We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
In last Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat proposed that we “break up the liberal city” in the United States. After a brief list of clichés about urban liberalism, Douthat gets to his point:
While Douthat writes as though he his inviting America into one great happy reunion of city mouse and country mouse, there is so much wrong with his suggestion that it is difficult to know where to begin. In fact, not knowing where to begin is Douthat’s biggest problem. That is to say, his view is utterly detached from historical context.
There are reasons that we have become an increasingly urban culture, and that the same pattern of increasing urbanism has been sweeping the planet for more than a century. While the charms and conveniences (as well as the disadvantages) of urban living are readily apparent to anyone who has lived in a large metropolitan area, it’s not merely a matter of “how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?” The combination of farm technology, agriculture policy, and the digital revolution all play parts in the shift, but, in the United States at least, there are deeper cultural histories that are only partly explained by economics and technology.
I am a child of the Deep South. I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. I came of age in the midst of a small hope christened the New South. I live now in the former capital state of the Confederacy, though most of Virginia doesn’t consider the part of the commonwealth that is in metro DC to be “real” Virginia.
I was pondering all of that and Douthat’s column yesterday morning at the King Memorial, and then on an afternoon run along a nearby bike path in Arlington. Yesterday morning was chilly and damp, but the wildly diverse crowds at MLK testified in at least eight or ten languages to one small part of the enduring draw of the city. Then the sun came out, the crowds grew, and I headed home.
Yesterday afternoon was beautiful hereabouts, and I was far from alone in going out to enjoy it. About a mile into my run I began to take notice of others running, biking, or walking along the path. Most of them didn’t look like me.
I’ve spent enough time in “real” Virginia, “real” Kentucky, and “real” Tennessee, not to mention “real” Ohio, to know that many of my fellow bike-path denizens would feel real unsafe in those “real” places. The color of their skin, the lilt of their accents, the gender code-switching of their clothing would mark them instantly and indelibly as outsiders.
I’ll freely admit that as one of Douthat’s liberal urban elites, my first response to his massive social engineering plan was to wonder why the onus for repairing the breach in the American commonweal seems always to fall on liberals. Is it because we clustered in cities and thus stoked working class resentment? Is it because we failed to reach out to white working class voters and thus enabled Donald Trump? Is it that we celebrated urban diversity, mocked rural culture, and called it racist? Or so some say.
Never mind that U.S. agriculture policy, dating back to the Depression era, was explicitly racist, and played a significant role in making the black farmer almost extinct. Never mind that white rural terrorists picked up the slack when race-based government policies weren’t enough to drive blacks from the land. Never mind that we treated the 80s crack epidemic in the cities as a major crime problem and responded by putting a third of young black men in prison but now we see the rural opioid epidemic as the public health crisis that it truly is -- and that the crack epidemic truly was, as well. And never mind that the Hillbilly Elegy view of rural America reduces incredibly complex social situations to anecdotes.
(Also, never mind the facts about the centralization of the contractor-driven military-intelligence-industrial complex accounting for so much of the deeply resented economic growth in metro DC since 2001. That's another blog post for another day.)
I firmly believe that the diversity of America’s great cities is their most important strength and a key driver in their dynamic economies, not to mention their cultural riches.
If we want to export that to truly economically marginal areas of the country we have to begin with an honest accounting of our history. That accounting needs to begin with confession and a commitment to restitution, for authentic welcome rests on being reconciled to one another.
If Mr. Douthat wants urban elites to meet up in small-town America he might ask around to see how many of us feel welcome there. If it’s only the straight, white, men like me who can say we are welcome then I would suggest that the problem does not lie in the cities.