When I asked the manager at a Barnes & Noble in Fargo, N.D., last Saturday if she had James Kloppenberg’s new book about President Obama she came back with a reply that startled me. “Is it for or against?” she asked. My mind raced to whether the store had separate pro/con sections on the president, a notion that struck me as odd until I realized that it would perfectly fit the nation’s tribal mood. For the rest of the afternoon, as I sat signing my own book (not about politics), I couldn’t help but speculate who in the crowded store was in the red tribe and who was in the blue.
Results of the midterm elections are still sinking in to those of us who write about so-called metropolitan ideas — impressions and policies on community design, lifestyle, transportation, local culture and economic competitiveness. Our agenda tends to promote investment now (infrastructure, for example) in order to make the future less costly, and to favor parity for urban-style solutions (transit and compactness, for example) because of their efficiency and environmental advantage. But any way you slice it, the election outcome is a huge loss for the urban side of things and a big win for the rural.
Just look at the map. Even when you correct for the denser populations in smaller, bluer congressional districts, the preponderance of red is overwhelming. Obama and his party, fairly or not, has come to represent an urban, multicultural, younger elite that is deeply resented by older, whiter, more tradition-bound Americans who, even if they live in busy suburbs, tend to identify with rural values.
Of the 62 House seats lost by Democrats earlier this month, 26 were in suburban/exurban districts and another 34 were in rural/small town districts — 60 in all. Losses were particularly acute in the Northeast and Midwest, where voters in the countryside moved even farther away from their urban cousins. Democrats lost seven House seats in Upstate New York and 10 seats in rural/suburban districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio, key swing states.
Meanwhile, the party all but disappeared from the map in the South and the Great Plains, where “blue” has become an alien concept. Indeed, the rural website Daily Yonder calculates that the losses left Democrats with only 22 of 125 rural districts.
A game of who’s who
Attempting to characterize the geo-cultural split, National Public Radio contributor Brian Mann called it Glenn Beck vs. Jon Stewart. That’s not a bad shorthand, although the differences are a bit more nuanced. As I glanced around the bookstore last Saturday there were blues I thought I could identify (hipster glasses) and reds that were dead giveaways (camouflage outfits). But people’s politics were, thankfully, hard to guess.
In any case, the upshot for urban design in a redder world is that progress will be harder, not just because budgets will be tighter but because ideological opposition will be stronger. Ideas that make perfect sense to urbanites (carbon taxes, transit options and walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, for example) make no sense to most of the country. Rules that force companies to build nice looking buildings or require homebuilders to offer affordable units seem sensible in cities but oppressive in small towns. Tax credits for historic structures? Incentives for transit-oriented development? They pass for good investment tools in cities, but they’re government giveaways in most of America, where historic buildings are scarce and the only lifestyle imaginable depends on cars and big-box retail.
So what to do?
The first thing, perhaps, is to understand that the rural-urban rivalry dates back to the founding of the nation and has never been fully resolved. Jefferson’s ideas about agrarian superiority led to strong movements for states’ rights, limited government and suspicions about social and technological change and foreign involvement. Hamilton’s focus on urban commerce, central banking and strong federal government has offered a counterpoint. We fought a Civil War over those differences and the turmoil has ebbed and flowed ever since.
Going through a period of denial
Another point to consider: You could conclude from reading history that we are fundamentally a conservative nation that takes a progressive leap now and then. We take two steps forward, then one back. What doesn’t change, however, are the basic global challenges. Our dependence on fossil fuels cannot be sustained fiscally, environmentally or geo-politically, no matter the election results. Urban-style solutions (less driving, more compact living) are inevitable. It’s just that market demand and demographic shifts have not yet caught up with the reality. First we must go through a period of denial and reaction.
(Some activists on the right, for example, are claiming that planners are plotting to take away cars and single-family homes, arguments that apparently helped to defeat a sales tax increase for roads and light rail in Tampa.)
A third point to consider: patience. Try to imagine how small-town residents feel when told that their non-metropolitan lives are irrelevant to the nation’s future.
“One of the frequent complaints I’ve heard from progressives is wondering why various areas ‘vote against their own interests,’ ” says a writer on Blue Wave News. “There two reasons why this happens. First, they might be voting for their own interests, and, second, they might be voting against you — the urban areas. I live in New York State, and in many ways, it’s a microcosm of what’s happening,” the writer continued, recounting the growing resentment against New York City’s success and dominance.
A fourth point: Work harder to advance sustainable projects in smaller cities. Fargo, for example, for all its miles and miles of big-box sprawl, has rediscovered its historic downtown, built condos over shops and lovingly maintained one of the most gorgeous downtown parks (Island Park) in America. When projects like these can be seen up close in red states, then the aspirations of big cities seem less alien.
Concentrate on economic growth
A final point: Watch your language. Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told me that in anticipation of the election outcome, he and his colleagues have shifted their approach to urban design question, emphasizing public-private partnerships and bottom-up solutions. It’s part of a new red-blue language that policymakers are trying out.
When I asked him how the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro should deal with the consequences of a redder political map, he said to concentrate on economic development and job growth, because it’s a project that reds and blues can work on together. It’s fine, he said, to hammer home the advantages of transit-oriented development and livable communities. But you can’t forget that you need to draw economic activity to make those places hum.
“You must understand who you are in the global marketplace,” he said, making the point that all the transit lines and walkable neighborhoods will stay on the drawing boards if you don’t attract new business and new jobs. Here are samples of his latest offerings: “Delivering the Next Economy” and “Investing in Metropolitan Areas.”