Politics & Policy

From Sea to Shining Sea

(Photo: Dreamstime)
Why have conservatives abandoned the coasts?

Republicans like the look of the presidential electoral map: On a county-by-county basis, the United States is a vast sea of Republican red separating two little beachheads of Democratic blue, broken by a few little blue islands with names such as Chicago and Denver. That’s a lot of red.

But the blue bits? There aren’t many of them . . . but that’s where the people are.

If real estate cast votes, the United States would be practically a one-party state. And, to be sure, as things stand, the Republicans are doing well, controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress while enjoying a commanding position in the states. “Who needs California?” they ask, often with a sneer. “Who needs New York and New Jersey?”

The answer: America does.

Conservatives, too.

In its quest to “Make America Great Again,” the Republican party, and to a lesser extent the conservative movement that animates itself, has taken a position of enmity toward much of what made America great in the first place. With all due respect to those amber waves of grain, coastal urban America has in many ways led the way: Hollywood, Wall Street, Ronald Reagan, punk rock, Ellis Island, Edison, Apple, Facebook, Google, J. P. Morgan, General Electric.

The modern conservative movement was not a product of the Old South or the Midwest but an intellectual phenomenon that percolated up in Southern California and New York City. (With apologies to Mr. and Mr. Koch, there’s a reason William F. Buckley Jr. did not choose to launch a journal in Wichita.) It’s all good and fine to point to the troubles — and they are many — of the Democrat-dominated states and cities, but in their rhetorical frenzy to abominate the Democrat-leaning parts of the country, Republicans have put themselves at odds with many of our most successful industries, institutions, and communities. Republicans sneer at Silicon Valley and at the elite universities that educate the people who work there. In favor of what? A resentment-driven cultural milieu that insists that the “Real America” is to be found elsewhere, and that the “Real America” looks like Hee-Haw without the music or self-deprecating humor. They insist that San Francisco is Hell on Earth but never ask why it is that so many people want to live there — or they just write off those who do as degenerates and hopelessly un-American.

That’s bad politics.

About 40 million Americans, more than 12 percent of the population, live in two metropolitan areas: New York and Los Angeles. About 10 million Americans live in Los Angeles County alone, more than the populations of Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Alaska, and Wyoming combined. One in four Americans live in a handful of big, urban, Democrat-dominated states: California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Sure, but Texas has a lot of people, too. That’s true, and about 75 percent of them live in the urban triangle defined by I-35, I-45, and I-10. Most Texans live either in big cities such as Houston and San Antonio or in the larger metros around them. And Texas’s cities are, politically speaking, a lot like other big American cities: Democrat-dominated. There is no Texas city larger than Fort Worth that regularly elects Republican mayors. If uncontested control of the Amarillo city council is the Republican party’s long-term goal, it’s on its way. But if the GOP would like to make inroads into San Antonio or Houston — to say nothing of Los Angeles or Chicago — then something is going to have to change.

If uncontested control of the Amarillo city council is the Republican party’s long-term goal, it’s on its way. But if the GOP would like to make inroads into San Antonio or Houston — to say nothing of Los Angeles or Chicago — then something is going to have to change.

In 2018, our politics isn’t about policy. It’s about Kulturkampf, which means it is about enemies. For contemporary Republicans, especially those of the Trump-oriented persuasion, that means the people they denounce as “elites” and “globalists.” Trump denounces “elites” and “globalists,” and his partisans find this satisfying. He also spent his first year in office giving those “elites” and “globalists” practically everything they wanted in terms of his policy agenda, including a very large corporate tax cut and the imposition of a territorial tax system — two proposals near and dear to the pinstriped hearts of multinational executives around the world but of relatively little interest to pissed-off underemployed white guys in Garbutt.

The self-respecting nationalist-populist might ask why it is that Lloyd Blankfein got his tax cut before they got their wall — if politics were about policy. But it isn’t. The self-respecting nationalist-populist might wonder why Trump is talking about how great the stock market is doing when 2017 saw the weakest growth in jobs since 2010. They might wonder why two of the most important figures in Trumpworld — Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and recently exiled consigliere Steve Bannon — both are products of Goldman Sachs and Hollywood, detestable coastal elites if ever there were any.

Oh, but let’s talk about Rosie O’Donnell . . . 

Politics can be about policy, and the Democratic-dominated parts of the country could use a dose of good conservative thinking when it comes to improving their terrible public schools, reducing crime, sorting out their pension messes, and improving the standard of living for non-billionaires in high-priced coastal states. The cities need Republicans, and Republicans need the cities — assuming that they do not want to be a political party that dominates only those parts of the country where the people aren’t. Some will say: “California — let it burn!” Considering the cultural excesses of the tech industry, my colleague Heather Wilhelm suggested in these pages last week that we “Wall Off Silicon Valley.” She was being funny, but not everybody is joking.

The “Real American” sneering at New York and California is tied up in silly and romantic notions about virtue. Not that virtue is silly or that venerating it is romantic. Far from it: Virtue is essential to the healthy and peaceful functioning of a free republic. What’s silly is the notion that virtue cannot be found, practiced, or taught in Los Angeles, and what’s daftly romantic is the notion that it somehow sprouts up out of the ground wherever corn and wheat do. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Reverend Billy Graham didn’t stay on the farm: He went to the big city (Minneapolis, in his case) and became a college president before launching his revivals in Los Angeles. There’s a reason Peter went to Rome.

Writing off half of the country as a lost cause is bad for the Republican soul. It also will prove bad for Republican electoral prospects, in time. If the Republican party cannot be moved by the prospect of regaining its soul, then surely it can be moved by the prospect of losing the world, or at least Congress.


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