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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] “Cities have no silver bullets to fight Trump”

At Open Democracy, Max Holleran argues that for many reasons–the need to make broader alliance domestically, the risk of perceived overdependence on foreign connections, and more–an anti-Trump strategy cannot be based primarily on falling back to secure bases in select urban areas.

In the weeks since the election of Donald J. Trump there has been a desperate search for silver linings. Urbanites are particularly aggrieved by the Trump/Pence partnership because ‘alt-right’ nationalism threatens the lives of city dwellers with a bewilderingly antiquated vision of American life that seeks to roll back globalization, feminism, immigration, and gay rights. Amidst the grieving, some have already come out to insist that, while Trump’s victory bodes well for those nostalgic for a supposedly rosy past, there is a path to the future and it runs through cities.

New York’s moderate Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and New York City’s left-wing mayor, Bill de Blasio, have insisted that Trump may not be that bad because, as a real estate developer and native son of Queens, he “gets” cities. Most teary-eyed New Yorkers see these statements for the conciliatory lies they are: Trump likes cities to the degree he can extract tax incentives from them. Yet, many urbanites endorse the wider message of cities as safely progressive blue zones within the red-stained 2016 national electoral map.

Progressives woke up on 9/11 and embraced a “city strategy” not out of a belief in government devolution, like their libertarian counterparts, but because of a lack of other options. Cities, and possibly a handful of deep blue states like Massachusetts and Vermont, seem like the only level of government to defend basic rights like abortion, environmental protection, and a fair minimum wage. Yet, the concept of “save the cities, forget the rest” has been a popular one in the era of globalization and has had dramatic economic effects when one looks at the income gap between London and Northern England or Washington, DC and nearby West Virginia. The politics of American cities have often revolved around strange bedfellows of international finance, professionals, and people of colour – in other words, the coalition that did not come through for Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic coalition is co-located in places like San Francisco, Austin, and Denver but they do not mix easily. Supporters of the Democratic Party who are people of colour feel that they have lost both cultural and economic status in cities, where they have not arrived for possibilities but are trapped by disadvantage. But all these groups are bound to cities culturally and they frequently view the Republican opposition as residents of rural areas locked into the culture of the past and, frequently, beholden to dying economic sectors as well.

Yet, Trump supporters are just as likely to be suburban women in non-Southern states, as men in rural Alabama. Despite this, the left continues to use rurality as a shorthand for conservative values. Put nicely, one speaks of heartland values. Less charitably, urban Democrats call their opponents “rednecks” living in flyover states where concern over gender equality, gay rights, climate change, and separation of church and state are stymied by backwardness. But this critique cuts both ways: many Trump supporters already view Democrats as having an urban strategy, and by that they mean one of smug elitism or, more frighteningly, a “cosmopolitan” lack of national patriotism and grounding religious and civic values.

Less charitably, urban Democrats call their opponents “rednecks” living in flyover states where concern over gender equality, gay rights, climate change, and separation of church and state are stymied by backwardness.

The anti-urbanism of Jefferson still exists in the US to the extent that urban life is seen as an opportunity to gain money and status via the density of connections in places like Manhattan and Palo Alto. The ability and privilege to live in an urban area in the US is often depicted as a princely status made possible by access to huge amounts of money. But the US is a large country: there is no single Rome where all power resides and beyond the gates are hinterlands ruled like conquered territories. The US has always been a multi-polar country with intense rivalry between urban areas: first Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Chicago, and today, San Francisco, DC, New York, and Los Angeles. Different places specialize in different businesses and are defined by unique varieties of power: financial, cultural, political, and technological. However, there is still the idea that outside of cities people live very different lives bereft of opportunity and access to cultural life, but somehow more genuine and morally upright.

This was long a marker of the Democratic and Republican divide and a reason why candidates like Ted Cruz were inclined to trot out critiques of wicked “New York values”. But, as the new electoral map shows, this jibe doesn’t work any more. No one seemed too concerned about Donald Trump’s Queens origins or, for that matter, the fact that Bernie Sanders is a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn. The larger divide is not between town and country but cities that are winning, such as San Francisco and Boston, and cities that are losing like Gary, Indiana and Flint, Michigan.

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Written by Randy McDonald

January 22, 2017 at 6:45 pm

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