Conservatives' Vision of an America Without Cities
Conservatives' Vision of an America Without Cities
By Jeremy Adam Smith, Public Eye. Posted December 12, 2006.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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.)
Tagged as: rural, urban, population, elections, homeland
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.
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[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- The article mentions in passing the critical point, namely that a
who/whose issue is being made of what ought properly to be what/how
issue. The consequent Us-Them distinction results in an ultimatum that
is in large measure a false ultimatum. We are told that, to enjoy the
benefits of true urbanity, we have to forfeit the desire for autonomy
and personal sovereignty that, however illusorily, generates the great
appeal of suburban land-ownership. We are told that we must choose
between living on our own terms and living in urban relationships with
our neighbours. We are told to choose between using a car daily and not
possessing a car at all. We are told to choose between economic
irrelevance in dormitory suburbs and intrusive overregulation in the
city. We are told that the price of the city is our unreserved
obedience, because reserving the right to withhold our obedience is
something that belongs to the countryside - and that simply does not
We are moreover tempted hereby to go on, much in the vein of the
Marxian notion of 'false consciousness', about 'territoriality' as some
sort of despicable bourgeois deviance, which attitude is anathema to
one so territorial as myself. For in many senses I am both Us and Them;
and it seems probable to me that more are thus than otherwise. And as
such I resent the ultimatum.
Is the challenge not precisely to generate urban forms that satisfy
valid desires for 'rural' autonomy in a tight, walkable form?
--- In email@example.com, Claude Willey <claudewilley@...>
> Conservatives' Vision of an America Without Cities
> By Jeremy Adam Smith, Public Eye. Posted December 12, 2006.
- =v= Thanks for articulating some of the either/or criticisms I
had of the original article.
=v= I will add that the conservative/liberal divide in the U.S.
(such as it is) doesn't really split into geographic divisions,
and that the real demographic situation has to do with the
topic of this list. While it has certainly been a conservative
(and cryptoracist) meme to demonize the cities as hotbeds of
liberal decadence, there's a lot of wealth in the cities and
no shortage of conservative urbanites. Further, the American
countryside has a long, strong history of progressivism.
=v= The crucial story in the U.S. is what demographers call the
swing vote, what sociologists call anomie, and what I call the
mushy middle. This is a vast slice of the populace, largely
suburban, who stand for nothing and fall for anything. National
politics in recent decades has been about courting this vote, a
process that has little to do with political positions and much
to do with focus groups and marketing research (and, of course,
strategic voting fraud).
=v= When the balance of this vote tipped to Bush, we were fed
nonsense about a unified "Red America" voting its "values."
When, previously, the very same demographic supported Clinton,
we were fed nonsense about tender-hearted "soccer moms."
=v= American suburbia is extremely dependent on cars, so some
have looked at the voting this century and speculated that
this demographic voted its interests by voting for the oilmen
and -women. I know of no research that really supports this,
and again, the 1990s and 2006 votes suggest otherwise. The
real story, I think, is that car-dependent land-use patterns
promote anomie and create the malleable demographic. People
living this way are compartmentalized inside their cars and
are more likely to experience others through a TV screen than
in person, and the closest thing to public space is a shopping
mall. Without the back-and-forth of unmediated experience,
this population has fewer opportunities to think critically
and consider alternatives. Which is a boon for politicians
of any stripe.