David Brooks gives urbanists a velvet-gloved insult:
His populism is not angry. … But it’s there, a celebration of the small and local over the big and urban.
This rhetorical device is meant to imply, without quite saying, that “local” is the opposite of “urban”, just as “small” is the opposite of “big.”
In the grand scheme of politics, this isn’t all that surprising. It’s also frustratingly inaccurate, as any metropolitan dweller can attest – things are just as local in the big city as they are out in the wide open spaces. For all the positive words coming out of the Obama administration concerning not just cities, but metropolitan areas and their central role in our culture, our economy, and so on.
The United States has to stand or fall by being the preeminent nation of science, modernity, technology, and higher education. Some of these needful phenomena, for historical reasons, will just happen to concentrate in big cities and in secular institutions and even—yes—on the dreaded East Coast.
The research universities and major business enterprises that our the foundation of our way of life are, overwhelmingly, in major metropolitan areas. Not because there’s anything wrong with the people of rural Alaska, but because that’s how the world works. The idea of making dislike of metropolitan American (or perhaps all of metropolitan America except Houston) the basis of your approach to governing is pretty nuts.
Walker notes that the Republicans have nothing to gain from the cities, so why bother even trying?
But the Republicans have lost the cities. (As New York Governor George Pataki supposedly said to George Bush as they approached the crowds gathered to hear Bush speak on the site of 9/11: “See all those people? None of them voted for you!”) So they may well feel that they can use “urban” in a negative sense without much cost.
Perhaps the best way to counter this is to do so with the truth. This isn’t about urban vs. rural, it’s about (as Matt notes) metropolitan vs. rural. Metropolitan areas need to have a strong core, but don’t need to be burdened with the connotations of the word ‘urban.’ It’s also a more accurate description and approach to how our cities and regions actually operate. They’re not constrained by the artificial jurisdictional boundaries our politicians have to deal with.
Finally, I take some solace knowing that turning your back on cities and metro areas is tantamount to a political death sentence. Hitchens notes:
But the problem with populism is not just that it stirs prejudice against the “big cities” where most Americans actually live, or against the academies where many of them would like to send their children. No, the difficulty with populism is that it exploits the very “people” to whose grievances it claims to give vent.
In 1992, when Bill Clinton won his first term, 35 percent of American voters were identified as rural according to that year’s national exit polls, and 24 percent as urban. This year, however, the percentage of rural voters has dropped to 21 percent, while that of urban voters has climbed to 30. The suburbs, meanwhile, have been booming: 41 percent of America’s electorate in 1992, they represent 49 percent now (see chart).In other words, if you are going to pit big cities against small towns, it is probably a mistake to end up on the rural side of the ledger… With the votes that he banked in the cities, Obama did not really need to prevail in the suburbs. But he did anyway — as every winning presidential candidate has done since 1980 — bettering McCain by 2 points there. Indeed, among the many mistakes the McCain campaign made was targeting the rural vote rather than the suburban one, as Bush and Karl Rove did in 2000 and 2004.
Indeed. Cities and their metropolitan areas are more intertwined than ever, and politicians should denigrate them at their own peril. They are the places where the vast majority of Americans have their local connections – even the urban ones.