Tearing Down the Towers
The Right's Vision of an America Without Cities
By Jeremy Adam Smith
One Nation, Two Futures?
The formula that emerged from the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections was provocative: the less dense the population, the more likely it was to vote Republican. Republicans appeared to have lost the cities and inner suburbs, positioning themselves as the party of country roads, small towns, and traditional values. Though Bush was often mocked for the time he spent on his ranch, sleeves rolled up, gun in hand, the image was widely promoted and served as a cornerstone of his identity among Republican voters.
Conversely, it looked like Democrats had lost the country1 - that is, until November 2006. That's when Democrats won decisive victories in the Midwest and Great Plains, often by leveraging their candidates' rural identities against a national Democratic Party that local voters saw as being overly urban, secular, and affluent. By November 8, the electoral map looked a whole lot bluer - yet Democrats could not have won without appealing to libertarian, anti-urban sensibilities.
"Millions of rural people have come to reject the larger framework of urban life," writes public radio reporter Brian Mann in his compelling new book Welcome to the Homeland (SteerForth Press, 2006). "They despise the liberal modernism that shaped metro culture in the twentieth century and see it as an ideology that is every bit as foreign and threatening as communism."
Voting is just the tip of the iceberg. Antagonism towards cities goes beyond any one election. It is an under-recognized, under-analyzed factor in right-wing organizing, but now more and more writers are struggling to understand the rural/urban divide, how it has shaped national politics, and what it means for progressive organizing.
Mann coins the term "homelander" to describe largely white, anti-urban conservatives, including those whose country life exists only in their imagination. According to Mann, the homeland is a state of mind, helping fuse alliances between the conservatives who are bona fide rural and exurban dwellers, and their powerful allies in the center of power.
It's a useful concept, which reveals an important link between ideology and the structures of American life. You hear the homeland ethos not only in George W. Bush's acquired Texas twang, but in the voices documented in recent books from Mann, Steve Macek, and Juan Enriquez. "Urban America breeds things that will probably never be here [in Perryton, Texas], but it scares people," Jim Hudson, publisher of Perryton Herald, tells Mann. What kinds of things? asks Mann. "Gay culture," he replies. "HIV sure wasn't bred in rural America."
Most urbanites (and decent people everywhere) see such statements as offensive and ignorant. Yet Mann urges urban people to see their own arrogance and hostility to everything sacred and traditional, and to take many homelander claims at face value so that we can begin negotiating a national synthesis. It's a lesson that some Democrats appear to have taken to heart in the most recent election, pushing forward Democrats like newly elected Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who boasted to voters of his backwoods origins and traditionalist politics. "Isn't it time we make the Senate look a little bit more like Montana?" asked Tester in one of his campaign commercials, appealing to rural pride.
"It's important to understand that we metros are the ones who have changed - and with remarkable speed," Mann writes, referring to egalitarian families, gay and lesbian relationships, and other practices that are a part of everyday urban life. "On a wide range of social questions, homelanders have simply stayed put... And now they've come to believe that their way of life and their set of values offer a real alternative for the future."
Macek, Enriquez, and Mann, each in different ways, tries to explain the Right's skill in polarizing city and country, calling on history, a political structure favoring less populated states, economics, and new patterns of government redistribution guided by homelander ideology. Each seems to have a piece of the puzzle. Put them together and we may stimulate new thinking on how to build a new progressive majority.
The City and the Tower
Homelander ideologues of all stripes, from religious to libertarian to neoconservative, agree that cities, like governments, should be small enough to drown in the bathtub. Their hostility has deep cultural roots.
The homelander vision of the city starts with a story in Genesis 11:1-9. When God saw the first city of humankind and the tower its residents had built, He destroyed the tower and confused their language, "so that one will not understand the language of his companion" and "scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city."
Later in Genesis, God destroys the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah for gross immorality, interpreted as homosexuality. (Classical Jewish texts specify economic greed, not sexuality, as the cause of God's wrath.) Thus begins the Christian history of urban life.
