One of the most striking results of the 2016 presidential race was that the fault lines of American politics seemed to fracture the electorate over geo-demographic lines in addition to, if not to a greater extent than, the predictable racial and economic divides.
Where a person resides has become as much an indicator of their politics as the more traditionally established gauges of ethnicity, income, and education.
If the GOP wants to build on its momentum, the most obvious place it can grow is within the country’s urban sprawl. Its rural coalition is solid and was enough to ensure victory; but the decreased turnout for Clinton and Democrats in down-ballot races in city centers and inner suburbs may provide the chance to contest more House and Senate seats in 2018.
That means Ohio and Pennsylvania could again be the battlegrounds.
The political need for an urban agenda is compounded by the country’s demographic shift.
The 2010 census reported that 71 percent of the country now lives in an “urbanized area” (50,000 people or more), with more than half of those residing in one of the largest 50. This means that the majority of Americans are flowing towards cities of over 1 million people, at the same time the percentage of the population and political weight of rural communities is in decline.
In order to build a red presence in cities, the GOP has to offer a tangible alternative to the dogmatic and long-running progressive doctrines that have governed most urban areas for decades, and have only achieved a mixed bag of results.
The logical place to start would be the three major themes of Donald Trump’s urban policy speeches. We can all agree that cities should be safe, house good schools, and provide real job opportunities. These are benchmarks the new administration has rightfully set.
The Republican Party’s support for law enforcement has at times received “Bronx cheers” in many urban communities. To ignore this fact, and its underlying causes, would be the proverbial elephant in the room.
A clear problem will be how reconcile this overt support for proactive policing with the feeling of distrust it has caused in certain communities. The Republican Party cannot abandon successful policies like “stop and frisk,” but it also can’t ignore the social effects of its overuse and the anger it generates in communities of color.
The absolute proscription of policing tools like “stop and frisk” could make communities less safe, but GOP leaders would be equally disserved by mimicking former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s use of it as a quantifier of an officer’s activity. Ask most NYPD officers, and they will likely confirm that “stop and frisk” quotas were a problem for both the police and the communities they serve.
Regarding urban education, the party under President-elect Trump is well positioned to implement the school choice agenda it unveiled in its platform earlier this year.
There is already infighting among urban Democrats between those who see the community benefits of charter and private schools and those who do not. For the GOP, this has never caused a similar wedge and its leaders should eagerly seek allies among the families open to this type of scholastic change.
The president-elect has the political capital to implement a variety of potential academic game-changers, from eliminating Common Core, to education savings accounts, to vouchers and tuition tax credits. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program could even serve as a model.
On urban employment, Donald Trump has correctly argued that inner cities have populations prime for jobs in a resurgent manufacturing sector. Additionally, as people of color and recent immigrants now own millions of urban small businesses, the GOP and its pro-growth tax agenda may find natural allies among groups that have long been skeptical.
Beyond then-candidate Trump’s urban policy speeches, city-dwellers should be optimistic of his call for renewed investments in infrastructure. Republicans have often been critical of infrastructure spending-as-economic development, and under previous and current administrations their criticisms may be valid.
Still, large-scale transportation projects are vital to any urban agenda. Unlike the past, highway and rail spending should be based on its potential benefit to growth, rather than its likely value as political pork. Bridges to “nowhere” are bad, but bridges to somewhere emerging can pay dividends.
The bulk of progressive city planners are preoccupied with increasing the density of central business districts to alleviate the cost of housing. The renewed focus on downtowns has been beneficial, but still, the majority of Americans moving to urbanized areas are actually going to the suburbs.
In the battle between preference versus planning, preference is winning. Metropolitan areas with vast sprawls like Orlando, Phoenix and Cleveland are growing faster than high-density areas like downtown New York and Washington D.C. In reality, three-quarters of the people living in urbanized areas live in the suburbs.
As a result, the GOP’s urban agenda need not solely focus on inner cities, and hence why many of its elected officials should rethink their opposition to infrastructure spending.
Highways and rail links that allow cities to naturally grow outward will have the added benefit of bringing more traditional Republicans into swing congressional districts. Homeowners, married couples, car owners, and families in middle class and upper middle class brackets are all statistically more likely to vote for a Republican candidate.
A final goal for the GOP should be to undo the shift towards hyper-centralization in the Obama era, both at the federal and state levels.
There is a growing trend among Democrats and some Republicans, to usurp control from municipalities under the false assumption that a bigger bureaucracy means more expertise and better outcomes. This is shocking, and as the renowned urbanist Joel Kotkin points out, it “is taking place amidst growing public skepticism about its efficacy.”
Bigger is not necessarily better, and placing more regulation on municipal behavior does not always produce the intended benefits. In New York, the inability of the New York City Housing Authority, which manages a monolithic 180,000 public housing units, to provide its half-million residents with adequate repairs and basic maintenance is perhaps the poster-child of big-government failure.
If the GOP begins to dismantle hyper-centralization by restoring control to the local officials more Americans trust to govern their communities could prove the key to both limiting government and restoring faith in it.
America’s metropolitan residents can benefit from this new era of Republican control, so long as the party’s leaders come through on an agenda that makes them a priority. In truth, if the GOP wants to maintain power as the demographics of the country change, it may simply have no choice.
This op-ed can be reviewed here on The Hill.