The Republican War on American Cities

As the GOP gears up for the 2020 elections, they’re going to paint Democratic cities as atrocious hellholes. Here’s how to fight back.

By Paul Constant, originally posted on Civic Skunk Works.

In retrospect, the Urban Archipelago was always doomed to failure.

At the time — in November of 2004, just after George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the presidential election — it felt like Democrats had no other options. Looking at the electoral map, with dense urban areas colored a bright blue for Democratic voters and expansive rural areas dyed deep red for Republicans, it seemed obvious that the future of the Democratic Party was in American cities.

The idea of the Urban Archipelago was originally described in a group editorial in The Stranger. Here’s the basic idea:

We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion — New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on. And we live on islands in red states too — a fact obscured by that state-by-state map. Denver and Boulder are our islands in Colorado; Austin is our island in Texas; Las Vegas is our island in Nevada; Miami and Fort Lauderdale are our islands in Florida. Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland “values” like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country.

Though The Stranger named the idea, the concept of the Urban Archipelago seemed to independently spring up everywhere in the winter of 2004. Urbanists like Richard Florida promoted the inevitable American future as young and urban and diverse and hyper-educated. “Red state” and “blue state” (and the rapidly disappearing “purple state”) became commonly used terms in the political discourse.

Liberals did successfully transform all that rhetoric into action. Over the last 15 years, Democrats turned our cities into inclusive engines of democracy. We’ve raised the minimum wage, increased worker protections, fought climate change, led the way on same-sex marriage, and protected immigrants and refugees. Many of those ideas are now catching on in rural America and garnering praise in conservative enclaves.

At the time, as a freelancer for The Stranger, I fell hard for the Urban Archipelago — and so did many of my young, liberal peers. It felt like we were proudly claiming the cities as our turf, our future. And we delivered a lot of genuine progress in those years — I’d say cities passed more progressive policies in those fifteen years than they did at any point in modern American history.

We’ve been ceding ground ever since. Sure, we’ve made advances in a few states like Nevada, but the trends are pretty clear. Setting aside the 2008 election — with its extenuating circumstances of a near-total economic collapse and an impossibly unprepared VP candidate on the Republican ticket — Ohio and Florida seem to be getting redder with each passing election. We’ve been so focused on the Urban Archipelago that we haven’t noticed the creeping sea of red rising all around us.

It’s no secret Republicans have been trying to disenfranchise voters in Democratic-leaning groups (people of color, women, immigrants, young people) for decades now. But the 2020 election will likely mark an escalation in their campaign — an attempt to uproot the Urban Archipelago once and for all.

∞  ∞  ∞

You should already be preparing as best you can for 2020. Based on what we’ve seen from Trump’s 2016 campaign, this next race will be the ugliest, most demoralizing election in modern history — and that ugliness is sure to flow to downticket races around the country. If you have an unpopular candidate on your side, the easiest strategy is to make the race so toxic, so loud, and so ugly that a majority of voters opt out of the process altogether.

That process will involve an unprecedented smear campaign against the eventual Democratic nominee, to cast enough doubt on her or his judgment that even sensible voters will hesitate before voting for him or her. It will involve a Republican rebranding of the Democratic Party as enemies of the state — corrupt, elitist Soviet Marxists who are outside the mainstream.

But I think Republicans are about to unleash a new front in their attack on Democrats in the next election, and I think we’re seeing the first steps right now in cities around the country.

You may know that KOMO 4, a Seattle TV station owned by the conservative Sinclair media conglomerate, has been running propaganda about Seattle’s housing crisis. I’m the first to acknowledge that Seattle needs to deal with housing in a big, bold way — I’ve written about it in the past — but KOMO’s mischaracterization seemed designed to inspire fear. KOMO reporters incorrectly claim that Seattle’s unhoused population is a drug-addiction problem first and foremost (the facts don’t back that up) and that crime is on the increase (again, not true.)

