Much of the election this year has focused on the suburbs, or, as Joel Kotkin calls them, “America’s last politically-contested territory.” Republicans have attempted to appeal to their economic concerns over mounting debt and the threat of joblessness to their middle-class security. Democrats have attempted to appeal largely to their independent women’s vote, focusing on reproductive issues. But there’s another reason for suburbs to be wary of a second Obama term – the possibility that they’ll be denied the benefits that they moved to the suburbs for in the first place.
Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written a book, Spreading the Wealth, about Obama’s desire to remake the political structures of metropolitan areas, to tie suburbs governmentally to the cities at their urban core through regional arrangements. Such arrangements would, in Kurtz’s estimation, act both to shore up the Democratic Party’s urban base and political machines with suburban tax dollars, and align the political interests of the suburbs with those cities, as well, making them more dependent on federal largesse.
In a 1998 Brookings Institution forum on the State of the Cities, then-State Senator Barack Obama (D-Chicago) discussed the need for the state government to start forcing these arrangements on metropolitan areas:
“At some point, these are real political fights. And I think that you can’t avoid the fact that there are winners and losers in the current economy, in the current way that we arrange local government, zoning issues, land use, and so forth. And that if we’re going to change these systems, then somebody’s going to be resistant, because somebody’s benefitting from the current structure. But the question is whether we can patch together coalitions that can win, particularly at the state level.
“One of the things that’s interesting to me – I’m relatively new to state government – but I think that when you look at some of these issues, state government has not picked up the ball in terms of moving in, and not micromanaging what happens at the local level, but providing some basic parameters, particularly around issues like transportation where the state is pouring a huge amount of money.
Same thing with education, the state is investing greatly, but has this sort of hands off attitude, and permits this sort of balkanization to move forward. And state government is going to be an important partner in this entire process. They’re not currently serving that role, but I think we may see some changes, at least in Illinois.”
There is good reason for suburbanites to resist this maneuver. Kotkin notes that recently, the suburbs have been picking up people who are moving there from the cities for better schools or more space. But the roots and culture of the suburbs are more than just a lawn and a nice school. In 1992, William Schneider wrote in The Atlantic:
“A major reason people move out to the suburbs is simply to be able to buy their own government. These people resent it when politicians take their money and use it to solve other people’s problems, especially when they don’t believe that government can actually solve those problems. Two streams of opinion seem to be feeding the anti-government consensus as American politics enters the suburban era. One is resistance to taxes, which is strongest among middle-class suburban voters. The other is cynicism about government, which is strongest among the urban poor and the poorly educated.
“Upscale voters are the most likely to say that government has too much power and influence, that taxes should be kept low, and that people should solve their problems for themselves. That’s the ‘elitist’ suburban view. Downscale voters express doubts about what government can do. They are the most likely to say that public officials don’t know what they are doing, that most of them are crooks, that they don’t pay attention to what people think, that government is run by a few big interests, and that you can’t trust the government to do what is right. That’s the cynical, “populist” view. Put the two together and you have a powerful, broad-based, anti-government, anti-tax coalition.
“Polls show that people want government to do more about education, the environment, the infrastructure, and health care. But they trust it less than ever. The more expansive view of what government should do has been canceled out by the more constricted view of what government can do. No one wants to give politicians more money to spend, even if the nation’s problems are becoming more serious.”
That was twenty years ago, and while Kotkin argues that the suburbs have become more competitive politically, it’s also true that the reasons people move there in the first place have a lot to do with dissatisfaction with and distrust of urban government and political machines. Schneider goes on to note that these qualities of wanting to “buy their own government” obtain regardless of the race of the voter. Black suburbanites feel the same way that whites do about that. And it’s quite likely that the growing Hispanic and Asian suburbs share many of those views.
Kurtz argues that Obama would leverage federal dollars to push those collar counties into regional government arrangements, subverting and replacing the statutory and chartered city/county structures that we have now. The would likely be done through the creation of special governmental structures, like RTD, where the cities and suburbs would have some leeway in how they cooperated, but whose boards would be elected outside traditional city & county authorities.
The sales pitch is that since the Denver Metro area, for example, needs to function economically as one unit, it should also function politically as one unit, and that infrastructure and education and housing decisions should be made regionally. I remember reading a Sunday opinion piece in the mid-80s – I can’t remember if it was in the New York Times or the Washington Post – arguing that political structures need to be on the same scale as economic ones.
There’s some merit to that. The US prospered in large part because the Commerce Clause made sure that the country was essentially one large free trade zone, with uniform laws when the commerce crossed state lines.
Thinking regionally makes sense in certain obvious cases. Cars don’t stop at a city or state lines, for instance, but buses often do. At the eastern terminus of the Kansas Turnpike, the rest area features a picture from the road’s construction, showing it ending at surface level in a farmer’s field in Oklahoma. A lack of coordination between the two states did that, although the highway was eventually completed. And Maryland is still standing in the way of both a Western Bypass and an Eastern Bypass to the Capitol Beltway, projects that anyone looking at a map can see make simple common sense for an area drowning in traffic. One frustration of living in Omaha for the year was the lack of regional bus service. RTD has unified bus service around the Denver region, and because of partial privatization, has plenty of suburb-to-suburb routes that avoid the city center altogether.
But what Obama is proposing in the clip above is something far more widespread. Schools? Housing policy? We may all be in this together, but Colorado has the idea of local control of school built into its Constitution, we feel so strongly about it. How ought they react that they need to subsidize the Denver teacher’s union? After initially demanding a part of the federal pie in return for providing “affordable housing,” they would find themselves unable to break free.
Worse, allowing Denver to export high-density housing to the suburbs is not merely a lifestyle issue, it’s also a political one. Jonathan Rodden has conducted considerable research showing that in the United States and indeed, throughout the Anglosphere, high-density housing areas, even at the precinct level, reliably and overwhelmingly vote significantly to the left of surrounding lower-density housing. These results appear to be largely independent of income level, so it’s not simply a matter of the urban poor voting Democrat; the urban rich do so, too. Extending “affordable housing,” which is almost always higher-density, into the suburbs, would infiltrate those voting patterns into this battleground area.
Localities would find themselves with less and less control both over the services they are expected to provide, and with less and less control over the taxing policy to fund those services. They would find themselves more and more dependent on state and federal funding, and thus more subject to federal and state rules. As power flowed from chartered cities and counties to these regional bodies, the rules under which they operate would also become less accountable to local control. And the flow of money to services, and the public employee unions, would become increasingly political, as the region’s government began to resemble urban machines.