Shortly after Barack Obama’s reelection, former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan blamed cities for the defeat of the Romney-Ryan ticket. “The surprise was some of the turnout, some of the turnout especially in urban areas, which gave President Obama the big margin to win this race,” Ryan said. One can point to many reasons for the GOP loss — Mitt Romney’s failure to connect with white working-class voters and minorities, an idea-light campaign, the almost comically biased elite media — but getting crushed in urban areas undoubtedly hurt. Big-city voters not only turned out; they chose Obama by a seven-to-three margin, as they did in 2008. Philadelphia alone gave the president an advantage of nearly half a million votes, putting Pennsylvania out of reach for Romney. The lousy Republican performance in cities goes well beyond presidential politics. The Republican caucus of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is “little more than a social gathering,” Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett, who heads it, recently grumbled to The New Republic.
Cities’ rejection of the GOP shouldn’t be so surprising, given that the party has all but ceded urban America to the Democrats, targeting suburban and exurban voters instead. A campaign story reflects the deliberate neglect: Ryan wanted to stump in inner cities, heralding individual empowerment as the best way to beat poverty, only to have Romney strategists shoot down the idea as a waste of the candidate’s time. This attitude of ignoring cities clouds the party’s future. More important is that it’s bad for America.
The numbers underscore the GOP’s need to compete for urban votes. While the big-city component of the electorate remains only about 11 percent, census estimates suggest that, for the first time in a century, the populations of big cities are growing faster than those of their suburbs. Exurban growth, meanwhile, hit a wall with the 2008 housing collapse. With Democrats now fighting to a draw in the suburbs — Obama won the suburban vote in 2008 and lost it only narrowly this time out — and reportedly doing somewhat better in the exurbs, Republicans can no longer afford to lose cities in landslides. “The combination of a fickle suburban vote and a Democratic urban hammerlock is a formula for defeat in many states,” observes Politico’s Charlie Mahtesian. The minority voters who clobbered Romney and Ryan on November 6 tend to live in cities, too, so the GOP’s urban problem overlaps with its demographic problem.
Pretending that cities don’t matter is a prescription for Republican irrelevance in a broader sense as well. The top 100 metropolitan areas in the United States today comprise two-thirds of the nation’s population and produce more than three-quarters of its economic output, notes the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz. “These communities together dominate our trade in goods and services and are the nation’s logistical hubs, concentrating the movement of people and goods by air, rail, and sea,” Katz says. As urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Edward Glaeser have argued, flourishing cities, with their colliding, interacting, idea-sharing residents, are the country’s key sources of innovation, wealth generation, and cultural creativity. Do Republicans really want to abandon the engines of national prosperity to the Democratic party?
Doing so would be particularly irresponsible because unchecked liberalism once nearly killed the American city. At the end of World War II, U.S. cities faced major challenges, as economic changes and the automobile led many urban residents, especially middle-class whites, to relocate to the green and spacious suburbs. The left-liberal policies that were subsequently enacted with the intention of helping the urban minority poor wound up corroding the civic fabric instead. No-questions-asked government aid swelled welfare rolls, encouraging long-term government dependency. Dispirited police forces, stung by accusations of racism and an elite presumption that rape, murder, and pillage were rational responses to social injustice, watched crime explode and entire neighborhoods collapse into violent anarchy. Urban schools, under the tight control of teachers’ unions more concerned with job protection than with effective pedagogy, withered into educational wastelands. High taxes stifled business activity as firms departed for economically warmer climes.
Early-Nineties New York City marked the nadir of the liberal metropolis. Murders hit an all-time peak of 2,262 in 1990 under Democratic mayor David Dinkins. Over 1 million city residents, most of them able-bodied, were on the dole, another historic high. Black and Hispanic kids dropped out of school at shocking rates, which did nothing to reduce dependency or crime, to put it mildly. Polls found a majority of New Yorkers yearning to leave the city the moment they could afford to. New York was the most visible manifestation of urban breakdown, but the same destructive vortex had swept up other big American cities.
What rescued New York, and other cities that followed its lead, from a seemingly irreversible downward spiral was conservative urban policy. Welfare reform, cooked up in right-leaning think tanks long before it became federal law in 1996, had a huge impact in inner cities, where many aid recipients lived. Critics warned that welfare reform — the heart of which was the principle that government aid should be time-limited and available only if the recipient was willing to work — would devastate the poor. “Millions of children will join the ranks of the homeless trying to get a little warmth by sleeping on the grates of our city streets,” predicted Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Instead, millions of adults got off welfare and into jobs, breaking out of the dependency trap.
A second dramatic conservative success was that cities were made safer. Drawing on the crime-fighting theories of conservative social scientists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani, taking office in January 1994, and his first police chief, William Bratton, revolutionized the New York City police department. No longer would the NYPD tolerate low-level offenses such as fare-beating and aggressive panhandling. Acceptance of such “victimless” crimes, Kelling and Wilson had argued in a famous essay, broadcast the message that no one cared about the social order, emboldening the really bad guys to do really bad things. The police also embraced data-crunching — using computers to track crime patterns, deploying cops to where the action was, and holding commanders accountable for the crime statistics in their precincts.
The results were astonishing. Crime fell and fell during the Giuliani years and continued to fall under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose top cop, Ray Kelly, maintained and extended the reforms of the Nineties. Today, serious crime in the city is down more than 75 percent from its 1990 peak. Safe streets mean bustling commerce and robust tourism; the New York of Taxi Driver has become the New York of Sex and the City. Blacks — disproportionately the victims, as well as the perpetrators, of urban crime — benefited most as once-blighted minority neighborhoods came back to life.
The conservative agenda for cities didn’t end there. The push for greater educational choice and testing accountability, primarily at terrible urban public schools, originated on the right and has started to make inroads in city school systems, winning over black parents and some open-minded Democrats, such as Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker. And right-of-center thinkers such as my City Journal colleagues Steven Malanga and Nicole Gelinas have been at the forefront of the debate over how to rescue tottering city budgets, which suffer from unsustainable pension deals for municipal workers and overly expensive public transit.
Welfare reform, effective policing, school choice, sensible budgeting — some of the smartest policy work on the right has been about fixing America’s cities. Such a rich tradition, much of it proven to work in practice, makes the Republican abandonment of the city all the more inexplicable. Unless the party changes course, it could watch even Texas become potential Democratic territory as Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio get bigger — and bluer.
– Mr. Anderson is the editor of City Journal.