Now let's skip ahead several thousand years, to the birth of the American Republic. "Enthusiasm for the American city has not been typical or predominant in our intellectual history," writes Morton and Lucia White in their 1962 study, Intellectuals Against the City. "Fear has been the more common reaction." Thomas Jefferson described "great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man"; Henry David Thoreau preferred his cabin in the woods to "the desperate city"; in 1907, the Rev. Josiah Strong called the modern city "a Menace to State and Nation."
This is not to say rural politics was (or is) always conservative, or even anti-urban. From the Rocky Mountains to the Midwestern prairies to the Mississippi delta to the Appalachian Mountains, rural progressives built a great, creative tradition of civil disobedience, multiracial organizing, and cultural dissent. Yet in recent political history, that heritage was obscured by conservative organizing, which proved adept at harnessing anti-urban hostility in the service of its political agenda.
In Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), Steve Macek brings the anti-urban history up to date and demonstrates how recent economic, demographic, and technological trends have distorted the image of the city and played into the hands of its enemies. Synthesizing a vast amount of history and information, Macek traces the birth of the Right's contemporary fight against the city and its evils. He expertly sketches the black migration and European immigration that shaped American cities in the first half of the 20th century, the rebellions and War on Poverty of the 1960s, the white flight and deindustrialization that emptied city centers in the 1970s, the drugs and crime that ruined many neighborhoods in the 1980s, and the increased social and economic polarization that shaped them in the 1990s.
Out of this ferment, conservatives promoted a race-based depiction of the city as "chaotic, ruined, and repellent, the exact inverse of the orderly domestic idyll of the suburbs." In such a view, urban poverty is a natural byproduct of unnatural urban life; it is slack morals, not racism or capitalism, which create the urban underclass and its affluent liberal enablers.
"The lower-class individual lives in the slum and sees no reason to complain," writes Edward Banfield in his 1968 book The Unheavenly City, which planted the seeds of the conservative urban critique and policy agenda. "He does not care how dirty and dilapidated his housing is either inside or out, nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities as schools, parks and libraries."
Thus the solution to urban poverty and lawlessness is not welfare and economic development, which will "prolong the problems and perhaps make them worse," but instead law enforcement, religious evangelism, and market-driven ethnic cleansing.
Tilting Against Towers: The New Right's Common Ground
As America urbanized and conservatives resurrected the ancient image of the city as dirty and dangerous, they simultaneously affirmed the ideal of the steeply declining small town and countryside. Religious and secular conservatives alike found common ground in this anti-urban ideology - promoting the idea of an urban/rural divide and, in the process, helping make it real.
When the New Right emerged as a political force in the early 1980s, journalist Frances Fitzgerald paid a visit to Lynchburg, Virginia, where Jerry Falwell founded one of the first suburban megachurches and launched the Moral Majority, the first major organizational expression of the modern religious Right. There, in 1981, Fitzgerald found a homelander utopia with over one hundred churches.
"Lynchburg calls itself a city," she writes in Cities on a Hill, "but it is really a collection of suburbs. In the fifties, its old downtown was supplanted by a series of shopping plazas, leaving it with no real center...The automobile has cut too many swaths across it, leaving gasoline stations and fast-food places to spring up in parking-lot wastelands. But it is a clean city, full of quiet streets and shade trees."2 She also found Falwell's congregation to be astonishingly uniform in race, culture, and dress, despite a substantial minority of African-Americans in the suburbs around them.3
In his church sermons Falwell talked with his congregation about his trips to New York "and the narrow escapes he has had among the denizens of Sin City," hitting racial code words like "welfare chiselers," "urban rioters," and "crime in the streets"-all phenomena with which his congregation had little or no personal contact. Falwell's proclamations did, however, serve a political purpose, helping to mobilize the homeland against the forces of modernism-global, post-industrial- that converged in the city.
