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June 25, 2008

Richard Florida

The Urbanist Party

« Banff World Television Festival | Main | Pendulum »

Felix Salmon makes the very interesting and powerful case:

City-dwellers, as such, have almost no say in national politics, and invariably end up subsidizing the increasingly-anachronistic lifestyles of their rural compatriots ... While cities are nominally democratic, in reality the party-political makeup of their legislatures almost never changes: the national parties have effectively hijacked the local political process by using the power of their strong national brand ... Given the opportunity to elect mavericks who will push creative and innovative policies in the face of apathy from national political parties, the citizens of great metropolises like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Miami and Berlin have been very happy to elect maverick politicians as mayor. But even the most powerful and imaginative mayor tends to find a lot of party political opposition, both nationally and locally ...

In the absence of an urbanist political party, then, city-dwellers will probably never be the political force that they can and should be ... If you live in a big city, you will probably find yourself more in agreement with your neighbors—or even with city-dwellers on the other side of the world—than you will with rural members of your national political party. The big political parties are very wary about immigration, for instance; big cities live and thrive on immigration, and support it strongly.

Cities are also vastly ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to gay rights; they’ve elected far more than their fair share of openly gay prominent politicians, and act as the safe haven to which young gay people flock whenever they feel persecuted in their small towns. A high density of gay people in turn feeds creative industries and increases the number of people interested in revitalizing the urban centers which were bywords for poverty in the 1970s and early 80s, and which are now the one part of the overheated housing market which seems likely to survive the property crash. There are lots of other policies, too, on which city residents would tend to agree. They are generally “greener” than the population as a whole: more environmentally aware, more willing and able to implement eco-friendly initiatives from cycling to recycling. While they might support local farmers, they have no time for big subsidies to agribusiness. They are much more likely to support efforts to build and strengthen educational institutions, especially at the university level. And in general they love heterogeneity and freedom: they’re skeptical when politicians talk about social norms or try to impose any kind of censorship.

The whole story is here. Can it actually happen?

UPDATE: Arnold Kling weighs in:

I think that there is a general misfit between our political institutions and the direction of technology. Our institutions are still in the middle of the twentieth century, centralizing power, putting more and more resources into the same number of political hands. See my essay on the wealth controlled by politicians, reprinted here. Meanwhile, the rest of society is in the 21st century, featuring what Chris Anderson calls The Long Tail (I just finished Kindling the book. Much of its message seeped out before and after the book appeared, but it's still worth reading.)

Salmon is correct to suggest that urban voters are not well served by the current institutional setup. Perhaps a "horizontal network" of urban voters would have more in common than a territorial entity that embeds a city inside a province or a nation-state. But to me that is an argument against giving territorial monopolies to government units, and my guess is that Salmon didn't mean to go there.

UPDATE II: Ryan Avent joins the conversation:

I think the constituency is there, but creating a political identity that will resonate at the ballot box is more difficult than simply identifying a majority with shared interests. What’s needed is a catalyst, which might fundamentally shift the way that suburban voters think of themselves.

One candidate is high gas prices. Expensive gas will likely produce an inward migration sufficient to place a larger share of households in explicitly urban areas. It may also align the interests of suburban and urban voters on a number of important issues–transportation and infrastructure funding, for example.

But the real game-changer may be the candidacy of Barack Obama. I’m reminded of the fundamental shifts in voter identification that took place under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who solidified southern Democrats and suburban anti-tax voters, respectively, in creating large new political voting blocs. Sometimes, a compelling politician is just a compelling politician, who comes and goes without altering the underlying political landscape. But sometimes, a compelling politician can facilitate the consolidation of new political identities.

He certainly has the constituency. The question is, even if he wins, can he heal the deep, deep split in the US on this issue?  The geographic divide is also a class divide. Can the party of a single class, that amounts to say 30-35 percent of the workforce, effectively govern a polarized America? Seems to me the core issue is how to begin to mend the divide?

And you?


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NYC Theater Guy

The problem is not with urban or rural voters, it's that suburban voters are emotionally attached to "rural" values and like to pretend that they don't live in a city. This is irrational, but politics is much more about emotion than reason. In the American consciousness cities are associated either with effete elites or crime-ridden poverty. Rural America is "true" America with good-old-fashioned family values. This is utter nonsense but a very powerful myth. Suburban votes comprise 50 percent of the population in many states. No political progress can be made until such voters realize that it is in their own interest to support the city. They are inextricably linked to the city and a stronger city equals stronger suburbs.


Some of the observations are interesting. But the proposals didn't make any sense to me, especially if applied worldwide.

