Conservatives do not do well in the cities. We assume, strangely, that this indicates a problem with the cities rather than a problem with . . . us. We may as well be trying to sell New York City and Los Angeles Edsels full of New Coke — and cursing the consumers for being too thick to appreciate what we are offering.
New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia — as far as conservatives are concerned, these may as well be so many Sodoms upon which we are all too happy to call down fire and judgment. But it’s not only the coastal dens of sin that we have written off: In Texas — Texas! — Republican office-seekers (a reasonable if imperfect proxy for conservative political tendencies) are largely shut out of the cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso — all are reliably Democratic. There is no Texas city larger than Fort Worth that routinely elects Republican mayors or that can be relied upon to support Republican candidates in state and national elections.
And if any American city should have a prestigious institution of higher education in it, it may as well be Pyongyang.
But if there is something conservatives hate worse than American cities, it is European cities. On cable-news shows, on talk radio, and at conservative conferences, conservatives talk about London and Paris as though they sit on the lower circles of Dante’s hellscape. Oslo? Helsinki? Zurich? Madrid? Lisbon? They may look like perfectly nice, cultured, thriving world cities on the outside, but conservatives are sure that they are prefigurations of the coming caliphate.
We prefer the “Real America,” which apparently means depopulated rural areas and moribund Rust Belt mill towns, outer-ring suburbs, declining mega-churches, Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming. We aren’t even very sure about Montana these days. If by the “Real America” you mean the parts of the country where the people and the capital are, we are not quite so sure of ourselves.
Americans, in particular the younger ones, don’t seem to be getting the message. The best and brightest of them keep going to the colleges we hate, studying for the professions we hold in suspicion or contempt, and dreaming of moving to cities that we’d be content to see washed into the sea. Republicans do very well with people who drive an F-350 to work — and God bless them. Republicans — and, more important, conservatives — do not seem to have very much to say to people who take the subway to work. Which is a real missed opportunity: If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and work in Manhattan, then you get an object lesson in the failures of statism and centralization every damned work day — twice. If you live in Philadelphia and have school-age children, you don’t need to read Milton Friedman: You know from bitter experience what a blessing it is to be free to choose — and what a curse it is to have choices taken away.
At the same time, some of those people will over the course of their business or personal travels visit Berlin or Geneva or Montreal and say to themselves, “Well, this isn’t how we do things at home, but some of this seems pretty good. I don’t know what Sean Hannity saw there, but Paris looks pretty nice.” Of course, European cities, like American cities, have their problems, including the unassimilated Muslim minorities living in separatist ghettos that give conservatives the willies. Those are problems that we don’t want to replicate at home. But if Vienna inspires in you nothing but sneering, don’t be surprised when those of your countrymen who find something to admire in it don’t want to join your cause.
You wouldn’t know it to listen to many conservatives, but the English-speaking countries are doing just fine: The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are not postapocalyptic sewers and not on their way to becoming postapocalyptic sewers. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that Canada and New Zealand are better-governed than is the United States, in many ways. Australia, too. And the United Kingdom seems to be rediscovering its self-respect. Weirdly, the same pointy-headed neo-nationalists who want to make a cult of “American Greatness” never appreciate the fact that the French, for all their faults, never, ever apologize for being French.
American conservatives have always been at their best when they speak to Americans’ aspirations. Alex P. Keaton — or, in the real world, William F. Buckley Jr. — never worried about being denounced as an “elitist.” Ambition for advancement, and the wealth and status that comes with it, was until five minutes ago part and parcel of American conservatism. That was the best message American conservatives ever had: “Being rich and happy is awesome! Here’s how you can do it, too.”
And there are still millions of Americans who want to advance and to enjoy the best things that American life has to offer, many (though by no means all) of which are to be found in the greatest abundance in American cities and in the cosmopolitan culture that America conservatives once took for granted as something of their own. What do we have to offer them? When is the last time we asked them what it is they like about Brooklyn and Austin? When is the last time we considered their personal and cultural aspirations with anything other than resentment, contempt, and outrage?
We didn’t defeat Communism and win 49-state landslides in 1972 and 1984 by hunkering down on Oklahoma hog farms. We did that with a couple of California globalists, one of them a Hollywood union boss who gave his most famous speech in a European capital.
Ronald Reagan of Los Angeles won New York and California both in 1984. In 2018, Ted Cruz can’t win the Texas city he lives in.