The current round of city-bashing started in 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle attributed the Los Angeles riot- which erupted in response to the acquittal of L.A. police officers videotaped beating Rodney King-to a breakdown of family values. (In The Unheavenly City, Banfield calls the Watts riots an "outbreak of animal spirits" conducted "mainly for fun and profit.") The riot is an image that has played to fears of the North American city as a Babel of confusing languages and brown faces.
To neoconservative Irving Kristol, the city does not actually belong in America, which he once described as an "urban civilization without cities"-meaning that the United States has never had a city that plays the same role that, for example, Paris plays in France, of providing an exemplary cultural identity and administrative center. Some (primarily New Yorkers) might point to New York City as such a place, but for homelanders, New York is alien territory. "New Yorkers don't really see themselves as part of the rest of America," pronounced right-wing pundit and honorary homelander Ann Coulter. "Americans understand that Manhattan is the Soviet Union," she said on another occasion, positioning Mann's homelanders as the only true Americans.
After terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson deplored the attack but also saw it as a re-play of Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah, just deserts for "all of them who try to secularize America" and re-build the towers of Babel.4 To people like Kristol, Coulter, Falwell, and Robertson, the alleged decline of the city is nothing to worry about-in fact, it is to be welcomed and encouraged.
In recent decades the libertarian Right has presented the city as a gray, ruined place where rugged entrepreneurs are hemmed in on every side by rules and regulations and neighbors. "The problem with the cities today is that they are parasites," said libertarian cyber-guru George Gilder in 1995. "And those cities will have to go off the dole." Another libertarian futurist, Alvin Toffler, has argued for decades that computers and automobiles would combine to make the city obsolete, "dispersing rather than concentrating population." (As we'll see, these predictions have turned out to be almost wholly wrong.)
In the April 2006 issue of the libertarian journal The Freeman, Steven Greenhut attacks New Urbanism, a successful neoliberal movement to revitalize city centers, and sketches the ideal libertarian city, which is to say, the suburbs. "Suburban neighborhoods are often filled with the vibrant sense of community the New Urbanists say is lacking," he writes. "There's nothing wrong with preferring to spend time in a private backyard rather than in the commons area New Urbanists want us to spend time in... I do not think diversity, economic or ethnic, is either good or bad in and of itself... People should live around whomever they want to live around, for any reason."5
The Right's Attack on Cities
Though the Religious Right bases its public policy agenda on the authority of the Bible and the libertarian Right bases its on the sovereignty of the individual, they converge in the same suburban parking lot. As the Right gained power on a national level, their policies and preconceptions have had a direct impact on cities. "During the Reagan and Bush eras alone," Macek writes, "federal aid to local governments was slashed by 60 percent. Federal spending on new public housing dropped from $28 billion in 1977 to just $7 billion eleven years later. Meanwhile, shrinking welfare benefits have made it harder for the disproportionately urban recipients of public assistance to make ends meet."
Conservative policies and the retreat of liberal commitment to ending poverty combined to make cities increasingly unequal. But as Juan Enriquez makes clear in the The Untied States of America (Crown Publishers, 2005), welfare didn't disappear-the money just shifted from cities to the homeland in the form of farm and corporate subsidies, price supports, military spending, and pork-barrel projects. Reviewing a chart of tax benefits to states,Enriquez notes that it is curious "that the most productive, high-tech states tend to vote Democratic. The most dole-dependent tend to be hard-line, antigovernment, antispending Republicans. Seventy-five percent of Mr. Bush's votes came from taker states."
Conservative policy initiatives like California's Proposition 13 (which in 1978 slashed property taxes by more than two-thirds) devastated urban school systems, to the benefit of suburban and exurban homeowners. More recently we've seen public transportation funding slashed, AIDS funding shift from Blue to Red States, and homeland security funding distributed as a form of pork. "Low-population states such as Wyoming and North Dakota received forty dollars per person to arm themselves against the impending al-Qaeda menace," Brian Mann notes. "Meanwhile, the big I-have-a-bulls-eye-on-my-forehead states like California and New York managed to pocket about five dollars per capita."
