Why “Urban Conservatism” is Not a Contradiction in Terms

Suffice it to say Republican candidates didn’t do well on Election Day last month in urban America.  Then, again, they haven’t done well in big and other good-sized cities for a long time.

This keenly has been the case in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the last Republican elected to any post in either of the two cities was Denny Schulstad, to the Minneapolis City Council, in 1993.  Even more strikingly, he has written about how during the majority of his more than two decades on the council, “I was the only one of the 33 people holding elective public office in the city who was Republican endorsed.”

Right around the time Schulstad was leaving office – and in so doing leaving a vacuum – my American Experiment colleague Peter Bell asked one of his perpetually interesting questions: “What does It mean to be an urban conservative?”  To which the two of us wondered things such as, “Is such a species plausible?  And how, precisely, might it differ from other kinds of conservatives?”

To ponder these and related questions, I did what I’ve done many times over the nearly 30 years American Experiment has been up and running: I emailed about 750 of my closest friends asking what they thought.  Forty of them responded by writing often superbly insightful pieces, which we published, in January 2008, under the title “What Does It Mean to be an Urban Conservative: A Symposium.”

Do the things they wrote apply now, more than a decade later?  Near perfectly, is the answer.  Here’s a sampling of pointed thoughts, starting with how the genus “urban conservative” – as opposed to “paleo,” “neo,” “social,” or “main street” conservative” – emerged.

One distinguished historian (Wilfred McClay) cited another distinguished historian (Richard Hofstadter) who “quipped” that America is a “nation that was born in the country and has moved to the city.”  Jumping ahead, similarly brilliant scholar Michael Barone argued how “Liberal welfare policies and lax crime control,” led not to a “kind of heaven in central cities,” but often something “closer to hell.”

Barone wrote of how “urban conservatives developed a thoroughgoing critique of urban liberalism.”  Think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute “worked to understand and improve the cities in which they operated.”  And Charles Murray’s Losing Ground in 1984 “paved the way for welfare reform, first undertaken seriously by Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin in 1987.”

It was precisely conservative principles and policies like these, Barone continued, that led to remarkable reductions in crime and welfare caseloads, among other improvements, in cities across the country.

Greg Kaza, who served in the Michigan House of Representatives for five years in the 1990s, where he chaired the urban policy committee, wrote of a vital “line of demarcation” between right and left on the role of “voluntary religious organizations,” very much including religious schools.  Urban conservatives, he argued, enthusiastically welcome such efforts.

Getting to the nub, why aren’t conservatives and Republicans doing any better than they are in U.S. cities?  Attorney Dennis O’Brien was sober in response.

Conservatives, he wrote, “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.”

In fairness, I would argue this is less of a problem than it was eleven years ago, as there is currently less emphasis on social issues such as same-sex marriage.  But with laughs particularly precious these days, a last word about urban conservatism goes to writer Craig Westover.

“For better or worse,” he wrote, “the majority of urban denizens have been domesticated to think in terms of government solutions.  Free market philosophy is received in the problem-plagued urban environment like hamburger at a vegetarian restaurant.”

But an “interesting thing about vegetarians,” Westover continued, is that they “love food that looks like meat – vegetarian hot dogs, vegetarian hamburgers, and tofu turkey.”  But he had yet to meet a “carnivore who’d rather a thick porterhouse steak looked like a carrot.”

Point being: “Marketing conservatism is like marketing vegetarian hamburgers – packaging is important.”  Conservative and free market ideas, moreover, need to be turned into “definable policies, proposals, and ultimately, legislation that effectively address the everyday concerns of people living in an urban environment.”

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and senior fellow of Center of the American Experiment.  His newest book, Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in April.