President Obama's vision for America resonated in the cities while the Republican Party had little to offer to a liberal multi-cultural urban population

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Multi-faceted cities preferred
Obama’s vision for America

By Tony Favro, USA Editor*

11 December 2012: Metro America voted solidly for President Obama in the 2012 election. But how important was geography? Were voters’ political preferences affected by the density of their living conditions? Or do Americans live where they do because of historical public policies, many of which were debated during the presidential campaign?

Let’s look at the competing political messages, which voters considered. For most of the past 30 years, the dominant voices in American culture and politics have been those of conservative Republicans with their unapologetic defense of individual ambition, unregulated competition, and patriotism. Their enemies include “entrenched interests”, which can be defeated only through a return to “traditional” common sense. Tradition centers on “family values”, which conservative use to justify their positions on abortion (immoral), crime (zero tolerance), economic development (business first), immigration (keep them out), public education (choice and testing), and more.

Conservative ideology assumes that deregulation and a free market solve everything by creating jobs, instilling a strong work ethic (especially in people who supposedly avoid work), and promoting a society-wide resurgence of traditional wisdom. When economic growth appears limitless, conservative ideology can be powerfully appealing for it promises to increase everyone’s wealth. But the economic contraction has quickly drained neo-conservatism of its rationale. As the recession dragged on, Americans debated the distribution of wealth, an issue obscured by the long economic expansion but championed by President Obama.

Ideologies, in other words, cannot shape public perceptions over the long-term unless they are confirmed by daily experiences.

What do Americans need right now in their day-to-day lives? Help with their mortgages. Dependable and affordable health care. Employment training or re-training. Jobs that pay a living wage. Freedom from discrimination. In other words, the Obama campaign platform.

Of course, conservatives also respond to these needs. But what remedies do they offer? Freedom from government interference and regulation, for here is where they locate the source of all problems. Conservatives deplore bureaucracy as wasteful and indulgent but see only its governmental aspect. They ignore the prevalence of bureaucracy in the private sector. This leads them to ignore clear recent evidence (as well as extensive past experience) that government expands in response to pressures from the corporations themselves. Does anyone really want an unregulated banking sector anymore? Does anyone truly expect the private sector to solve the mortgage crisis or lower health care costs on its own?

When the façade of ideology crumbles, all that lies behind appears ephemeral and on the verge of collapse. By uncritically adopting the moldy American slogan “what’s good for business is good for America”, conservatives overestimate the power of the business class to serve a broader social interest by serving their own corporate interests. By trumpeting the virtues of democracy while using the courts and media to further their ends on gun control, affirmative action, immigration, and other issues, conservatives ignore the undemocratic implications of their own behavior. By indicting climate change as a fraud perpetuated by those who are opposed to the free market, conservatives appear reckless, especially when a Hurricane Sandy reminds Americans that nothing in life is limitless in the face of nature: not human power, not economic growth, not technology.

The heroes of neo-conservatives include Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Freidrich Hayek. There were no private multinational corporations when Smith wrote; no mass consumer culture in Rand’s times; no instantaneous electronic transfers of unimaginable sums of capital within Hayek’s experience. Conservatives pick and choose from the Bible, the US Constitution, and the works of their economic heroes to describe a capitalism and a culture that doesn’t really exist, a society with lines that are clearly drawn: one is either for or against morality, growth, Christ, whatever. 

American households now consist of various blends of people who choose to live and work together to better themselves, including people of color, single women with children, gays, and others. If your household doesn’t look like this, then your neighbor’s or co-worker’s most likely does. And whatever goes on behind closed doors is your business. When wages fall short of a family’s actual requirements, whatever its composition and living arrangements, people have little patience for solutions that don’t reflect the reality of their experiences.

President Obama’s re-election suggests, rather than divisiveness, that most Americans reject such categorizations as pro-family or anti-family, or pro-business or anti-business, or pro-America or anti-America, or pro-God or anti-God.

Ironically, conservative polarities make sense only if they mean that people who profess a disinterested love of truth and justice ought to be skeptical, on principle, of the claims of wealth and power and predisposed to side with the underdog. And this gets us back to geography because the social and economic underdogs tend to live in urban areas.

Geography and history are but two sides of the same coin. Yes, President Obama carried the cities where the poor and people of color voted for him in large numbers. The poor and minorities are concentrated in cities because of the unintended consequences of past economic and social policies, both public and private. These are policies that transformed capitalism from within, driving down the costs of many consumer products but also wages, and ratcheting up competition between individuals, corporations, and local governments. Historically, these policies afforded unequal access to opportunity among different groups, including unequal access to real estate markets.

The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered voters a defense of free enterprise, boosterism, a sentimental deference to women, and a willingness to resort to force overseas. At best, it was too limited a political vocabulary for people trying to maintain dignity and continuity in their lives. At worst, it was self-righteousness and exemplified conservatives’ incapacity for rigorous analysis of current socioeconomic conditions.

President Obama was criticized during the campaign, fairly or not, for lacking a specific agenda for a second term. What he did manage to convey above the shrillness of the campaign was a way of thinking that is alive to the many dilemmas and unintended consequences that complicate the everyday lives of all but the wealthiest Americans.

*Tony Favro’s latest book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City is now available free of charge from City Mayors. Please complete our order form to receive a pdf copy. Libraries of academic institutions may receive a hard copy. Order form

*Tony Favro also maintains the blog Planning and Investing in Cities.

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