Mann points to the 9,000 residents of Ochiltree County, Texas, "the most Republican place in America," who were graced by nearly $53 million in federal money in 2003 alone - which is, by any standard, a generous reward for their unstinting support of President Bush. The state of Kansas went from losing $2 million a year in what it paid in taxes, to making "a sweet profit of $1,200 per person" by 2004. When Mann raises this fact to his conservative brother Allen, he is enraged. "I don't believe it," Allen says. "No way. I know so many people in my town who refuse to take government money. They'd rather go hungry." Allen urges his brother to drop the issue. "You'll make rural people so mad that they won't listen to anything else you have to say."
To Enriquez, the divide is nothing to celebrate. Urban areas are surging ahead, skimming the talented tenth right off small towns and generating the vast majority of taxes, investments, and patents. "While Republicans cover the most land surface," Enriquez snidely notes, "they do not generate most of the knowledge."
In short, Gilder was dead wrong to call cities "parasites." Quite the opposite is true, and that truth is driving the nation into two camps. "Nations are divisible," Enriquez writes. "Monetary problems and inequalities often accentuate, or revive, divisions..." When residents of Perrytown and Lynchburg embrace xenophobia and fundamentalist faith in a society that is increasingly global and technological, the divide is only exacerbated.
Lakoff and the Culture Divide
How have so many rural folks and their political allies gotten so hostile to cities and cosmopolitan values? Part of the answer, as I have suggested, lies in the particular cultural histories of Christianity and America. Race is also a factor, as it has been from the moment Europeans set foot on the continent.
But why has this front of the culture war suddenly gotten so rhetorically violent, the rift so wide? Popular explanations of the right-wing resurgence touch on its antiurbanism. University of California, Berkeley, linguist George Lakoff argues that Republicans got skilled at convincing traditional families (which he says follow the "Strict Father" model) that secular, urban families (who favor a "Nurturant Parent" model) are out to destroy their very way of life. Explicit sex, abandoned children, and dissolving families are framed as urban maladies, a strategy we saw in action when "San Francisco values" became a conservative talking point in the 2006 election. From this perspective, the rural/urban split simply emerges from regional demographics.6 As the urban space grows and non-traditional families thrive, conservatives living in more rural areas are fighting ferociously to hold on to a disappearing way of life.
Though profoundly alienated from a popular culture that is shaped by urban sensibilities, Mann argues that homelanders have succeeded in building an alternative mass culture of their own over the past two decades. "When I was a kid," Mann writes, "you drank from the spigot of urban culture or you went without." "Back when the three media networks controlled everything and AP and UPI were the only sources of news, that was our window on the world," says Jim Hudson, the publisher of Perryton Herald. "Now I start my day with Fox and Friends. Then I do a computer check, reading NewsMax.com, a very conservative site."
"These days, rural Americans can get their news, books, art, movies, and music from sources that more closely reflect their values," writes Mann. "The break isn't clean or absolute; small-town folks still watch Everybody Loves Raymond and buy Stephen King novels...But now they can also get their news from Fox, Sinclair, or NewsMax.com. They can buy top-notch thrillers and romance novels written by evangelical Christians." In effect, home-landers are bicultural; they can understand the language of urban popular culture, but mainstream urbanites are often clueless about the homeland lingo. "This media balkanization extends beyond politics and journalism," Mann writes. "These days, for every Dr. Spock, there is a Dr. Dobson. For every Stephen King, there's a Tim LaHaye."
Mann's points are well taken, but I think Enriquez's economic explanation (also mentioned in Welcome to the Homeland) is another important piece of the puzzle. Homeland conservatives have risen to power during a period when heartland industry, mom-and-pop shops, and family farms are all in steep decline; the massive redistribution of government largesse has stepped in, like the Marshall Plan once did for a ruined Europe, to fill the economic void. Homelanders are not, as Tom Frank argues in What's the Matter with Kansas? (Henry Holt, 2004), being tricked into voting Republican by an evil corporate elite; in many respects, the radical grassroots base calls the shots and embraces mutually beneficial alliances with beltway players, often rooted in military spending.
Beyond the Myth: The Truth About Cities
"Modern liberalism was born in the big cities and died there," neocon Fred Siegel writes in The Future Once Happened Here (Free Press, 1997), painting American cities as economic and moral dead zones. But as the most recent elections reveal, nothing could be further from the truth. For all the mistakes committed in the name of liberal and progressive urban policy, an urban liberalism is flourishing; in places like San Francisco and Portland, it has achieved a confident hegemony. Though the San Francisco Bay Area has plenty of problems, including profound wealth inequality and troubled public schools, it remains a seat of technological and cultural innovation, with its low fertility rates offset by immigration and emigration that keep the city culturally diverse. Meanwhile Money Magazine has called Portland "one of the best cities in which to live."
Even families who flee from city centers take their urban values with them into the increasingly diverse inner suburbs, where Democrats won 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. Both left and Right are turning out to be wrong about the politics of sprawl, which is emerging as the bleeding edge, rather than the death, of urbanization.7 Today even "edge" cities like Las Vegas and Miami have turned deep blue, as their populations grow denser and more diverse. Even the urban outposts of places like Montana and Oklahoma run politically to the left.
Far from dispersing, as Alvin Toffler predicted, the "creative class" is concentrating itself in blue cities the way medieval gentry once crouched behind castle walls when they saw barbarians on the horizon, in the process displacing poor and working-class residents. Despite all the conservative prophecies of urban apocalypse, the level and pace of urbanization continues to accelerate, with complex economic and social results.
Every year two million people move to American cities and inner suburbs, adding islands to the archipelago, while America's homeland population falls fast toward 56 million, "roughly the level of the mid1970s," notes Mann. Far from declining demographically, the United Nations predicts that the percentage of the North American population living in urban areas will rise to 84 percent of the population by 2030.8
Cornell researchers Barclay G. Jones and Solomane Koné found that from 1970 to 1990, per capita income increased directly with population size in metropolitan areas, a trend that benefits whole countries. "For states of the United States and 113 countries for 1960 and 1980," they found, "a strong positive relationship exists and holds temporally between level of per capita Gross Domestic Product and percent of the population that is urban."9
Urban areas concentrate social as well as financial capital: a 2003 study by the General Social Survey found that city dwellers were more likely to help each other out than their rural counterparts.10 Such statistics - there are many - stand in contrast to the Stygian alienation depicted in conservative "yuppie horror films" like Judgment Night (1993) and Ransom (1996), which show urbanites as antisocial and uncaring - a phenomenon ably dissected by Macek in Urban Nightmares.
An Urban Backlash Is No Solution
Dumbfounded by the homeland ascendancy, many urbanites have embraced a misguided strategy of rebranding progressivism as specifically urban. In their influential 2004 manifesto "The Urban Archipelago," the editors of the Seattle weekly, The Stranger, argue that it's time for urbanites to aggressively pursue their own self-interest on a national stage. "We need a new identity politics," they write, "an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that's as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents...To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: Fuck off. Your issues are no longer our issues."
Though easy to dismiss as a rant, "The Urban Archipelago" hit a nerve with cosmopolitans. When Wal-Mart, which already dominates rural America, tried to open a store in Boston, public outcry stopped it cold. "Wal-Mart does not suit the clientele we have in the city of Boston," said Mayor Thomas Menino. "They don't pay wages that are sufficient. Their benefit structure is poor. I don't need employers like that in our city." Throughout the country, notes the Wall Street Journal, anti-Wal-Mart activists are augmenting their message with "an appeal to urban cultural values," making Wal-Mart a metaphor for the worst in homeland America.11
Yet cutting the Red States off the federal dole, ignoring the downward-pressure on income created by Wal-Marting the home-lander economy,12 or leaving Red States out of environmental policymaking - all steps recommended by The Stranger's editors - ignores our mutual interdependency and breeds self-destructive partitions.
