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The Urban Candidate(s)?

October 17, 2012

Obama in Chicago during 1995 campaign. Photo by Marc PoKempner.

Nov 7, 2012 UPDATE: For a fresh-off-the-press map showing as-of-today Election Map 2012 overlaid on U.S. Census urban areas, go HERE.

A day after the second presidential debate, in which President Barack Obama showed some grit and feistiness, and Mitt Romney managed to be, in turn, out of sorts and offensive – a post on presidential politics and the urban.

Last weekend the New York Times ran an op-ed by historical novelist Kevin Baker. In it he tells of how Republicans have turned their back on the cities, and become the anti-urban party. Baker spins a fascinating story about the Republican urban political machines of yore, and of one Alfred E. Smith, the Democrat, school dropout, Fulton Fish Market-worker, and “quintessentially urban candidate,” who in loosing to Hoover in 1928 set the stage, according to Baker, for the great Democratic embrace of cities.

Baker draws an overly distinct line between city and suburb, and rather simplifies the politics of space and of urbanization. As he himself points out: four-fifths of Americans live in so-called “urban areas” (a specific census category, not always synonymous with popular understanding of the “urban”). If the Republicans were truly anti-urban, the matter would be quickly decided. But his point is clear. The battle for the small number of undecided voters in 2012 is not taking place in the big cities, the mythic urban centers. Indeed, Democratic Party policies are by and large more favorable for large numbers of residents of such urban centers, including state funding for infrastructural development and public amenities, health care, and housing. But, Republican policies are arguably just as good for the somewhat smaller numbers of urbanites – particularly those involved in the financial and real estate development centers of large metropolitan areas. And these are the economic sectors that have done rather well of late, even taking into account the 2008 bank meltdown.

In a sense, both parties have deserted the urban this year. Obama, who, in Feb 2009, established an Office of Urban Affairs to some excitement, has not really built on this early effort to focus more attention on the urban centers of the country. In the same way that any meaningful discussion of the environment is absent, any meaningful discussion of typically urban issues has also been set aside. This is disappointing. We are but one year from the massive uprisings of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street that manifested so strongly in urban areas. Who would have thought early this year that the occupy movement would have so little to do with the late dynamics of the election? Particularly since one of the two candidates basically personifies the 1%.

Ironically, one could argue that both candidates are urban candidates, both formed and informed by the processes of urbanization that have transformed much of America and increasingly everywhere else.

Barack Obama is the “quintessentially urban candidate,” almost needless to say. He is the turn-of-the-millenium version. Raised worldly in Hawaii and Indonesia, a community organizer and civil rights attorney, scrappy Chicago politician, a person of color, mixed-race even! His celebratory election night event in Nov 2008 appropriately filled Grant Park, an urban park if ever there was one, wedged in between the Loop and Lake Michigan. Obama’s election itself did illustrate the strong support for Democratic policies among residents of large urban centers. These two maps, one of Obama 2008 counties, another of so-called “metropolitan areas” shows, to be sure, some remarkable overlap between them. The third overlay map, in particular, shows a pretty striking Obama election dominance in large urban agglomerations, whereas the Census-termed “urban clusters” frequently fall into red/McCain zones.

2008 General Election Results, by County, Obama in blue, McCain in red

Urbanized Areas and Urban Clusters, U.S. Census 2010

2008 General Election map overlaid on U.S. Census 2010 urbanized areas and clusters

But in many ways Mitt Romney is as well an urban candidate. Born in Detroit (!), Romney’s history since has been resoundingly urban. Romney’s father George Romney was not only chairman and president of American Motors Corporation, thus completely steeped in Detroit’s urban glory, but also served, rather surprisingly, as secretary of HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Romney himself was governor of Massachusetts, 92% “urban” (U.S. Census again – fun comparison fact: Illinois “urban,” 88%), and home to some of the densest incorporated small cities, like Somerville. More importantly, however, are the vehicles of Mitt Romney’s “success.” From the raft of corporate buyouts in the late 80s and early 90s to the exploitation of Russia’s newly opened tobacco market and oft-repeated outsourcing of jobs, Bain & Company and Bain Capital’s profits hinge on the liberalization of markets and urban restructuring that are intertwined with processes of global urbanization. Fittingly, Bain Capital’s headquarters are now located in the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s glassy ode to urbanness.

Bain Capital’s headquarters are in the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s monument to the urban

The neglect of serious debate on the urban comes at a particularly critical time. As I’ve written in a previous post, cities are epicenters of inequality, in the U.S. and elsewhere, even as they are held up as pearls-in-progress of a sustainable urban future. The speed of urbanization across the world is now occurring at dizzying speed, with very-large-scale urban agglomerations becoming ever more the norm than the exception in at least three continents of the world. To invoke the oft-stated mantra that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities may be just as meaningless as stating that 80% of the U.S. is urbanized. However, it is unquestionable that many, many more around the world increasingly confront fast shifting urban environments, livelihoods, and challenges. It is a luxury, and, in my opinion, a mistaken one, for U.S. presidential candidates to so easily set aside the issues of the urban. Urban policy should be a discussion of foreign policy as much as – more than – national security. U.S. policies don’t just affect U.S. cities.

The idea of the “urban” has been used to ideological ends. Then, to demonize immigrants, people of color, and those in poverty, and to write off vast swaths of urban areas previously decimated by urban renewal. And now, to pitch a kind of diverse, creative, dynamic, sustainable lifestyle, too often devoid of politics or issues of equity and justice. But the issues central to the urban remain – poverty and inequality, gentrification, uneven development, and displacement, environment and health. Forty-four years ago French sociologist Henri Lefebvre coined the “right to the city” – le droit à la ville – “a transformed and renewed right to urban life.” These days this challenge, in the U.S., is taken up by grassroots movements like the Right to the City alliance, fighting urban center to urban center for racial, economic, and environmental justice. Our elected leaders really should be part of this movement. They at the very least need to say something about it.


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