Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why Conservatives Should Take Their Fight to the Cities

Smug and lazy Democrats have left their urban constituencies behind, particularly in western states. The GOP should endeavor to fill the gap.
Homeless people wait to get food donatio

The reverberations of Boris Johnson’s landslide victory are still echoing across the Atlantic, and a key question here is whether or not Republicans, eyeing their own next national election, are learning lessons. 

The GOP has won three out of the last seven presidential contests, which is no small thing, and yet their wins have all been squeakers; including two losses in the actual popular balloting. Indeed, their last decisive win was way back in 1988. In other words, if Republicans truly wish to build a strong governing majority, they need to find more votes. 

And Johnson, meanwhile, indeed found more votes. He racked up the biggest win for the Conservatives since 1987—or, to put it another way, he dealt Labour its worst defeat since 1935. So there’s definitely something, over across the pond, for Yanks to study. 

One useful take on Johnson’s victory comes from Maurice Glasman, the founder of Blue Labour in the U.K. (In British political typology, blue is the color of the Conservative Party, so “Blue Labour” refers to Labour’s right wing, focusing especially on social and cultural issues.)   

Glasman’s lament for his Labour Party is also something of a road map for Johnson’s Tories. As Glasman put it, Johnson “has renewed his party for a generation and ripped into the Labour heartlands by aligning Brexit with national renewal and exposing the class divisions within Labour by siding with the poor.”  [emphasis added] 

We can observe that here Glasman is conflating the poor with the downtrodden working class—and both groups, of course, look distinctly poor and ant-like from the lofty perspective of the London plutocrats who opposed Johnson—at least the Brexit part of him. Johnson’s success, Glasman continues, was “to identify the Tories with the working class and the country towns and distance them from London and finance.”

To put it mildly, the Conservative Party remains home to a good many toffs, and there are plenty of working class—especially among minorities, who compose about 13 percent of the British population—Labourites still left. So Glasman, always a Labour man, is justified in concluding his piece on a contingent note: “The central question for the next ten years is whether the Conservatives can recognize that their future now lies with labour.”

In the meantime, looking ahead to the next one year, Donald Trump is seeking to rally his own proletarian vote—and, if he can, to expand it. His successful effort on behalf of criminal justice reform was a bid for expansion, as was his newfound friendship with Kanye West, the rapper-turned-uplifter.

Of course, there’s much more that Trump could do. Here at TAC in September, this author took note of reports that the Trump administration was preparing a major initiative on homelessness, perhaps by opening up federal facilities as shelters. 

The initiative hasn’t materialized as of now, and it may never, and yet if it does, Trump might, as the British would say, “dish the opposition.”  How so? The Democrats are vulnerable because have grown lazy about problem-solving for their core urban constituencies; especially in the big cities on the West coast, Democrats have allowed the ACLU, the greens, and the NIMBYs to set housing policy, and that’s been a calamity for both the homeless and the homed. So a sincere Republican reformist push in the cities could shake the chains of partisan loyalty—and perhaps shake loose some needed votes for Trump and the GOP. 

Moreover, sometimes, political opportunity can emerge from tragedy. A tragedy, that is, that convinces people that the status quo is no longer tolerable. A possible inflection point was the December 21 fire in a Las Vegas apartment complex, which killed six, injured 13, and left dozens homeless. 

Las Vegas has been a Democratic bastion for decades, and yet as we learn the details of the tragedy, we are reminded that partisan monopoly has its costs; the incumbent Democratic politicos grow smug and careless with the lives of their constituents. 

The fire occurred in Vegas’s gritty near-downtown, not far from the glittering casinos—and yet a world away, in terms of the residents’ life-prospects. As The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, the fire victims suffered from a calamitous cascade of circumstance; because the residents had no heat, they were using their stoves as furnaces, and in the meantime, “the back door to the complex was bolted shut to keep the homeless from sleeping in the complex.”  

We might note that the homeless population of the greater Las Vegas area has been estimated to be somewhere between 14,000 and 25,000. And while that group includes plenty of trespassers, squatters, and outright criminals—whom politically correct Democrats are failing to properly police—we can further note that high housing costs have forced an appreciable number of the working poor to live in their cars. In other words, urban Democratic pols are ruling over an increasingly sad and threatened “precariat.”

