Make Cities Great Again: How and Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Metropolis, Not Abandon It

in Politics

In the wake of Donald Trump’s win, you might have noticed a new swamp spring up–one that Trump certainly wouldn’t want to drain. You were likely swamped with the same meme ad nauseum, comparing maps of “Trump’s America” and “Hillary’s America.” The meme-making quality: Trump’s America is far larger than Hillary’s precisely because it consists of those counties in which he won the majority of the vote, namely, rural areas. In contrast, Hillary Clinton won mostly the coastal US, especially the country’s largest cities, by wide margins.

We can laugh at the radical different geographic spreads of each tally, but they underscore a deeper demographic problem. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2 million votes, even though his geographic spread was far greater than Clinton’s. This is only possible because Clinton won the most populous areas of the US–the biggest cities. Trump was wildly unpopular in most of California (whose population centers are located in San Francisco and Los Angeles) and even his home state, New York (New York City voted around 70 percent in Clinton’s favor). The data all point to the fact that Trump is not in the good graces of city-dwellers in general, not just the élite who can afford the metropolis’ luxurious high-rises.

What’s fascinating is that Trump’s supporters understand this. The meme is proof enough: the mostly white, working-class people of Middle America consisting primarily of ranchers, farmers, factory workers, evangelical Christians, and residents of small towns hold people from the big city with a certain contempt–and the reverse is almost certainly true. The reason for this animosity is not just economic but also cultural. Small-town Americans know their neighbors, tend to be more religious, and often espouse socially conservative values diametrically opposed to the liberalism and cosmopolitanism celebrated by big-city Americans. As far back as Aesop’s town mouse and country mouse, humanity has found itself divided between city and country. The hustle and bustle and hullabaloo of the metropolis and, most of all, its anonymity stands in stark contrast to the localism that arises naturally from small towns. The two modes of life appear nearly irreconcilable, and this bifurcation is commonly reflected in American politics, most recently and striking with the election of Trump.

This mutual disdain is most strongly felt at the edges of the political spectrum, where the far-left and far-right draw upon thinkers that best justify their animosity. The Alt-Right or New Right, for instance, relies upon a bevy of thinkers from the first half of the twentieth century who held the consumption of the countryside by the metropolis and all its industry to be an evil to be fought against, tooth and nail. Fixtures of the literary canon such as Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) rejected modernity and its attendant industrialization, as the mechanization of man’s world only deadened his soul in their eyes. For them, a return to human nature was a return to nature, to the soil and the farm, or a wilder, untamed world of hierarchical submission and dominance. The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), aside from his work on ontology and aesthetics, is most well known for his critical treatment of technology in the well-known essay The Question Concerning Technology (1954). The utilitarianism and rootlessness inspired by technology (and globalism) prompted him to make a famous analysis of Rhenish industrialization. He stated, “In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”

But if the purpose of politics is power, then the purpose of any political autopsy is to do better in the future. Even winners must perform autopsies, and by understanding how they won, they can more easily repeat their success. There are two schools of thought post-election: one thinks that Trump’s winning strategy can and should be pitting the core of his supporters against the coastal élites to continue his winning blue-collar coalition–this strategy is most fervently supported by those who subscribe to the aforementioned thinkers; the other asserts that such a strategy as the first option is not sustainable–even if it is a winning formula for Trump, it may not be for his would-be Republican successors. Fostering Nietzschean ressentiment against a certain group–as the Democrats have done against white heterosexual males for decades–is not a sure course to victory, especially as all indicators point towards more people living in cities as times progress. No, I endorse the latter option, for as with President Obama’s legacy, we know how easily the wrong successor can undo years of work.

How–given the daunting circumstances–can conservatives use city-dwellers’ own interests and thinkers against them to convert them to the ranks of the Right? One of the reasons why Republicans lose the populous coasts is the dearth of policy proposals they have for city-folk. The Republicans are making the Democrats’ mistake in reverse: the Left spurns farmers when (as in California) they advocate directing natural resources such as water to the hungry maw of the metropolis, just as Republicans have little to say to city-dwellers when they propose corn subsidies. Conservatives need to pitch to the metropolis or else densely-packed, vote-rich constituencies won’t play ball. What’s needed is a way to make cities great again. Republicans need to identify an area of city-living which is not satisfactory and then address this problem with a solution that is congruous with the values of Middle America. The most important thing is that the Republican message is consistent–nothing will undermine an effort of outreach more than Janus-faced pitches (that is, speaking out of both sides of your mouth at the same time).

Urban planning is one subject where conservative values and city-living converge, proving the two are not oil and water. Examine the late Jane Jacob’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). In her book, she proposes a number of solutions to the traditional detriments of life in the big city. Consider how footpath and road congestion, as well as a lack of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, affect city-dwellers’ social lives and the city’s economy as a whole: the former causes areas that should be booming centers of activity into unlivable, frustrating thoroughfares; the latter reduces expensive and grandiose locations that should be humming with activity into wasted opportunities. The first case is nearly universally demonstrated by all big cities–if my own experiences in Los Angeles and San Francisco weren’t enough, the crowding in Paris and Florence certainly suffice. As for the second case, Jane Jacobs cites San Francisco’s expensive-to-construct Civic Center as a perfect example of rampant disuse. Why is a plaza surrounded by the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, Ballet, and city hall a social desert during most of the day? Precisely because it lacks diversity of businesses: cultural centers should be peppered throughout financial and food districts, not located in isolated and homogeneous regions.

If Republicans can champion a better quality of life for city-folk, they can even go so far as promoting a message on multiple fronts. For instance, high density populations (i.e. cities) leave more land undeveloped. Suburbia, despite all its merits, possesses a number of environmental drawbacks from gas-guzzling car ownership to widely-spread housing. Once Republicans become advocates not only for the city, but of the city, they put themselves in the position of courting environmentally-minded voters. Demographics is destiny, and the demographics are not in the Trump movement’s favor. If Republicans could offer solutions to cities’ problems by way of urban planning, they just might be able to break the stranglehold the Democratic Party has had on the American metropolis for over a century.

Roy Warden is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is actively involved in the California College Republicans and especially interested in philosophical justifications for conservatism and traditionalism.

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