News & Politics

Conservatives' Vision of an America Without Cities

Rural Americans tend to see city culture as a haven for loose morals. Lucky for them, the Electoral College, Senate and federal budget have tilted power toward the heartland.
One Nation, Two Futures?

The formula that emerged from the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections was provocative: The less dense the population, the more likely it was to vote Republican. Republicans appeared to have lost the cities and inner suburbs, positioning themselves as the party of country roads, small towns and traditional values. Though Bush was often mocked for the time he spent on his ranch, sleeves rolled up, gun in hand, the image was widely promoted and became a cornerstone of his identity among Republican voters.

Conversely, it looked like Democrats had lost the country -- that is, until November 2006 when Democrats won decisive victories in the Midwest and Great Plains, often by leveraging their candidates' rural identities against a national Democratic Party that local voters saw as being overly urban, secular and affluent. By November 8, the electoral map looked a whole lot bluer. Yet Democrats could not have won without appealing to libertarian, anti-urban sensibilities.

"Millions of rural people have come to reject the larger framework of urban life," writes public radio reporter Brian Mann in his compelling new book Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Heart of America's Conservative Rural Rebellion. "They despise the liberal modernism that shaped metro culture in the twentieth century and see it as an ideology that is every bit as foreign and threatening as communism."

Voting is just the tip of the iceberg. Antagonism toward cities is an under-recognized, under-analyzed factor in right-wing organizing, but now more and more writers are struggling to understand the rural/urban divide, how it has shaped national politics, and what it means for progressive organizing.

Mann coins the term "homelander" to describe largely white, anti-urban conservatives and says the homeland is a state of mind. You hear the homeland ethos not only in George W. Bush's acquired Texas twang, but in the voices documented in recent books from Mann, Steve Macek, and Juan Enriquez.

"Urban America breeds things that will probably never be here [in Perryton, Texas], but it scares people," Jim Hudson, publisher of Perryton Herald, tells Mann. What kinds of things? asks Mann. "Gay culture," he replies. "HIV sure wasn't bred in rural America."

The City and the Tower

Homelander ideologues of all stripes, from religious to libertarian to neoconservative, agree that cities, like governments, should be small enough to drown in the bathtub. Their hostility has deep cultural roots.

The homelander vision of the city starts with a story in Genesis 11:1-9. When God saw the first city of humankind and the tower its residents had built, He destroyed the tower and confused their language, "so that one will not understand the language of his companion" and "scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city."

Later in Genesis, God destroys the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah for gross immorality, which many Christians have interpreted as homosexuality. (Classical Jewish texts specify economic greed, not sexuality, as the cause of God's wrath.) Thus begins the Christian history of urban life.

Now let's skip ahead several thousand years, to the birth of the American Republic. "Enthusiasm for the American city has not been typical or predominant in our intellectual history," writes Morton and Lucia White in their 1962 study, Intellectuals Against the City. "Fear has been the more common reaction." Thomas Jefferson described "great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man"; Henry David Thoreau preferred his cabin in the woods to "the desperate city"; in 1907, the Rev. Josiah Strong called the modern city "a Menace to State and Nation."

This is not to say rural politics was (or is) always conservative, or even anti-urban. From the Sierra and Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, rural progressives built a great, creative tradition of civil disobedience, multiracial organizing, and cultural dissent. Yet in recent political history, that heritage was obscured by conservative organizing that promoted a race-based depiction of the city as "chaotic, ruined, and repellent, the exact inverse of the orderly domestic idyll of the suburbs," as Steve Macek writes in his recent book Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and Moral Panic Over the City. In such a view, urban poverty is a natural byproduct of unnatural urban life; it is slack morals, not racism or capitalism, which create the urban underclass and its affluent liberal enablers.

Thus the solution to urban poverty and lawlessness is not welfare and economic development, which will "prolong the problems and perhaps make them worse," but instead law enforcement, religious evangelism, and market-driven ethnic cleansing.

Tilting Against Towers: The New Right's Common Ground

As America urbanized and conservatives resurrected the ancient image of the city as dirty and dangerous, they simultaneously affirmed the ideal of the small town and countryside. Religious and secular conservatives alike found common ground in promoting the idea of an urban/rural divide and, in the process, helped make it real.

When the New Right emerged as a political force in the early 1980s, journalist Frances Fitzgerald paid a visit to Lynchburg, Virginia, where Jerry Falwell founded one of the first suburban megachurches and launched the Moral Majority, the first major organizational expression of the modern religious Right. There, in 1981, Fitzgerald found a homelander utopia with over one hundred churches.

