The Suburbs and the GOP

Joel Kotkin
Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

In this year’s elections, particularly in California, the suburbs spoke, and essentially destroyed Donald Trump and the Republican Party. In affluent suburban districts once controlled by the GOP – outside Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Orange County — long held GOP seats have flipped and may prove unlikely go back to the GOP unless Democrats alienate their new constituents.

Fundamentally this year suburbia, which leaned somewhat to Trump in 2016, turned decisively to the Democrats. In 2016 the suburbs voted 50 to 45 for Trump; this year the suburban electorate tilted blue, going Democratic by 52 percent. The reasons for this shift are manifold but the biggest cause boils down to two words: Donald Trump. The megalomaniac New Yorker may have persuaded enough suburban voters to back him last time, but his erratic personality, misogynistic past and perceived hostility to immigrants cost his fellow Republicans dearly. They could also cause numerous “purple states” like Florida to flip.

With this election, the suburbs, home to the majority of all voters and over 80 percent of the residents of major metropolitan areas, have established themselves as the ultimate arbiters of political success. This contrasts with the situation in 2016 when American politics were shaped by vastly different visions promoted by rural residents and urbanites; Trump won roughly two-thirds of the rural vote while Clinton won almost Soviet-like support in core urban areas like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

Is there a suburban politics?

Unlike core cities, suburbs are family-centric — the 8 percent of core residents with children 6 to 17 is barely one third the rate for suburbs and exurbs. They tend to be deeply concerned with issues such as education, public safety and broad-based economic growth. Traditionally this has worked for moderate Republicans outside the super-affluent inner suburbs such as around Silicon Valley.

But Trump’s behavior has proven a hard sell to suburban parents, who do not want their children to model themselves on a crude, venal and morally reprobate chief executive. His nativist flirtations also seem to have hurt him with Asian, Latino and African-American suburbanites, who could be part of a future GOP coalition but likely not with Trump at the helm.

The challenge for the Democrats, particularly the newly elected members, is to learn how to serve middle-class families instead of kowtowing to their more leftist base of city-dwellers, who tend to be renters and childless. Suburbanites, for example, may be less interested in transit, which is losing market share, and prefer fixing roads than trying to torture motorists since this is how most suburbanites get around.

Issues that could threaten the Democratic ascendancy

From Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, Democrats historically favored the expansion of homeownership and suburban growth. But increasingly progressives — and the regions they control — seek to make the construction of middle-class housing all but illegal.

This policy does have perversely positive effects for existing coastal property owners by inflating home values, which may explain the lack of resistance to these policies. Yet there are some areas of vulnerability, notably on attempts to “disrupt” the suburban way of life.

Under President Obama, HUD Secretary Julian Castro was pushing for policies that would enforce civil rights laws against suburbs that are insufficiently diverse — even without any proof of discrimination. Earlier this year San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener, backed by the tech oligarchs, similarly sought to strip zoning authorities from jurisdictions in the mistaken belief that cramming more high-rise projects into an area would reduce driving or prices.

What will shape the future?

These attempts assault the very reasons — notably space and privacy — people of all ethnicities move to suburbia. Democrats need to separate themselves from notions put forward by Victoria Fierce, one of the leaders of the tech-funded YIMBY pro-density lobby, to favor relentless densification because it promotes “collectivism”. Lily Geismer, an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, thinks the suburbanites also should be punished for their “hoarding” of everything from their children’s education and protecting their neighborhoods from unwanted development.

Try that approach in Marin County, west Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley, and see how it works. Many suburbanites may be somewhat “woke” on issues of the environment, race or gender, but they also have economic and family interests.

This can be seen in the results for the badly defeated Proposition 10 rent control measure, whose opponents drilled repeatedly on the prices homeowners can charge for rentals. This may well have turned off a portion of the same voters — perhaps as many as 20 percent of the total — who then voted for Newsom and the rest of the blue team.

Yet to take advantage of potential progressive over-reach, future GOP candidates need to change their tone, separating themselves from the politics of division and bombast. They need to free their party from the tyranny of the largely rural and small-town Trumpista fringe, or they will continue to lose the suburbs, essentially a death sentence for their party.

This piece originally appeared on The Orange County Register.

Cross-posted at New Geography

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