Yet the political debate is dominated by the exurbs, the pell-mell ribbons of home and office development that snake along the nation’s highways. While the original postwar suburbs were built for well-to-do commuters to the city, today’s exurbanites commute from gated home to office park.
The folksy country patter of politicians is of course about the aberrational power that we have bestowed on the microstates of Iowa and New Hampshire. But the affectations continue well through the general election. It is not so much about the countryside at all, but rather an appeal to the constantly fleeing, new-home-buying, SUV-driving denizen of the exurb, the newest home of a deeply held, though deeply hypocritical, American pastoralism. While the suburban dream was anti-urban, the exurban mind-set is simply non-urban. At least, that is, in mind-set. The frontier spirit masks a deep interdependence.
“Cities and metropolitan areas are the engines of our economy,” says Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metro Program. “The top 100 metropolitan areas alone claim only 12 percent of our land mass but harbor more than 65 percent of our population, 74 percent of our most educated citizens, 77 percent of our knowledge economy jobs, and 84 percent of our most recent immigrants. They also generate 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.”
Rick Perry, for all of his thickly lacquered rural charm, in reality rules over one of the nation’s largest metropolitan conglomerates. “Growth in Texas,” Ryan Avent notes in “The Atlantic Cities,” “has really been about growth in its biggest cities,” Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Texas is the most urbanized state per capita.
Those cities have labor forces that are powered by immigrants. But on the campaign trail, the perception that cities are harboring Mexicans is a great liability. Gingrich has declared that he will block federal funding to any “sanctuary city.” Romney has gone after bleeding-heart municipalities since 2007 when he ran ads criticizing Rudy Giuliani’s tenure in New York. In response, Giuliani noted that Cambridge, Mass., Somerville, Mass., and Orleans, Mass., had declared themselves sanctuaries. Cities, by virtue of progressive leadership or brown skin, still have the power to attract conservative opprobrium. Think about what Republicans mean to convey when they say “San Francisco.”
American cities also receive attention when a candidate visits New York to raise money or eat bad pizza with Donald Trump. Yet much of Manhattan — like San Francisco — is thoroughly gentrified, and the deepening and unresolved problems of urban poverty and violence are kept well out of sight. The same goes for Washington, D.C., where a rapid influx of young and party-going policymakers has demographically transformed neighborhoods where shootings once dubbed my home city “Murder Capital of the World” and prompted our NBA team, the Washington Bullets, to change its name to the deflating “Wizards.” The emergence of the city as playground for the young and well-to-do masks the fact that for poor and working class city-dwellers, nothing much has changed. This is just as true now that many live in the suburbs. But you won’t hear it from any Republican presidential candidate.