If so many of the world's mayors already have a core of issues on which they find common ground -- including opponents like Livingstone and Johnson -- then what benefit would an Urbanist Party provide in local elections? For that matter, wouldn't both qualify as an Urbanist Party candidate? If you want elections to be meaningful, you have to provide choice: two or more viable but competing visions for the city. So his initial observations seem more of an argument for uncoupling municipal candidates from national parties, to allow truly urbanist candidates to emerge. That's already the case in Canadian cities -- some have their own municipal parties; others don't have party affiliations at all. (Which way is best is the subject of ongoing debate.)

He seems to also be suggesting a movement which would eventually advance an urbanist platform on national issues around the world. I think that's a non-starter. Many of his assertions -- e.g. "big political parties are very wary about immigration", "rent control doesn't work", reference to the "housing downturn" -- reveal a narrow focus on American problems and perspectives. City dwellers around the world do disagree about important issues. The same health care platform can't work in Copenhagen and Chicago; the same approach to immigration won't fly in Toronto and Miami; Jerusalem and Damascus don't see eye-to-eye on regional matters. The mayors can sidestep many of these differences because they're focused on local level concerns. Their ad-hoc coalitions can evolve into something more permanent and powerful -- a bit like a UN of cities -- without tripping over national-issue faultlines.

I believe cities are growing in importance, and I'd love to see that reflected in both political power and the allocation of public funds. But his idea of a top-down "organization which could endorse candidates for local office" is far too simplistic. The diversity within cities is best served by a full slate of urbanist candidates, and the diversity among cities calls for a bottom-up forum for exchanging and collaborating upon local ideas.

Whitney Gunderson

Here's an amazing story about an incumbant Republican Utah congressmen who lost to a more conservative Republican in a primary because he was too liberal.... in a 20 point landslide.


To all those who think the Republican party is in trouble: Dream On. This Jason Chaffetz guy is a first-time candidate and won by saying (surprise, surprise) that Washington needs to get back to conservative principles. I am regularly astounded at liberals for thinking that Republicans are doomed. That's just not the case.... just because the Republicans don't have a lock on the White House this year doesn't mean the party is in trouble.

Personally, I am a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. I have an interest in politics and pay regular attention to the news. I see an undetected conservative movement in the United States that could create a very powerful whiplash effect, similar to what happened in the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. Remember that? It is sad to say, because progressive policies could serve our country and our cities very well right now, but the conservative movement is like a hangnail that won't go away. If "the citizens of great metropolises like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Miami and Berlin" are not represented the way they should be like Felix Salmon says, why haven't they organized a voter's union to support an existing national party? This particular Salmon column represents the sappy, liberal, felt-good ideology that loses at the polls.

hayden fisher

I love the article. It's time for the 2 party system to die. We think of it in America as a de facto status quo as old and indelible as our constitution. But, in fact, it's an anomaly that has existed well beyond its realistic half life; and only in our country. Like a 20 year old cat, we love it, but it's time to euthanize the 2 party system and put it out of its old-age suffering. It could easily be dead within 10 years. Like it or not, we're in a new era that is more transitional than any other in the last several hundred years.

John Thacker

While they might support local farmers, they have no time for big subsidies to agribusiness.

Comforting thought, but unsupported by poll data. Farm subsidies are, unfortunately, strongly supported even by urban dwellers. At the best you get indifference-- an indifference that is easily bought off by pittances and claims that some of the big subsidies will go to organic agribusiness as well, as we saw in this year's farm bill.

Whitney Gunderson

Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party, Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party, Frank McEnulty of the New American Independant Party and Ralph Nader who is independent also think its time for the two-party system to die. But combined, their support is in the single digits. The two-party cat will be around for a long-time to come.

I read Arnold Kling's article, "Politicians' Power Dwarfs the Rich" and had to cringe after the first few sentences. Here's the real sticking point:

"Montgomery County, Md., has an annual budget of $3.8 billion. This sum is under the control of a County Council with nine members. On an average per-politician basis, each County Council member controls just over $400 million a year in spending."

The city council doesn't "control" $3.8 billion. The administrative department heads do. Even they don't have "control" over the money. They are obligated to spend the money where needed most. The city council is oversight. Here's another sticking point:

"At the federal level, the budget is $3 trillion. If you divide that by 535 (the number of senators and representatives), then, on average, each legislator controls over $5 billion in spending per year. That is more than even the world's richest person could spend annually."

Last time I checked, legislators weren't out on the town partying on $5 billion. Once again, federal spending is allocated by administrative heads. Anybody who can get away with rationally justifing that elected officials have absolute control over public money is much more successful that I am.... and belongs in a tank of thinkers.

Carly Pribyl

I don’t necessarily disagree with these assertions. However, without explicit examples listed, it looks like conjecture. Do your research!

Carly Pribyl

I don’t necessarily disagree with these assertions. However, without explicit examples listed, it just looks like conjecture. Do your research!

Whitney Gunderson

Carly - What? I don't understand who or what you are talking about. Could you please clarify? This would give the person making the assertions you reference the opportunity to unconjecture them.

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