Monday, December 13, 2010

Only High Speed Rail Can Save Conservatism (Seriously.)

[Here's an early holiday gift for James Rowen and John Michlig.]

The Brookings Inst. has yet another report detailing the impending death of the traditional American Suburb today.

There's a ton of socio-economic repercussions to the phenomenon and the Gawker summary does a very fine and succinct job at getting to the heart of the matter:

The smartest, most educated young suburbanites are fleeing for big cities. Naturally. Didn't you? They're leaving behind their parents, who make up that hefty chunk of soon-to-retire boomers. It was inevitable that the suburbs would become more racially integrated, albeit slowly; but economic integration is happening faster than many suburban residents would probably prefer, thanks in part to the real estate market collapse which left lots and lots of suburban cookie-cutter development dream homes available at prices far, far lower than their developers had initially hoped.

So while young, mostly white suburban kids race to the cities and price out the original residents there, many of those urban minorities may find the suburbs to be more inviting and economically viable. Gentrification and degentrification—demographic groups passing each other on the highway into the city, heading in opposite directions. While bright young things head for NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco, the Sun Belt and its massive tracts of sprawl stand ready, willing and able to absorb the displaced, once-urban masses of the working class. It's as if, over the course of a generation, the stereotypical growing-up experiences of White Suburban Americans and Minority Urban Americans will totally trade places. The only difference being that now the cities will get the government money and attention they've always deserved, and the suburbs will slowly wilt into sprawling, neglected slums.

Now let's look at the long-term political ramifications for a second.

Suburbs have long been strongholds for conservative voters for obvious reasons, but where are these conservative voters going to flee to once their suburbs become more racially integrated and economically diverse? They're probably not going to rush back into the new urban areas, where costs of living and, yes, taxes will be higher... so, where does that leave them?

Let's look at an unlikely hypothetical, worst-case-scenario, wherein , say, 15 years from now Waukesha Co. has ceased to be the center of the state's conservative base. Where did the voters go? Here are five possibilities ... see if you can guess the common theme that unites them all.

1.) The Exurbs
Walworth, Jefferson and Dodge counties start to see a small growth in communities of Waukesha transplants that are now willing to trade in a 30-45 minute commute for a 60-75 minute drive as long as it means a quieter life away from the riffraff.

This has already started to happen in St. Croix, Polk and Pierce counties which are effectively exurbs of the Twin Cities.
2.) Lower population Suburban counties.
Washington county, we're looking at you. Slinger and West Bend will get larger and everyone will have a lot more friends in Allenton. Washington county is already fertile Republican territory but it's far less populated than the other collar counties around Milwaukee.
3.) "Unurban" cities like Fond du Lac, Appleton, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Wausau and, yes, Oshkosh.
I'm calling them "unurban" cities because even though they look like suburbs in many ways, the fact that they are not supported by a neighboring urban center dramatically changes the local culture, economy and politics. Fondy's a bit different because it's close enough to Milwaukee to justify the commute, but, by and large, it's still its own little place.
4.) Rural Wisconsin
I hope this is self-explanatory.
5.) Other States
Let's face it, the people who will be leaving will be old. It'll either be time to go off to that great retirement home in Boca or Scottsdale.
What do all of these have in common? Ideological diffusion. The demise of the suburbs basically creates a diaspora among the conservative community. Now, some might say, "That's great, now the message will reach new ears, etc." Except it doesn't really work like that. At the end of the day, conservatives simply become more spread out and elections quickly begin to reflect that phenomenon.

So what does all of this have to do with high speed rail? Conservatism needs suburbia to flourish. It's doesn't need academia or a media machine or conferences or all the sexy stuff that gets loudmouths on TV -- it needs an environment in which to ingrain itself into every aspect of life and suburbia is custom made for cultivating conservatism. It's no accident that the trajectory of the modern conservative movement follows a similar arc to that of the contemporary suburb. Once the suburb starts to become replaced by a slum, conservatism will begin its death throes.

That's where high speed rail comes in to play. HSR basically allows suburbanites the chance to live an urban life in terms of employment and recreation while building a home away from the bustle of the city. It allows the "smartest, most educated young suburbanites" to live in a place that is familiar to them while still pursuing ambitions that suburbs often don't allow. It's not uncommon for people to take a 30-60 minute El ride clear across Chicago for whatever reason and think nothing of it ... that's an urban convenience the suburbs need desperately in order to attract the kind of people who will be making the economy work in the 21st century.

I'm not saying that not having HSR will kill off the suburbs. An aging population, the housing bubble, long commutes, expensive gas and dozens of other things will do just fine, thank you -- but HSR can help save it by opening the suburbs up to a new market: young folks who want urban lives between 8 AM and 8 PM Monday through Friday, but don't want to pay for the cover charge for living in the city limits. As it currently stands, the hassle of living in the burbs far outweighs the hassle of living in the city and when suburbs continue to isolate themselves by declining mass transport services -- especially during rough economic times -- they create a recipe ripe for isolation and, eventually, ghettoization.

I'm sure actually conservatives will roll their eyes at this argument and go on about the intellectual merits of their philosophy (while at the same time preaching a gospel of anti-intellectualism, go figure), but the fact of the matter is that most voters chose how they vote based on their own personal life experiences, not how they rationalize the merits of one policy or another, and nothing creates conservative voters like suburban life. Killing the suburbs will essentially be killing off conservatism.


CJ said...

Interesting read Chief.

My first thought when reading this line, "Conservatism needs suburbia to flourish." was that they'll just redistrict the state. Still, the districting would be far more diluted if your scenario plays out.

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Unknown said...

Interesting argument. But do you think your predictions might be mitigated by advances in information technology? It's becoming easier and easier for the hip, smart kids to advance their professional careers from a home office, meaning the need to commute to a geographically central area may decline.