Gingrich’s comment is a surviving dog-whistle politics that include new state laws to drug-test those on public assistance and the ongoing effort to cut food stamps (and Gingrich did call Obama the “food stamp president”). The specter of the black ghetto still scripts urban dwellers as villains (often as thieves robbing the citizen either directly, or as in this Rick Santorum comment, indirectly: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money”). But unlike the era of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, today cities are more ignored than attacked. And this goes well beyond Iowa.
“The core of the Republican constituency in metropolitan America are the growing, racially and economically exclusive ‘outer suburbs’ whose privileged status Republicans seek to protect at all costs,” says former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk, now a consultant. He cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as an exemplar of the trend.
Today’s Republican candidates are rarely city-dwellers.
Gingrich owns a Northern Virginia cul-de-sac mansionette that “tends toward the ornate” and includes a master bath entirely covered in mirrors, according to a recent New York Times article on candidate homes. Rick Perry moved into a high-end gated community in exurban Austin, Texas, while the governor’s mansion was under construction. Michele Bachmann lives in a McMansion with a builder’s description that “reads like a synonym finder for nouveau suburban glory, touting the home’s arched stone entry, hand-scraped walnut plank flooring, and a fully paneled library with see-through fireplace.”
Romney rose to the pinnacle of Massachusetts politics from the leafy and high-end Boston suburb of Belmont, where he had a bathroom with “vaulted ceilings and a soaking tub some might mistake for a lap pool,” a residence “heavy on cream-colored upholstery crowded with pillows. The curtains are pleated so precisely you might think they were styled by Mr. Romney’s barber.” The house, until recently one of four owned by Romney, has now been sold.
While Romney’s father, George Romney, served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Nixon’s administration, the candidate has said nothing in particular about cities. As with so many other things, Romney once had a different opinion. According to the New Republic, he was a devotee of smart growth during his years in the governor’s mansion — transit-oriented development and anti-sprawl measures included. “We don’t want to become like Houston,” said Romney. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Texas.”
The neglect of the cities can be traced back a half-century to the apogee of mid-20th-century American liberalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, the captains of municipal state, flush with federal funds and armed with great confidence in modern planning and architecture, bulldozed miles of “blighted” neighborhoods (often non-white) and rammed highways through the centers of many American cities. The feverish remaking of the cities was a desperate attempt to compete against the suburbs and woo back the middle class, which had departed thanks to the federal dollars propping up millions of (whites only) mortgages and miles of highways. Tragically, it was the liberal federal government’s funding of suburban homes and highways, and bulldozer-heavy urban renewal programs, that paved the way for Nixon and Reagan’s abandonment. Black people and the left were suspicious, the rising conservative tide was contemptuous, and politicians changed the subject. So, then, went the neighborhood.