"Lynchburg calls itself a city," she writes in Cities on a Hill, "but it is really a collection of suburbs. In the fifties, its old downtown was supplanted by a series of shopping plazas, leaving it with no real center ... The automobile has cut too many swaths across it, leaving gasoline stations and fast-food places to spring up in parking-lot wastelands. But it is a clean city, full of quiet streets and shade trees." She also found Falwell's congregation to be astonishingly uniform in race, culture, and dress, despite a substantial minority of African-Americans in the suburbs around them.

In his church sermons Falwell talked with his congregation about his trips to New York "and the narrow escapes he has had among the denizens of Sin City," hitting racial code words like "welfare chiselers," "urban rioters," and "crime in the streets" -- all phenomena with which his congregation had little or no personal contact. These helped mobilize the homeland against the forces of modernism that converged in the city.

The Right's Attack on Cities

Though the Religious Right bases its public policy agenda on the authority of the Bible and the libertarian Right bases its on the sovereignty of the individual, they converge in the same suburban parking lot. As the Right gained power on a national level, their policies and preconceptions have had a direct impact on cities. "During the Reagan and Bush eras alone," Steve Macek writes, "federal aid to local governments was slashed by 60 percent. Federal spending on new public housing dropped from $28 billion in 1977 to just $7 billion eleven years later. Meanwhile, shrinking welfare benefits have made it harder for the disproportionately urban recipients of public assistance to make ends meet."

Conservative policies and the retreat of liberal commitment to ending poverty combined to make cities increasingly unequal. But as Juan Enriquez makes clear in the The Untied States of America: Polarization, Fracturing and our Future, welfare didn't disappear -- the money just shifted from cities to the homeland in the form of farm and corporate subsidies, price supports, military spending, and pork-barrel projects. Reviewing a chart of tax benefits to states, Enriquez notes that it is curious "that the most productive, high-tech states tend to vote Democratic. The most dole-dependent tend to be hard-line, antigovernment, antispending Republicans. Seventy-five percent of Mr. Bush's votes came from taker states."

Conservative policy initiatives like California's Proposition 13 (which in 1978 slashed property taxes by more than two-thirds) devastated urban school systems, to the benefit of suburban and exurban homeowners. More recently we've seen public transportation funding slashed, AIDS funding shift from Blue to Red States, and homeland security funding distributed as a form of pork. "Low-population states such as Wyoming and North Dakota received forty dollars per person to arm themselves against the impending al-Qaeda menace," Brian Mann notes. "Meanwhile, the big I-have-a-bulls-eye-on-my-forehead states like California and New York managed to pocket about five dollars per capita."

Mann points to the 9,000 residents of Ochiltree County, Texas, "the most Republican place in America," who were graced by nearly $53 million in federal money in 2003 alone -- which is, by any standard, a generous reward for their unstinting support of President Bush. The state of Kansas went from losing $2 million a year in what it paid in taxes, to making "a sweet profit of $1,200 per person" by 2004. When Mann raises this fact to his conservative brother Allen, he is enraged. "I don't believe it," Allen says. "No way. I know so many people in my town who refuse to take government money. They'd rather go hungry." Allen urges his brother to drop the issue. "You'll make rural people so mad that they won't listen to anything else you have to say."


The Popular Culture Divide

How have so many rural folks and their political allies gotten so hostile to cities and cosmopolitan values? Part of the answer, as I have suggested, lies in the particular cultural histories of Christianity and America. Race is also a factor, as it has been from the moment Europeans set foot on the continent.

But why has this front of the culture war suddenly gotten so rhetorically violent, the rift so wide? Mann argues that, over the past two decades, homelanders have succeeded in building their own alternative mass culture -- separate and unshaped by urban sensibilities. "When I was a kid," Mann writes, "you drank from the spigot of urban culture or you went without." "Back when the three media networks controlled everything and AP and UPI were the only sources of news, that was our window on the world," says Jim Hudson, the publisher of Perryton Herald. "Now I start my day with Fox and Friends. Then I do a computer check, reading NewsMax.com, a very conservative site."

"These days, rural Americans can get their news, books, art, movies, and music from sources that more closely reflect their values," writes Mann. "The break isn't clean or absolute; small-town folks still watch Everybody Loves Raymond and buy Stephen King novels ... But now they can also get their news from Fox, Sinclair, or NewsMax.com. They can buy top-notch thrillers and romance novels written by evangelical Christians." In effect, homelanders are bicultural; they can understand the language of urban popular culture, but mainstream urbanites are often clueless about the homeland lingo. "This media balkanization extends beyond politics and journalism," Mann writes. "These days, for every Dr. Spock, there is a Dr. Dobson. For every Stephen King, there's a Tim LaHaye."