An urban identity politics would also serve the interests of urban elites by seeking to paper over the deep social and economic divisions that shape 21st century cities. In his book The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002), Richard Florida argues that attracting highly educated New Economy workers to cities is key to urban economic growth. But as Rebecca Solnit points out in Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism (Verso, 2000), creative class migration is driving social inequities and gentrification. "[T]he new future looks like San Francisco: a frenzy of financial speculation, covert coercions, overt erasures, a barrage of novelty-item restaurants, web-sites, technologies and trends, the despair of unemployment replaced by the numbness of incessant work hours and the anxiety of destabilized jobs, homes, and neighborhoods."
This might be the prime weakness- some might call it a strength-of urban identity politics, and perhaps all identity politics: it encourages groupthink, conceals inequality between members of the in-group, and obscures system-wide problems with inflated egotism and compulsive self-regard.
And as Brian Mann points out, even if The Stranger's strategy was desirable, it would be extremely difficult to pursue on a national level. The Senate, for example, gives each state two seats regardless of population. "As a consequence, those lucky homelanders in Wyoming and Alaska receive 72 times more clout per capita than do California's metros," Mann writes. "It's a startling fact that half of the American people live in just nine highly urbanized states - most of them staunchly Democratic - but they hold only 18 percent of the Senate's power." Similarly, the structure of the Electoral College has tilted power towards the rural states, while gerrymandering has given Republicans an edge in the House of Representatives.
"Put bluntly, our political system is no longer a neutral playing field," Mann writes. "In ways our founding fathers could never have imagined, the Electoral College and the Senate now favor one way of life, one set of cultural and political values, over another. Because those values are no longer shared by most Americans, the result is a growing disconnect between our political elites and the people they govern."
His is a bald statement, implying the increasingly diverse rural states are homogeneous. This has huge political implications, if it were true. Since it is impossible politically to reform the Senate or abolish the Electoral College, does that mean that all is lost or that a Second Civil War is inevitable? Mann argues that liberals and progressives have no choice but to organize and campaign in the homeland, building on a populist and civil rights history that never quite went away. On this we agree: Now is the time for reclaiming a progressive rural heritage instead of running from it, and discovering what Americans in both camps have in common. The 2006 elections suggest this strategy has promise.
"People are hurting in the countryside," Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute of Southern Studies, told me. "You go into western North Carolina, and you see hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are being shattered by economic dislocations. If progressives turn their backs on those people, they're losing a huge opportunity and they're failing to address this country's deepest problems."
Meanwhile, the Right-wing hasn't abandoned the cities. Refusing to rest on their homeland base, Republicans are now organizing urban think tanks and recruiting politicians in "purple" cities like San Diego, applying rural and suburban values in an urban context, capitalizing on the libertarian inclinations of the creative class.13
At this writing it's too early to tell, but November 2006 may stand as a turning point, when rural liberals and progressives fought their way back onto the electoral map. We still have a long, long way to go, and we need more research, writing, and debates like the ones found in Welcome to the Homeland and The Untied States of America. There is more at work in the homeland ascendancy than pure ideology and moral politics; we also have to respond to the self-interest of people whose lives are being turned upside down by war and economic change.
Too many liberals and progressives are isolated in their metropolitan towers, looking down not only at the people The Stranger deem "rubes, fools, and hate-mongers," but also at the disenfranchised and dispossessed of their own unequal cities. Even if the homelander challenge fades to a historical footnote, metropolitans will still need to face cities rived by class and race. Maybe it is time for those of us who live in cities to come down from our towers, before it's too late.
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