The big dis
A third of Americans live in big cities. A fifth live in rural areas. So who gets the attention in presidential campaigns? And why?
Published: January 25, 2012
At the same time, metropolitan America faces tremendous problems: a $35 billion to $64 billion tab over the next 20 years just to preserve the current mass transit system, massive municipal pension obligations and in some cases stunning population losses, persistent foreclosure crises and dangerously high unemployment. The potential in America's cities, and the risks they face, matter beyond their borders.
"Nations do well when their cities do well," says Hank Savitch, an urban policy expert at the University of Louisville. "Cities are capital-intensive, labor-intensive territories that promote and catapult nations economically."
But don't expect America's cities — their problems or their potential — to be on the radar this campaign season. The 2012 race, like almost every earlier one, will be about something else.
In 1988, The New York Times' Sam Roberts wrote about the neglect of urban issues during the Michael Dukakis-George H.W. Bush presidential race, offering that their treatment was best described by an editorial cartoon he'd seen. "Sir, do you have an urban agenda?" the cartoon had a reporter asking a candidate. "Four panels of the cartoon follow, in which the candidate remains mute," Roberts wrote. "Finally, the reporter asks, 'Can you be more specific?'"
Two decades later, the Times editorial board detected a similar failing in the early stages of the '08 race. "The cities have been the hardest hit as federal policies have failed or gone missing in education, housing, health care, jobs, transportation and environment, to name a few," the Times opined, "yet urban issues have gotten scant attention in this campaign."
This near silence reflects two political realities.
The first is that Democrats, not Republicans, win cities: Obama bested Republican nominee John McCain by 2-to-1 margins in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York (all in loyal "blue" states), but also in St. Louis, New Orleans and Jackson, Miss.— cities he dominated in states he lost. Neither party has much incentive to go after urban voters; Democrats can usually count on them, and Republicans can basically count them out.
The second reality is that since World War II, America's population has — thanks to federal policies like highway construction and mortgage interest tax deductions — shifted to the suburbs. That's where the swing voters (be they Reagan Democrats or soccer moms) are, so that's where candidates aim their arguments. This has only reinforced a cultural distaste for cities. "We've got an agrarian culture, and the notion of moving up in America is moving to some rural locale rather than to an urban core," Savitch says.
This isn't to say that cities never get addressed. Urban issues arose at all three Ford-Carter debates in 1976, at a time when New York City's fiscal crisis was in the headlines and urban unrest was not a distant memory. Four years later, cities were mentioned a remarkable 38 times in the two debates among President Carter, Ronald Reagan and third-party candidate John Anderson.
In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, the 1992 presidential campaign touched a few times on urban problems. ("I think we've been fighting from Day 1 to do something about the inner cities," President Bush said at one point.) In '96, the vice presidential candidates jousted over urban policy, with Bob Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp, saying of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, "They have abandoned the inner cities. There's a socialist economy. There's no private housing. There's mostly public housing. You're told where to go to school. You're told what to buy with food stamps. It is a welfare system that is more like a third-world socialist country than what we would expect from the world's greatest democratic free enterprise system."
Campaign rhetoric, of course, bears little connection to the reality of governing. Whether or not they discussed urban policy as they barnstormed for votes, once elected, every president in modern times has had an impact on cities — by acts of omission and commission. And as far-out as Kemp's critique sounds, it reflects misgivings about federal urban policy that have dogged cities since Harry Truman.
'We don't try anymore'
The boilerplate version of modern American urban history is that cities were destroyed by a menu of activist federal policies implemented during the 1960s: public housing that drowned neighborhoods in low-income pathologies, urban-renewal efforts that uprooted city communities to make way for ill-conceived new developments, and Great Society initiatives that wasted a fortune on programs doomed to fail. There are elements of truth in that telling, but as Biles demonstrates in his new, sweeping history of federal urban policy, The Fate of Cities, it leaves most of the story out.
Fact is, America's cities did not enter the postwar period in pristine shape. Many still bore the scars of the Great Depression, during which Franklin Roosevelt showed little interest in direct aid to cities. FDR's successor, Truman, secured a major federal commitment to urban redevelopment and fought with some success for low-income urban housing, but met stiff resistance in Congress. Some Republicans were concerned about increased government spending; many had resisted the creation of public housing in the 1930s out of an ideological dislike for government intervention in the housing market. But other Republicans, joined by Southern Democrats, were driven mainly by fears that Truman's proposals might speed racial integration.