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Republicans Won’t Compete in Cities

Republican candidates lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. If the GOP is to survive as a national party, it needs to appeal to new constituencies. Could city dwellers be part of the solution? The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser says yes (with an echo from Aaron M. Renn):

The Republicans’ abandonment of the city is good neither for their party nor for urban America. The GOP clearly needs a heftier percentage of the urban vote, but winning it by means of fiscal pandering or redistribution isn’t the way to go—partly because such a strategy would cost rural and suburban votes and partly because it would be wrong. A better approach is to offer the good ideas that cities desperately need. Republicans have plenty.

The ideas Glaeser identifies as especially promising include data-driven policing, school choice, contracting out city services, congestion pricing for driving and parking, and the removal of regulatory obstacles to housing construction. And he’s right that these are appealing reforms. Contrary to what many conservatives believe, urban policy is not necessarily a transfer of wealth from makers to takers. Metropolitan areas are the country’s economic engines–and good policies will make them even more productive.

But there’s little chance that Republicans will seize the opportunity. The most basic reason is historical. The Democratic Party has dominated America’s cities since the Age of Jackson. And while individual Republicans have occasionally succeeded in urban constituencies, they have rarely had much influence on the national party.

Glaeser cites the “Crisis of the Cities” section of the 1968 platform as evidence that the GOP used to care about urban issues. But platforms are notoriously insignificant. The real story for the Republican Party in the ’60s was the capture of the Sunbelt and the rural South. Republican interest in cities during this period had more to do with signalling to suburbanites that it would not allow urban blight to spill over into their communities than with a real electoral strategy.

Moreover, the social conservatism that defines the Republican Party is anathema to urban voters. A party that is loudly opposed to gay marriage and abortion will never be competitive in America’s cities. Glaeser dreams of a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicanism that might win in New York and its inner suburbs. But there aren’t enough votes to make this an appealing strategy on the national level: any gains in metropolitan areas would be wiped out by losses in the so-called base.

The problem for Republicans, then, isn’t that they’re ignoring chances to expand their coalition. It’s that they’re trapped by a dynamic in which serious outreach to new groups alienates existing supporters. As Daniel Larison has argued, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Don’t expect Republicans to take Manhattan any time soon.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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