FOLLOW-UP: Research on Racial Resentment and Approval of Social Policy

In my last post, I argued that understanding Tom Price’s likely actions as the Secretary of Health and Human Services requires understanding the fierce and racially fraught metropolitics of greater Atlanta, where tax and service politics of all sorts, but particularly those surrounding medical care for the region’s poor (who are much more likely than the whole population to be Black). The long and short of it is that the region’s wealthy homeowners (who are much more likely than the whole population to be white) have developed a consistent grievance politics around the premise that Fulton County’s social services under Black political leadership take from deserving white homeowners to give to the undeserving (implicitly Black) poor.

I’ve made this argument inductively from archival research on movements for suburban secession in Atlanta since the 1960s. With varying degrees of overtness, one core premise–that catastrophe would result from Black Atlantans exercising political control over whites’ property–has animated white homeowner politics in Atlanta. This of course simplifies the story, but I emphasize that core idea because it’s easy to get lost in arguments about quality of life, fiscal responsibility, or local control that circulate in the political discourse but are dependent on the core idea.

Interdisciplinarity is useful for historians because social scientists working deductively on questions of the role of racism in decision-making help to ground what may seem like more ephemeral or constructed narratives about historical actions. In this case, I’m highlighting research by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine, featured on sociologist Lisa Wade’s blog The Society Pages

Are some Trump supporters’ political views motivated by race?

One way to find out is to see whether the typical Trump supporter is less likely to support policies when they are subtly influenced to think that they are helping black versus white people. This was the root of a study by political scientists Christopher Federico, Matthew Luttig, and Howard Lavine.

Prior to the election, they asked 746 white respondents to complete an internet survey. Each person was randomly assigned to see one of two pictures at the beginning of the survey: a white man standing next to a foreclosure sign or the exact same photograph featuring a black man. Respondents were also asked whether they supported Trump. (Non-white people were left out of the analysis because there were too few Trump supporters among them to run meaningful comparative statistics.)

The first graph shows that white Trump supporters were eight percentage points more likely to oppose mortgage relief if they had seen a “black cue” (the picture featuring a black man) than a “white cue.” The opposite was true for white Trump opponents.

This mirrors findings by Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee posted on the Wester Political Science Association’s blog in March. McDaniel and McElwee conclude noting correlations between education and economic status and Trump support in a US county, that strongly held resentment against racial minorities by whites, defined in terms of a zero-sum or something-for-nothing understanding that gains for minorities come illegitimately at whites’ expense, was the stronger predictor:

While we accept that all of these factors help explain Trump support, we find that racism is the main driver of support for Trump. The model presented here accounts for all of these attitudes and still finds an incredibly strong relationship between racism and support for Trump. The centrality of racism to the Trump phenomenon should not be obscured.

This research is disturbing, but perhaps, in reference to the likelihood of drastic actions by Tom Price, hopeful. On one hand, the reality that the Republican Party has an ideological core of white nationalism or racial resentment evokes horrifying prospects. But, if the party is guided less by a rigid free market ideology and more by a perception that government largesse is simply going to the wrong people, that could mean that social safety net legislation like the Affordable Care Act, with its substantial constituency of white beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, could be very difficult to repeal. I’m not a policy wonk by training. I’ve been taught how to pick stuff apart after it’s happened, not to try to evaluate the process as it unfolds. But, it seems as though the difficulty of recrafting the ACA to exclude the “other” while legitimating and preserving benefits to whites may stop the new Congress from repealing it (Sarah Kliff explains).

Tom Price and Metropolitics

First, off, regrets for the delay between starting this post when Tom Price’s appointment was news and publishing it today, when no one in the media has got time for Tom Price at all. Just pretend that Russia, Exxon, and the Electoral College don’t exist and that Tom Price still matters. Because he most certainly does, if you plan to get Medicare or Medicaid or have paid taxes on the premise that your payments might entitle you to partake of those social services someday.

(Ahem)

Most of the attention paid to Donald Trump’s naming of Georgia Congressman Tom Price as his prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services has focused on Price’s adamant opposition to the Affordable Care Act and social services in general.

Amy Goldstein and Philip Rucker reported in the Washington Post that Price is a loyal Trumpist, a foe of Obamacare, birther-curious, and, perhaps most importantly,

supports major changes to both Medicaid and Medicare, health insurance pillars of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Under his vision, both programs would cease to be entitlements that require them to provide coverage to every person who qualifies. Instead, like many House Republicans, he wants to convert Medicaid into block grants to states – which would give them more latitude from federal requirements about eligibility rules and the medical services that must be covered for low-income Americans. This plan would also require “able-bodied” applicants to meet work requirements in order to receive health care benefits — an idea that the Obama administration has consistently rebuffed.

No doubt, all of those concerns are legitimate and important. I echo all of them. But I think it’s worth pointing out that where Price is coming from is important; his extremism on social services reflects not simply fiscal conservatism but also a politics of (sometimes) veiled (and sometimes not) racial resentment formed in (but hardly unique to) post-1970s metro Atlanta. And, as I’ll discuss below, Price’s brand of politicized racial resentment has been disguised as principled concern for the fate of democracy with the help of words attributed to, but most likely never written by, a Scottish Enlightenment scholar of little significance outside of That Uncle’s email forwards and, unfortunately, the United States Congress.

By happy coincidence, I’ve published some articles about the part of metro Atlanta that contains Price’s 6th Congressional District. As I noted recently, Price won a landslide re-election hand in hand with an overwhelming vote for Trump in his district. North suburban Atlanta, hardly a bastion of the working class (white or otherwise), was the type of affluent and educated area strategists expected to swing to Clinton. The vote monkeywrenched Clinton’s predicted win in Georgia into something the Georgia Bulldogs might choke up in a big game against ‘Bama.

Here’s the map of the district.

6th Congressional District of Georgia

6th Congressional District of Georgia

While many national Democrats were looking toward Fairfax County, Virginia as a model of a winning Clinton coalition of post-partisan educated professionals and service workers horrified by Trump (and post-election analysts like Matt Karp have compellingly argued the narrowness of that vision), north Fulton didn’t act like Fairfax. Which reflects the region’s relatively recent history.

Note that Price’s district contains all or part of several cities incorporated within the last 12 years, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton in Fulton County, and Dunwoody in DeKalb County. The story of those incorporations, while spun by proponents as an effort to achieve accountable, efficient, and responsive local government ostensibly denied by the county governments that previously served the areas, is, I’ve argued, part of a broader campaign to shield affluent and majority-white suburban areas from political control, and specifically control of property taxes, by Black elected officials or elected officials accountable to Black constituents.

This is partly evident in the fact that the local governments established by recent incorporations have been neither honest nor inclusive, though they have been notable for their roster of white elected officials.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Now, I would avoid characterizing the drive for incorporation as a product of simple bigotry. It’s impossible to know the mindset of residents, those who voted for or against creating new cities, and the officials they elected to govern them. However, it is possible to understand the particular ways in which suburban governments operate as instruments to defend property rights and values and to hoard economic resources embodied in real estate against claims made by those residing outside the local boundary. It’s further possible to understand, as New Regionalist scholars have, that metropolitan areas are substantially integrated economies, despite extensive political fragmentation. It’s finally possible to understand that social processes, notably housing segregation, income inequality, and racial discrimination can work to place people in particular parts of the metropolitan area, while political fragmentation creates different levels of access to resources.

Accordingly, there is a profound connection between racism, property value, and the stakes of local politics. As Atlanta’s northern suburbs began to boom in the 1960s, and the city of Atlanta sought to annex some of them, the prospect of Black elected officials making decisions involving taxing suburban property and spending the proceeds fueled movements for defensive incorporation. Suburban voters fought Atlanta’s city government to a stalemate over annexation, until a movement for suburban municipal incorporation emerged, gaining considerable momentum from a 1991 property tax revolt.

A substantial irony of the tax revolt was that the property of many of these suburbanites had been grossly undertaxed for years. As I wrote in the Journal of Urban History, drawing on contemporary public sector economists’ analysis of late 1980s and early 1990s tax receipts, the market value of north suburban property was galloping ahead of tax appraisals and, accordingly, tax assessments were lagging far below levels mandated by state law. This was not a racially innocent process. As Kevin Kruse has most notably observed, Atlanta’s housing market had, since the desegregation of Atlanta’s city schools, created a premium for property in mostly white communities. Further, following Paula Ioanide’s discussion of affective economies, many white Atlantans’ perceptions of positive use value (aka “quality of life”) in their suburban communities has hinged on whiteness, adding an additional set of political stakes around both integration and local control, with the facially race-neutral values of good schools and quality of life dominant in public discussions.

Despite the evidence that many north Fulton homeowners had received a double whiteness dividend (increased property value plus a tax discount), when Fulton County conducted a countywide reappraisal to put the tax rolls in line with the market, those homeowners rebelled, with both Black County Commissioners and countywide public services (notably, for the purposes of our discussion, Grady Hospital, which serves the poor of Atlanta and Fulton County) taking the heat.

In my article, I identified a key conflict around social services. Embattled County Commission Chair Michael Lomax, who was nearly recalled in a 1991 petition campaign, attacked the perception that Atlanta’s public services were a benefit only to Atlanta’s poor residents and an unjustified burden to others, specifically arguing in a May, 1991 Commission meeting that while metro Atlanta residents outside of Atlanta enjoyed the benefits of the institutions and infrastructure paid for by the city and county, outlying areas were not contributing adequately to maintaining those facilities, including the care for the indigent provided at Grady. Other commissioners were more blunt, insinuating that racial animosity inspired austerity.

Things were probably not quite that simple, but in the context of a sudden tax reassessment, affluent white homeowners were quick to shift responsibility from their previous free ride to the presumed wastefulness of public services. A year after the 1991 tax revolt, a north Fulton realtor named Mark Burkhalter launched a political career that would take him to the state legislature by leading LOGTAX (Lower Our Grady Taxes), a group that openly framed the public hospital as a rip-off of north Fulton taxpayers. One of LOGTAX’s mailers presented a leading True/False quiz, which included such “questions” as “North Fulton homes are unfairly taxed for a hospital that doesn’t serve them.” The questions were misleading on a number of levels. As Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s longstanding alt-weekly) notes in a brief history of the politics of Grady Hospital, the facility in fact does serve residents of the entire metropolitan area through its trauma center, though its image as a facility for the black and poor obscures it:

When he first started working as a paramedic, Lunney remembers the stigma certain Atlantans attached to the hospital. He recalls instances in which affluent people such as a “soccer mom from Alpharetta” involved in a car crash on I-75/85 would “flip” at the suggestion of going to Grady, despite the fact that the level-one trauma center offered the best possible care.

Grady’s service to the whole region works indirectly, too. The indigent receive care there, making the for-profit facilities in the region more profitable, allowing middle-class Atlantans to afford private health care by shunting the cost of caring for the poor off the books, and benefitting the not insubstantial number of homeowning doctors and healthcare executives in north Fulton County. One of the ironies of Grady’s recent history is the extent to which local private hospitals panicked at Grady’s financial problems, fearing that they might be forced to absorb them. This proved to be of little consequence in the political arena, however, where aggrieved taxpayers and their spokespersons could make hay.

As the tax revolt matured and institutionalized within the Fulton County Republican Party, north Fulton tax hawks readily embraced a theory that Black elected officials were using the public budget for redistribution and racially-motivated reparations against white homeowners. I describe the response of a local reactionary columnist to the 1991 recall of Lomax, which evinces a particularly racialized take on taxing and spending:

Dick Williams likewise accused [Commission Chair Michael] Lomax of “playing the racial card,” asking “where is the racism in struggling for breath after finding a 100 percent or more property re-evaluation?” In the very same column, however, Williams blamed black politicians and voters for the crisis. Since “a greater percentage of whites own homes and businesses,” he wrote, “black lawmakers are freer to lay the tax burden off on people who didn’t vote for them anyway.”

If this formulation sounds familiar, it should. The idea that using the institutions of representative democracy to meet the needs of the largest number of people is not only improper but fatal to democracy itself is a contemporary favorite. Its purest form is reflected in this meme:

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, in the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinborough) had this to say about “The Fall of The Athenian Republic” some 2,000 years prior:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

“The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.”

In case That Uncle ever sends you this over email or posts it to social media, I will suggest as a service a few critical approaches to rebuttal. We could, as historians, nitpick the neat teleology of progression from “Bondage” to “Abundance” and back again, or the blatant artificiality of a two-century rule for civilizational collapse, or note that the parties in bondage tended to stay that way under Anglo-American settler government. We could even question whether the failure to consider warfare as a contributing factor to Athenian decline calls into question Tytler’s knowledge of shit from shinola. We could, as political scientists, be astounded at how Tytler’s quotation utterly mistakes the extent to which the Constitution purposefully separates the citizenry from the treasury. Think Electoral College. Think whether your vote counts as much as your Congressman’s. Think about what would happen if you demanded trillions of dollars to build an F-35 in your garage. Think about every Gadsden Flag waver who ever brayed “it’s a republic, not a democracy.” I think we’re actually safe from the masses voting themselves Obamaphones. We could, as rhetoricians, note the use of anachronistic phrases like “loose fiscal policy” that, with these other analytical errors, contribute to the propounding of a historical doctrine coincidentally suited to the exact needs of Tea Party conservatives today.

And, we could wonder why, if this Alexander Tytler was so goddamn smart and important, nobody’d ever heard of him until the invention of the email forward. