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Running Against the City: The GOP Finds Its Demon

It’s been a long time coming: Over the past two decades, demographers have noticed America’s cities getting bluer and the countryside bleeding red. The electoral map of 2000 put the so-called “big sort” in stark relief, and The Stranger’s Urban Archipelago manifesto crystallized the realization that liberals—and their lattes, and their limousines—were marooned. 

Republicans took a little longer to open that front in the culture war. This year, the GOP made anti-urbanism an official plank in its platform, accusing the Obama administration of “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” Shades of Chairman Mao!

Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that most of the stimulus spending went to projects outside urban centers—even though transit projects generate more jobs than building highways—and take a look at how the GOP has evolved on this point. 

The party’s whole platform has lurched to the right since 1980, as the The New York Times describes today. But its stance on transportation—which functions as a proxy for attitudes towards urban life—has undergone perhaps the most dramatic transformation. 

“Republicans support a healthy intercity passenger rail system, and where economically viable, the development of a national high-speed passenger railroad system as an instrument of economic development, and enhanced mobility,” the transportation plank read in 2000. “We also support a multi-modal approach to our transportation needs,” it went on, bemoaning congestion and speaking of state-level flexibility to build infrastructure “from highways to bike lanes.”

Support for a robust passenger rail system continued in 2004, as part of a “comprehensive transportation policy.” As recently as 2008, they endorsed an approach that would be “mindful of the special needs of both rural and urban communities,” “ensure mobility across both rural and urban areas,” and be “committed to minimizing transportation’s impact on climate change, our local environments, and the nation's energy use.”

This year, it’s all about gutting cumbersome environmental review, somehow expecting that the private sector will be able to finance high-speed rail construction, and making sure that the Highway Trust Fund gets spent on highways, not fripperies like light rail and bike paths

Given the oil-and-water nature of the current electoral map, it’s not surprising that Republicans would decide that running against cities plays to their base. While there used to at least be conservatives outside major cities who rode commuter rail into work, now the Westchesters of the world are liberal too. Immigrants who once flocked to downtowns are now on the fringes, and even more dependent on transit. And Mitt Romney certainly has no need for a city bus. 

In a way, of course, the platform framers are right: Urban progressives in Obama’s camp do believe that housing people in dense neighborhoods that support public transit and all sorts of other amenities should be a public policy goal, because it’s actually the best tool we’ve got for promoting opportunity and creating wealth. 

That’s probably not how Democrats will respond. If they’re smart, they’ll talk about how public transit is about promoting choices—the more people who ride buses and can walk to work, the easier it is for drivers to keep driving if they want to. And I’d be interested to know how rural farmers survive without thriving metropolises to buy their crops. 

For now, though, the urban vs. rural divide remains America’s biggest cultural schism—bigger than religion, race, or who built what with whose help. And if the growth of cities compared to the rest of America is any indication, the Democrats picked the winning side.