My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

What's the Matter With [fill in the blank]

Just got my Atlantic Monthly the other day (thanks Wells). It included a nice little essay by Walter Shapiro called What's the Matter with Central Park West? In it, he riffs on Thomas Frank to ask why so many of New York's economic elites seem to vote against their class interests.
The thirty-seven blocks of residential towers that line the western edge of Central Park, from its lower end at Columbus Circle to the age-old social barrier of Ninety-sixth Street, make up a self-contained world whose sprawling apartments, with their high-ceilinged living rooms, formal dining rooms, and unobtrusive maids' quarters, are home to investment bankers, corporate lawyers,
and media executives. And yet in a baffling testament to the failure of Americans to grasp their economic self-interest, the residents of CPW (as locals colloquially call their street) overwhelmingly voted for John Kerry and the Democrats.
It's a funny piece, but it also highlights just how Shapiro (and Frank) might be missing the point.

The preeminant accomplishment of the conservative movement has been to convince Americans. that we are radical individuals, pioneers carving out our living from a harsh landscape, rather than members of neighborhoods, communities, classes or interest groups. While Frank is obviously trying to explore class implications of contemporary politics, he still seems to be plucking people out of context to some extent, looking at their "culture" as a narrative or ideology, rather than at where and how they live.

But context matters. None of you reading this are really self made. You don't grow or hunt your own food, you didn't chop down trees to build your own house, except for you knitters you don't make your own clothing, and even the knitters buy yarn at Arcadia or the Knitters Niche. My point is that you use money. You get it either by working or through shadier means (stealing it, inheriting it, selling drugs, pretending to be a minority-owned business and contracting with the city to drive a dump truck). You have to live somewhere and work somewhere.

If there is an underreported truth to American politics that I'd like everyone to learn, it is this: the parties are not geographically neutral. The Democrats are based in esblished urban areas, the Republicans are based in new sprawl development. The parties' self interest is to enhance their own regions at the expense of the other. Republicans should seek to cripple established urban areas and promote more sprawl. Democrats should promote new development in urban areas and older suburbs, and yes, "gentrification." They should push for limits on new sprawl development - this could appeal to some sprawlers who always seem to oppose "development" as soon as they move in, but that's not the point. The point is to retard the growth of Republican areas.

Some progressives, especially some dolts who post at dailyKos, have argued that Democrats should increase their appeal in the fastest-growing counties. This is wrongheaded - it's like saying we should increase our appeal among homophobes and Creationists - it's impossible. What we should do is promote policies that stop those areas from growing so fast - so called limits to growth, refusing to use government funds to subsidize new roads and sewers, etc. Where Democrats should look for votes is in old, formerly Republican suburbs which are starting to feel the effects of the same kinds of "urban problems" which are in fact the result of the same kinds of disinvestment these very suburbs once inflicted on the central cities.

What I'm saying is that people's political allegiances, in suburban Kansas or in Manhattan, may look odd in terms of individual economic interests, but make perfect sense in terms of community economic interests. Both communities are acting to preserve their collective economic well-being by backing parties and policies which favor them. Politics is civil war pursued by other means. Republicans seem to understand this; Democrats, for whatever reason, don't seem to get it (I'm talking about party leadership here, not really the rank and file).

For a good look at the urban/exurban split, check out this study by pollster Stanley Greenberg, sort of a "What's the Matter with Minnesota?" Not the group I'm not discussing here, rural and small town voters. They are voting on conservative cultural issues, largely because neither party gives a damn about their economic interests. Rural America is rapidly shrinking, both in absolute and proportional population and even economically. As the family-farm economy which sustained these communities has vanished, small-town America is slowly rolling up its sidewalks and disappearing. Neither party has proposed anything that could remotely stave off the destruction of these communities, even as both try to lay claim to the heritage, tradition and "values" of these places. Outside of rhetorical nostalgia, rural America basically does not interest our political leaders other than as a big source of cannon fodder for the military.

End of Sermon.

4 comments:

Trope said...

All I need, baby, is a spinning wheel and a sheep. Think we could fit the sheep on the sundeck?

I'm curious, if Dems are discussing trying to move their issues into the suburbs, why the Repubs aren't trying to woo the city. They build sterile "office parks" out in the suburbs to handle their commerce. They build shopping malls within which people congregate. So why wouldn't they be interested in taking over a city, which handles those functions so much more efficiently for so many people?

Heidi said...

Thanks for another thoughtful post.

I've been raving about suburban sprawl ever since spending the 1990s studying historic preservation. If it wasn't so fun to be a librarian I might be doing that now instead.

Wells said...

You are welcome. I really like the Atlantic. I've had it a few years now, and it never disappointing. Years ago it went through a down cycle and now its back up. Harpers is hysterical this month, fyi.

Great post. If you look back at the issue that had the donors of Manhattan to the campaign, the UWS was staunch Dem while a 10 block radius or so on the UES was staunch GOP. As one person I drink with often says "The upper east side is 'we have money, fuck off" while the upper west side is "we have lots of money, but we aren't bad people." And come on, the grocery stores in the UWS alone make is superior.

Back to your post - I completely agree. Post World War II American history is going to be a hotly debated topic. One housemate and I have argued about his language towards cities and urban areas historical. needless to say, a new conservative previously from long island. believes in privatization and all that - despite the realities of where and when the American middle class came into being.

Deer Hunter said...

I think a lot of it boils down to diversity. People that live in an area with diverse populations overwhelmingly vote Democrat, while thier inner city co-workers who fled to the 'burbs and thier sterilized homogoneous sub-divisions are "conservative" (which is clearly a p.c. code name for bigotry, since Bush is by no means conservative).

I hope you don't mind my posting here, I lurk frequently at the Tally Ho and just stopped by to see what was up.