of services, the waste, the utter corruption, and actually propose how to do it better. Engage. Demand ‘best practices’. Re-engage with the local Republican elected officials – many of whom are still living and breathing in urban areas – and mine them for ideas on what a GOP urban policy would look like.
Most important we have to physically be in the cities over and over and speak in unexpected placed to unexpected and potentially hostile people… go to San Jose, to Los Angeles, to Long Beach, to San Diego, to San Francisco, to Anaheim, to San Bernardino, and so on. Stop preaching to the choir… if for no other reason than self preservation. My grandfather was fond of the expression “If you are going to fight WWIII fight it in Germany not in Kansas”. The urban areas are expanding, moving outward, endangering the few seats we have. We have to move the fight into their turf. It’s obviously not in the direct benefit of GOP officials to ‘campaign’ outside their seats, but if we are going to have an impact it has to be organized and routine, more than an irregular effort. Think of it as a multiplier: when you campaign in urban areas you are also reaching the Latinos, the Asians, the gays, the single people or whatever other demographic niche you might have a bug to go after.
In the first few years of the 1900’s Lincoln Steffens wrote a series of essays later published in book form as “The Shame of the Cities”. His essays exposed to the average American the dis-service, the waste, and the corruption of the ‘boss system’ in many major cities of the time. The problems are not the same today, but they rhyme with the problems of Steffen’s day. The people in our cities cry out for reform… for better government and for the services they pay for and deserve. They want the same things most of the people in suburbs and further out want, but have no recourse. Republicans are the natural heirs to the good government reform movements that turned many of those cities around. But we aren’t there, physically or mentally. We are allowing a virtual one party system to exist in our vital urban regions by default.
* Note: As I started outlining this essay a couple months ago I read another column that made some of the same points that I was pondering. Even though I am a political consultant I’m not an outright thief. If anyone has read this column please forward me the author I’d like to source him as at least a point of reference and clarity of thought.