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Urban Renewal

A conservatism that doesn’t work for city dwellers doesn’t really work at all.
by Avi Woolf
January 22, 2019
Urban Renewal
Detroit skyline. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Tucker Carlson’s now famous monologue against what was once considered traditional Reaganite conservatism has generated a great deal of interesting and informed discussion and debate. But there is one important issue he brought up that I don’t think either his critics or supporters picked up on:

In his monologue, Carlson noted the importance of people being able to grow up “no place special,” form their own family and provide for them. Two examples he noted of places being neglected? Dayton, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan.

I was surprised by Carlson’s choices. Dayton and Detroit are cities, not small towns, and conservatives have not really invested much thought or resources in cities for at least a generation now. Republican mayors are an increasingly vanishing breed, and many major cities haven’t seen a Republican in charge since LBJ or even FDR was president.

In general, conservative discourse about America has increasingly revolved around rural America’s problems. Whether you side with the sympathetic portrait painted by Nicholas Eberstadt in Commentary or Kevin Williamson’s caustic tough love essay in National Review, Americans living in cities are largely outside our fixation on small towns. To the extent we even talk about cities, they serve as nothing more than avatars of scorn – whether it’s “corrupt” D.C., “liberal” Hollywood and Los Angeles, “murderous” Chicago, or other bastions of impure and dysfunctional liberalism to be avoided at all costs.

It wasn’t always like this. Indeed, many conservative and neoconservative thinkers got their start in discussing the importance of cities and the problems they were suffering from liberal policies and social dysfunction with solutions proposed to at least partially alleviate them. The recently departed Nathan Glazer became a neoconservative discussing the social issues and challenges of largely city-based populations. Now-disgraced Rudy Giuliani was once the model of what a Republican mayor of that generation could be. Not anymore.

Some of this turn toward the heartland may just be the squeaky wheel getting the grease – once it was cities suffering from major social dysfunction, now it’s the small towns. Just as conservatives spent much intellectual effort thinking about how to help the former (whether any specific solutions were correct or not), now they do so for the latter.

The increasing rural support for Republicans as support in cities drops off no doubt also plays a role. Cheering about “flyover country” beating the coasts has been a right-wing team sport at least since George Bush’s victory in 2004, and the rural hue of right-wing political support has only increased since then. Just as left-wing thinkers and politicians focus on what they think are the needs of its own diverse coalition – allegations of police abuse and discrimination, added government help where needed and so on – so do people on the right invest in what they see as “their people.”

But Carlson’s noting of cities as places where working men lived, whether intentional or not, points to the fallacy of focusing only on “people left behind” in Smallville.

About 98 million American citizens live in urban areas, more than twice the number of those living in small towns (almost four times as many Americans live in suburbs and small metros). As Carlson himself perhaps unwittingly admitted, not all of these are those woke Brooklyn hipsters conservatives so love to parody. Many of the people living there are members of the working class, usually making a living in services of various kinds. A conservative agenda strengthening growth, removing regulations, and helping to foster and improve community and families in cities could go a long way to helping them.

Every so often, someone on the right speaks of the importance of “outreach” to minorities or immigrants to bolster the Republican or conservative brand. But these populations are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas and cities, and you cannot talk to, let alone convince, Americans there of conservative ideas if you do not take cities seriously as places where conservative ideas belong. You cannot speak of the importance of local knowledge and policy if you don’t think about how to help fix the street, create good schools, ensure a genuinely just law enforcement and legal system, or increase housing for the working people living there.

It’s not like you’d need to start from scratch, either. That trove of policy analysis in publications like The Public Interest is still there, and I’ve no doubt that at least some of the insights learned in that era still hold true today. Movements like New Urbanism have made inroads even in the paleocon magazine The American Conservative, and City Journal still contains many valuable insights, as well, even if I strongly disagree with many others. Scott Beyer’s Market Urbanism Report is a wonderful collection of ideas of how markets can serve conservative ends of human flourishing, just as Carlson wants. I myself wrote an agenda at Arc Digital for a conservativism in the city based in both free market ideas and the “thicker” conservative concepts of community and tradition.

Getting more involved in cities would bring other benefits, too. As Hayek famously noted, there are hard limits to centralized knowledge; the best think tank analysis of broad societal trends cannot replace on-the-ground knowledge of specific cities, neighborhoods, and streets. Republican aldermen, officials, and mayors would be able to provide us with that knowledge. So would conservative associations or serious reporters devoted to this sort of beat (aiming to actually tell the story of cities, not parachute in to make fun of them). Indeed, conservative publications would do well to solicit writers from various cities to write about them just as they now do for rural America.

This information would do more than just provide us with details needed for policy or allow us to know how to better focus conservative messages for city-dwellers. It would help us to get to know our “neighbors” and see them beyond the ugly stereotypes we ourselves perpetuate about urban America. We’d realize that they, too, are fellow Americans, not evil monsters aiming to destroy everything built up over generations, with their own communities and traditions and aspirations, often removed from glitzy downtowns and hipster coffee shops.

So I agree with Tucker Carlson on this: A conservatism that does not work for a perfectly average individual, living and working in no place special, is a conservatism that has no business being involved in national politics or claiming to speak for most of America; it can reduce itself to the elite circles he so loves to pillory. There are far more of those Average People living in cities than we acknowledge – and conservatism must work for them, too.

Avi Woolf

Avi Woolf is an editor and translator residing in Israel. His Twitter handle is @AviWoolf.