Like a virus, KOMO’s special was created to be spread. It had a catchy title that instantly put opponents on the back foot, in a defensive crouch. It made inflammatory claims that captured attention. It appealed to useful idiots like the Editorial Board of the Seattle Times, who advanced the KOMO narrative to make the case for their own law-and-order proclivities. The special slimed its way across social media toward the career provocateurs and conservative con men who want to bring their own brand of Trumpism to Seattle.

And it was picked up by the conservative media. Fox News host Tucker Carlson praised KOMO’s report, blaming Seattle’s liberal leaders for turning the city into “a haven of homelessness and drug use.” Carlson even featured local conservative radio host Jason Antebi — who performs under the ridiculous pseudonym “Jason Rantz” — to warn the world about Seattle’s (imaginary) rapid decline.

This messaging is just the beginning of the Republican political smear campaign against America’s cities. If they can paint cities like Seattle and Chicago and San Francisco and New York as hellholes created by progressive politics, they can activate their own voters and inspire a narrative that smears progressivism for a whole generation. I expect Sinclair affiliates to churn out more of this kind of agitprop over the next year, which will then be picked up by Fox and other national outlets to create a master narrative of failed progressivism.

Within the cities, a certain subset of wealthy homeowners will likely vote in a few more conservative politicians. Outside the cities, rural conservatives and independents will begin to believe what they’ve been told — that all American cities are rotting from the inside out, and that the Democrats are going to ruin the rest of the country next. If Republicans can destroy our faith in our cities, the next step will be to dismantle the slate of progressive policies that began in cities — the $15 minimum wage, LGBTQ rights, environmentally sound legislation — by blaming those policies for creating the very same manufactured hellscapes that they promoted.

By retreating to the cities, Democrats made real progress, but they also made themselves an easy target. Now Republicans are finally taking aim. So what can we do to fight this campaign to destroy all the work we’ve done?

∞  ∞  ∞

First of all, we have to double down on our progressive ideals. This is no time for timidity or half-measures in an effort to appease conservatives. Those conservatives, remember, will never be appeased by anything but a full-throated renunciation of the Democratic Party.

Make no mistake: Seattle does have a housing crisis. It is the flip side of all the prosperity we’ve created in this city — everyone wants to move here, which drives rents and housing costs up, which puts more people on the street. We have to realistically assess the size of the problem, and then create big, bold solutions that match the size and scope of the crisis at hand.

Secondly, Democrats have to focus on policies that benefit all Americans. Bear in mind that I’m not talking about appealing to the MAGA-hat-wearing racists in diners who the New York Times loves to profile. Trump’s base of 35-ish-percent isn’t likely to be swayed away from their candidate of choice. But we’ve mostly failed to provide benefits for rural and suburban Americans, and we’ve also failed to claim credit for the benefits that we have provided.

The work we’ve done in cities has been fantastic, but our progress has been too slow to flow outward to suburban and rural America. We know that a high minimum wage enjoys broad bipartisan support throughout America, but it took nearly four years — one entire presidential term — to get to that high point.

In the 2018 midterms, Democrats won more governors’ mansions and took more state houses than we’ve had for a decade. Now is the time to act boldly on the back of those wins. Though cities have been great laboratories of democracy thus far, we have to start expanding our scope to help everyone we can. It will be hard for people in rural areas to claim that a $15 minimum wage destroyed San Francisco and Seattle if they see the benefits that a $15 minimum wage brings to everyone in their own community.

The current field of Democratic presidential candidates, by the way, have thus far done a great job of talking about improving outcomes for all Americans. From Medicare for All to universal child care to student loan relief, Democrats are starting to discuss broadly popular plans that lift up all Americans. By sticking to that playbook, we’ll help to defang some of the anti-urbanist smears coming our way. The best way to win an election is to promise results that improve people’s lives. The best way to win over voters is to deliver on those promises, and to be unashamed to claim those victories as our own.

It’s time for the Democratic Party to stop being solely the party of American cities and to start being the party of all America again. Republicans are only working to tear down our accomplishments because they have no agenda to promote, beyond the age-old trickle-down platform of tax cuts for the rich, low wages for workers, and deregulation for the powerful. If we can make a positive alternative case that serves all Americans, we win.

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