Beyond the Myth: The Truth About Cities

"Modern liberalism was born in the big cities and died there," neocon Fred Siegel writes in his 1977 book The Future Once Happened Here, painting American cities as economic and moral dead zones. But as the most recent elections reveal, nothing could be further from the truth. For all the mistakes committed in the name of liberal and progressive urban policy, an urban liberalism is flourishing; in places like San Francisco and Portland, it has achieved a confident hegemony. Though the San Francisco Bay Area has plenty of problems, including profound wealth inequality and troubled public schools, it remains a seat of technological and cultural innovation, with its low fertility rates offset by immigration and emigration that keep the city culturally diverse

Even families who flee from city centers take their urban values with them into the increasingly diverse inner suburbs, where Democrats won 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. Both left and Right are turning out to be wrong about the politics of sprawl, which is emerging as the bleeding edge, rather than the death, of urbanization. Today "edge" cities like Las Vegas and Miami have turned deep blue, as their populations grow denser and more diverse. Even the urban outposts of places like Montana and Oklahoma run politically to the left.

According to the homelander urban narrative, such places should now be pestilential, blighted dens of inequity. Yet, despite all the conservative prophecies of urban apocalypse, the level and pace of urbanization continues to accelerate, with complex economic and social results.

Every year two million people move to American cities and inner suburbs, adding islands to the archipelago, while America's homeland population falls fast toward 56 million, "roughly the level of the mid-1970s," notes Mann. Far from declining demographically, the United Nations predicts that the percentage of the North American population living in urban areas will rise to 84 percent of the population by 2030.

Cornell researchers Barclay G. Jones and Solomane Koné found that from 1970 to 1990, per capita income increased directly with population size in metropolitan areas. Similar trends have been found for social capital: A 2003 study by the General Social Survey found that city dwellers were more likely to help each other out than their rural counterparts. Such statistics -- there are many -- stand in contrast to the Stygian alienation depicted in conservative "yuppie horror films" like Judgment Night (1993) and Ransom (1996), which show urbanites as antisocial and uncaring.

An Urban Backlash Is No Solution

Dumbfounded by the homeland ascendancy, many urbanites have embraced a misguided strategy of rebranding progressivism as specifically urban. In their influential 2004 manifesto "The Urban Archipelago," the editors of the Seattle weekly, The Stranger, argue that it's time for urbanites to aggressively pursue their own self-interest on a national stage. "We need a new identity politics," they write, "an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that's as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents ... To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: Fuck off. Your issues are no longer our issues."

Yet cutting the Red States off the federal dole, ignoring the downward-pressure on income created by Wal-Marting the homelander economy, or leaving Red States out of environmental policymaking -- all steps recommended by The Stranger's editors -- ignores our mutual interdependency and breeds self-destructive partitions.

"People are hurting in the countryside," Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute of Southern Studies, told me. "You go into western North Carolina, and you see hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are being shattered by economic dislocations. If progressives turn their backs on those people, they're losing a huge opportunity and they're failing to address this country's deepest problems."

And as Brian Mann points out, even if The Stranger's strategy was desirable, it would be extremely difficult to pursue on a national level. The Senate, for example, gives each state two seats regardless of population. "As a consequence, those lucky homelanders in Wyoming and Alaska receive 72 times more clout per capita than do California's metros," Mann writes. "It's a startling fact that half of the American people live in just nine highly urbanized states -- most of them staunchly Democratic -- but they hold only 18 percent of the Senate's power." Similarly, the structure of the Electoral College has tilted power towards the rural states, while gerrymandering has given Republicans an edge in the House of Representatives.

"Put bluntly, our political system is no longer a neutral playing field," Mann writes. "In ways our founding fathers could never have imagined, the Electoral College and the Senate now favor one way of life, one set of cultural and political values, over another. Because those values are no longer shared by most Americans, the result is a growing disconnect between our political elites and the people they govern."

At this writing it's too early to tell, but November 2006 may stand as a turning point, when rural liberals and progressives fought their way back onto the electoral map. We still have a long, long way to go, and we need more research, writing, and debates like the ones found in Welcome to the Homeland and The Untied States of America. There is more at work in the homeland ascendancy than pure ideology and moral politics; we also have to respond to the self-interest of people whose lives are being turned upside down by war and economic change.

Too many liberals and progressives are isolated in their metropolitan towers, looking down not only at the people The Stranger deem "rubes, fools, and hatemongers," but also at the disenfranchised and dispossessed of their own unequal cities. Even if the homelander challenge fades to a historical footnote, metropolitans will still need to face cities rived by class and race. Maybe it is time for those of us who live in cities to come down from our towers, before it's too late.

(A longer version of this essay appeared originally in Public Eye magazine, which presents reports by scholars and journalists on trends within the U.S. Right.)
For six years, Jeremy Adam Smith was a student and community activist in North Central Florida. Today he lives in San Francisco and works as the managing editor of Greater Good magazine. He blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic.