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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Cultural NIMBYism Comes to Kansas

The progressive wants change, so long as someone else is doing it.

Gated entrance to upscale suburban neighborhood in Midwest America
(Photo by: Jim Lane/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Kansas City finds itself in the news of late, not for barbecue-related reasons or any achievements of our football team of some repute, but rather for a terrible act of violence. The shooting of a young man who knocked on the wrong door in what we here call “the Northland,” a vaguely Tolkienian term for a whiter, more conservative suburb north of the main city, has deservedly sparked outrage among many. The victim young and black, the shooter aged and white: a recipe for social upheaval. 

We should all be alarmed by a shoot-first-question-later attitude that seems to be arising in American culture. A citizen’s first reaction to a knock on the door would hardly, in a more civilized and less atomized culture, be to arm oneself. Assuming the best about others is not just a useful heuristic but perhaps a good way to avoid such calamities.

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The incident has prompted much hand-wringing about “root causes” and “systemic violence” among the chattering progressive classes. Reaction among the elite usually takes this peculiarly anti-Hayekian form, whereby the actions of individuals are always and everywhere attributable to systems seemingly beyond all our control. (This alleged lack of individual agency never extends to a concept such as transgenderism, however, in which the sovereign individual can defeat biology itself simply by force of will and declaration.) But the reaction is also telling for what it reveals about the NIMBYism at the heart of progressive thought. 

The desire to keep change out of one’s backyard can be found in us all, or at least those of us being honest with ourselves. I like the idea of cheaper housing as much as anyone else, but I don’t want Section 8 housing on the other side of my backyard. Some of us admit that; some of us use zoning regulations to keep “those people” out. But NIMBYism has moved from traditional venues—housing developments, energy projects—into nearly every domain of American progressivism. Far from being a movement based on social solidarity, as a healthy left wing should be, today’s left is vacuous and vapid: all virtue signaling, all the time, with no desire to disturb the meritocratic status quo.

No social solidarity can arise in a pluralistic nation when you never encounter people outside of your cultural orbit, and today’s progressive elite is almost entirely walled off. To associate only with people like you is to assume everyone thinks like you, and, worse, to enter the realm of abstraction in which the cause of an ill is always separate from your actions. To today’s progressive there are right beliefs (theirs) and wrong beliefs (others’), with no room for nuance, and as long as you are displaying—not living, but merely displaying—the right beliefs then you are one of the good ones. 

I live in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City on the Kansas side of our oddly bifurcated metro area. Our pastorally rustic name masks its status as a tony and increasingly exclusive municipality where the family car of choice is no longer the Toyota Sienna but the Porsche Cayenne. We are an inner-ring suburb, developed decades ago with small Cape Cods and designed for walkability. This makes it highly attractive to today’s elite, who have been parachuting in from the coast with their remote jobs and Lucid sedans to snap up what must seem like bargains, and they have brought cultural NIMBYism with them. 

Once a suburb of starter homes priced for many years around $200,000 and below, Prairie Village is now yet another hotbed of staggering prices and woke lawn signs. Developers are swooping in to outbid all buyers of small homes, which are then torn down and replaced with 4,000 square-foot monstrosities that fetch seven figures. Of the three dozen or so homes for sale right now in Prairie Village—a place where thousands of young families got their starts with a 1,500 square-foot ranch—just one is below $350,000, and more than half are priced above $1 million. 

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Ah, but this is a problem to the elite! It can’t be their fault. Clearly those pesky systemic forces are again at play, driving up prices and keeping out all but the wealthiest and whitest buyers! What other explanation could there be? And so a movement has arisen, “Prairie Village For All,” and its yard signs have joined the prominent “In This House We Believe” declarations to promote “fair and inclusive housing,” including multifamily developments and accessory dwelling units. Clearly it’s the system that must change!

But no such change is actually desired by the progressive elite. No change at all, in fact. They want to limit their exposure to the “economically disadvantaged” to glimpsing an Uber Eats driver drop off food via a Ring doorbell. These drivers—probably the only non-white American these progressives will see this week—pull up in their non-electric cars and shuffle dejectedly to the door, passing right by a sign promoting a more affordable Prairie Village.

One is tempted to point out to these arrivistes that if one desires more affordable housing, a good way to go about it is to avoid participating in the destruction of actual affordable housing and construction of a gigantic, lot-filling modern farmhouse. But cultural NIMBYism has no problem with this; the progressive wants change provided it is someone else doing the changing, preferably far away.

At dinner parties and other gatherings one listens wearily as the suburban progressive laments the wealth and the whiteness of the suburb he has chosen to call home. So milquetoast, so oppressive—if only the city would sell at below-market rates to “folks” (never “people”) of color! What’s stopping you, inquires the conservative, from selling your own home to such a family? Give them a discount, diversify the neighborhood, and move over to the urban core whose “vibrancy” you are always praising? But of course they do not want that: they merely want to tour the vibrant area, drop in on an art gallery perhaps, before returning to their safe, exclusive suburb. They live here for the same reason we conservatives do, but only one of us will admit it.

To pose these questions is to be greeted with the dismissive glance and the inevitable rejoinder: there’s nothing the person can do, for it is the system that needs dismantling. Income inequality? Never mind that the remote brand consultant makes $20,000 a month and his Uber Eats driver makes $2,000—it’s the system! Broken schools? Never mind that people move to Prairie Village in no small part for the vaunted and well-funded public schools—it’s the system! Pervasive racism? Never mind that high housing prices overwhelmingly burden non-white buyers—it’s the system!

By keeping the true injustice in the realm of abstraction, where an opaque system somehow self-perpetuates and discriminates beyond the control of any individual, the progressive ensures that no change will happen in his cultural backyard. The problem is always elsewhere; the fault is always someone else’s. Maybe it’s the corporations, the progressive says as he orders from the Amazon app. Maybe it’s the education system, the progressive says as he hires private tutors to ensure Ivy admission for his progeny. He is completely certain it is not his fault—haven’t you seen his yard sign?