What’s Urban Conservatism and How Might It Help?

Coming out of Election Day two weeks ago, much has been said and written about how conservatives and Republicans generally did lousy in suburbs across the country, and how they did absolutely lousy in any American city of any size.  Not that such electoral results or lamentations and commentaries are at all new.  Vote totals had been disappointing, and critiques pointed, for years when American Experiment published, in January 2008, one of our most imaginative and important symposia, What Does It Mean to be an Urban Conservative?  Featuring 40 eclectic writers, it’s no less on-target now than it was a decade ago.  Following immediately below is the symposium’s Introduction.  Here’s the full publication, which, I would suggest, is worth taking a 2018 look at.

What Does It Mean To Be an Urban Conservative? 

A Symposium
Mitch Pearlstein

January 2008

I admit that I had never given any thought to what it means to be an urban conservative—as opposed to a “paleo,” “neo,” “social,” “main-street,” or some other kind of conservative—until my long-time friend and colleague Peter Bell suggested the novel combination as grist for an American Experiment symposium.  Yes, I proudly handed out literature for one of my all-time heroes, Bill Buckley, when he ran for mayor of New York City in 1965 (I was 17 at the time).  But he won only 13.4 percent of the vote, and I’ve dwelled on other things since.

In making the case for the topic and locution, Peter argued persuasively that the “conservative movement in our country is entering an important period of introspection, reviewing important questions of principle and policy,” begging a powerfully pivotal question: “Can a conservative governing coalition be built that’s almost exclusively suburban and rural?”  Not since the days of Jack Kemp’s public service, he noted, has the matter been seriously considered.

Questions of this sort would be key even if conservatives had enjoyed stunning success during the 2006 election cycle (we didn’t), and even if prospects for 2008 were terrific (they’re not). . . .

This package is also one of the first projects in a year-long series of American Experiment activities aimed at rethinking and re-energizing conservatism—partially prompted by a certain political convention to be held in St. Paul next summer.  Though, I’m quick to emphasize, as is the case with everything the Center does, this project is wholly nonpartisan, featuring 40 writers of various party stripes and ideological denominations, from Minnesota and across the nation.  Among questions they pondered are the following:

  • Should we even bother thinking about something conceived as urban conservatism (as opposed to other basic kinds) to begin with?
  • If you were to design a philosophy of urban conservatism, what would it contain? What would it not contain?
  • Do you believe it’s possible to build and maintain a sufficiently potent and long-term conservative movement in the United States without more than token support in major cities and other urban areas?
  • What about the same question in regards to Minnesota? Is it possible to build and maintain a sufficiently potent and long-term conservative movement here with hardly any support in Minneapolis and St. Paul and most inner-ring suburbs?  In considering this question and the one immediately above, you may want to take into account various demographic changes well underway across the country, especially significant increases in minority populations.
  • And by the way, how do you define conservatism?

Participants were urged to focus on just one or two questions rather than the full slate—or to come up with entirely different questions of their own.  Given such latitude, it’s no surprise that our more than three dozen writers pursued matters from nearly three dozen different angles.  Here’s a sampling and sense of what they had to say, starting with a number of skeptics, as several writers disparage the very idea of a specific “urban” conservatism.

Larry Colson, for example, contends that it’s “merely a euphemism for ‘big government conservative’” and is used only to “obfuscate the fact that it’s just middle-of-the-road liberalism.”

Jake Haulk is similarly unimpressed, as he writes that “amalgamations” like urban conservatism are “eventually indistinguishable from modern-day liberalism.”

And with a bit of sardonic whimsy, Roger Magnuson suggests there’s something “deliciously oxymoronic” about the very existence of urban conservatives, “sort of on the order of ‘what’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?’”

Then there is Denny Schulstad, who, during his more than two decades on the Minneapolis City Council, was usually the lone Republican-endorsed official in the entire city who held any of the 33 jobs determined by elections.  On deciding not to seek reelection in 1997, the number of elected Republicans dropped precipitously, all the way to zero, where it remains.   “While in the past,” he writes, “I was called an endangered species, I’m now called a dinosaur (totally extinct).”

While Schulstad concludes that the “battle between liberals and conservatives has moved to the suburbs,” having been lost in big major cities, Roger Conant, in an especially “fowl” mood, makes the case that it’s been lost there, too.  “Ornithologists,” he notes, “have argued over whether there was one type of dodo bird, or whether there were two distinct types: the regular dodo bird and the ‘white’ dodo bird.  I, for one, am prepared to suggest it doesn’t matter, since the dodo bird went extinct in the 17th century.”  Likewise, he laments, “One could debate the merits of the urban dodo—oops, conservative, but that equally doesn’t matter, since conservatives, as defined by the likes of Hayek, Goldwater, and Friedman” have become extinct, replaced by “big government conservatives,” espousing “rapidly growing centralized government, big deficits, and government suppression of individual freedoms.”

Biting and clawing as these criticisms are, most writers take different tacks, with many stressing that unless conservatism makes inroads in great cities, it will fail nationally.

Getting right to the point, David Sturrock warns: “Building conservative electoral and governing coalitions without the ‘urbs’ won’t be possible for much longer, given liberalism’s continuing inroads, politically and culturally, in America’s ‘red’ states and counties.” Major urban centers, he writes, “are the most influential places in America, notwithstanding the rise of the office park culture,” and this “urban dominance” likely will continue “in the realms of ideas, high (and low) culture, finance, medicine, and communications.”  This means, Sturrock concludes, that “conservatism must remain a force in urban life if it’s going to have any influence in these arenas.”

How exactly might conservatives do this?  Several writers argue that men and women on the right must do sizably better in making their ideas—as well as themselves—more attractive when it comes to a range of social and cultural issues and sensibilities.  Too often, Dennis O’Brien writes, conservatives have become “social scolds, expressing political solutions with a heightened sense of morality and an insistence that their political answers have to be accepted on moral as well as political grounds.  But because few people want to be governed by those who scold, conservatives have allowed themselves to become politically irrelevant.”

Lou Wangberg argues not dissimilarly: “In the beginning, being conservative was not about social issues.”  Rather, “it was about government playing the least possible role in people’s lives. . . . When you advocate government restriction or intrusion into private lives, that isn’t conservative; it’s liberal.”

Regardless of whether one believes such strictures are on target, a central question remains: How should conservatives govern?  John Hood is copious in his modest conception.  Urban conservatives, he writes,

. . . shouldn’t seek to turn downtowns into subsidized Disney parks and sports megaplexes, or pine for that brief, shining moment when most Americans lived in apartments and commuted by streetcars.  Instead, urban conservatives ought to focus on bread-and-butter issues that really matter to the daily lives of urban voters: crime, crumbling infrastructure, abysmal schools, and social decay.  Many of the public policies best suited to these problems aren’t exciting.  They are basic and conservative in a “small c” sense.  Streets need to be maintained at an economical cost.  Cities need to slim their payrolls and reform their compensation policies.  Criminals need to be incapacitated, if not deterred.  Some cities need substantial improvements in their water and sewer systems.

To the list, Hood adds school choice.

In addressing why cities need conservative policies and approaches, several contributors recall hometown experiences.  Drawing on his family’s old neighborhood in Detroit’s Lower East Side, Greg Kaza argues that “recognition of the role of voluntary religious organizations and their faith-based initiatives” constitutes a keynote difference “between liberal opinion and urban conservatism,” with urban conservatives “welcoming them,” as opposed to urban liberals, who “seek to undermine them with government programs.”  Such religiously imbued activities, he writes, “whether private schools or social welfare programs, have always played a crucial role in Detroit.”  He notes that the very neighborhoods that gave his old city “strength for much of the 20th century were built around churches and synagogues.”

Andrew Cowin grew up in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s, an era of “welfare and crime and of gigantic social experiments that backfired.”  Anyone, he contends, “who lived through that time and didn’t become a conservative wasn’t paying attention.”

While most writers are right of center, as is invariably the case with American Experiment symposia, several men and women—all good friends—are not.  I have no hesitation in saying the package would be even stronger if it had more such contrarian voices. Dane Smith, for instance, writes that conservatives,

. . . have hurt themselves with sustained resistance to even modest increases in public investment for vital, economy-building assets like public education and mass transit.  The United States has the lowest taxes and the lowest level of investment in human capital among the industrialized democracies, and Minnesota as a state is becoming merely average on both measures.  Cities in particular can feel this disinvestment and the “no new taxes” mentality behind it.

In order for conservatives “to be taken seriously in the cities,” Smith, president of Growth & Justice, Minnesota’s self-described “progressive” think tank, urges them to “do more than ‘frame’ things differently or put a smiley face on their agenda.”  Rather, he says, “They need to say things differently and also back up their words with money.”

Finally, some pieces don’t fall neatly into any of the above categories, but they’re terrifically insightful nonetheless, as witness this sample of passages, starting with Michael Barone’s concentrated paragraph on how “conservatives developed a thoroughgoing critique” of Great Society liberalism:

Think tanks like the Manhattan Institute in New York and foundations like the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee worked to understand and improve the cities in which they operated.  Charles Murray’s Losing Ground in 1984 paved the way for welfare reform, first undertaken seriously by Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin in 1987.  George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s article, “Broken Windows,” in 1982 paved the way for effective crime control, first undertaken seriously by Mayor Rudolph Giuilani in New York in 1994.  These successes resonated nationally, and similar reforms were undertaken in many states and cities.  The federal government reformed welfare in 1996.  The result: welfare dependency and crime were cut approximately in half in a decade, constituting the major public policy successes of the 1990s.

 “The idea of conservatism,” Wilfred McClay recounts, “far from being anti-urban, has always been bound up in the history of great cities.”  He notes,

When Russell Kirk wrote The Roots of American Order, he chose to build his account around the central cities of the history of the West: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and Philadelphia.  Each embodied a foundational stage in the development of American liberty and order.  Man is made for cities, and the civilization that conservatives wish to conserve is rooted in them.  After all, the Book of Revelation aims at the creation of the New Jerusalem—not the New Tara Plantation or the New Grover’s Corners.

 With apologies to Bill McClay, one of my favorite intellectual historians, some folks might find his allusion to Athens and her sister cities a little too cerebral for their taste.  For them, Nathaniel Zylstra has just the telling lesson and cartoon for you:

Urban conservatives think that the animated television show “South Park”—a show based on the adventures of four foul-mouthed fourth graders—is good for the conservative movement because it consistently and forcefully (albeit vulgarly) skewers the sacred tenets of American liberalism.  Rural conservatives think that “South Park” is disgusting.

 My enormous thanks to all 40 writers . . . . And as with everything American Experiment does, I welcome your comments.