Thus the opportunity for Republicans today: They can step in with better urban solutions than the PC pieties that are currently spilling from the lips of Democrats. If in Britain, the Tories can now march into poor districts and defeat woke Labourites, then maybe the GOP can do the same thing to woke Democrats. 

Republicans could start by digging into the predicates of that lethal fire in Las Vegas. On December 23, the Associated Press reported that investigators were looking into claims from some residents that smoke or fire alarms weren’t working properly. Yes, that is an important question, and it’s also important to know who was responsible for inspections, and everything else that went wrong in that fatal chain of circumstance. 

So we can see: Plenty of questions need to be asked—of public regulators, of private owners, and of other responsible parties. Indeed, an imaginative Republican might check with inventors and entrepreneurs, who might have some outside-the-nine-dots fire-safety solutions to contribute.

It’s worth recalling that over the centuries, many Republicans—from Theodore Roosevelt to Tom Dewey to Rudy Giuliani—have won in cities on the basis of an urban reform agenda; maybe Las Vegas could be next. 

In the meantime, national Republicans, such as South Carolina’s Senator Tim Scott, are seeking to advance a Jack Kemp-ish agenda through, for example, the Opportunity Zones that Scott pushed to enactment two years ago. 

Still, for many, if not most, Americans, the biggest cost in their lives is housing. As we all know by now, the same restrictionist forces that are pushing more people into the streets are also putting the squeeze on ordinary renters and would-be homeowners. Thus the YIMBY movement–that’s Yes In My Back Yard, the opposite of NIMBY—is a positive development. 

And an even more positive would be a new commitment to human flourishing—that is, by the opening up of land that has been sealed off by active greens and an absent-minded Uncle Sam. 

Nevada, for example, is the seventh-largest state in the union, measured in square miles, and yet the federal government owns 80 percent of that land, thus leaving Nevadans with little living space. A visionary Republican, channeling the emancipatory spirit of Abraham Lincoln, would propose a New Homestead Act, promising to open Nevada’s land to farming and to settlement. 

To be sure, there’s currently not enough water to support cultivation and human habitation, and yet that could be fixed, too, by desalinating seawater from the Pacific Ocean and piping it inland to Nevada. (With interest rates this low, even an anti-Keynesian should see the value of borrowing cheap money to build productive infrastructure.)   

Needless to say, the greens would fight any such development, but for the GOP, that would be a good fight to have—because it would send an unmistakable signal to working-class Hispanics that pro-growth, pro-jobs Republicans are their friend, while elitist Democrats, doing the bidding of green Malthusians, as well as bi-coastal donors, are their foe.

Admittedly, any such neo-Lincolnian agenda would carry today’s Republicans, deeply marinated in Paul Ryan-type libertarianism, into unfamiliar mental territory. Indeed, it’s not even clear that Trump, different as he might be, is different enough really to get himself outside the GOP comfort zone by embracing an ambitious domestic building agenda.

Yet if Republicans yearn for Boris Johnson-level victories, they must approach old shibboleths with Johnsonian freshness. They might consider, for example, that Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, counts a population of 2.2 million; that’s more people than in 15 U.S. states. In other words, Clark County, hosting three Members of Congress, is by itself a worthy political prize. 

In the meantime, Nevada as a whole, boasting six electoral votes, has gone from being mostly Republican at the national level—the Silver State voted GOP in seven of 10 presidential elections from 1952 to 1988—to solidly Democratic; Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton carried the state in the last three elections. Meanwhile in the last few years, the Nevada GOP has been all but wiped out in federal and state contests. 

Yes, Nevada is only one state, and yet today, many states resemble Nevada in their Democratic-leaning demography, from California to Colorado to New Mexico—and maybe even, soon, Texas. 

To put the matter another way, across the nation, for every blue collar in the Midwest, there’s a de cuello azul in the Southwest. Republicans should want the votes of both. 

So now, as they gaze upon Boris Johnson and his mighty win, Republicans should ask themselves—do they want his level of success, or not?  If they do, they’re going to have to work for it. And make some major changes. 

But in the wake of the British elections, the GOP has been reminded that conservatives with daring plans can, in fact, triumph. 




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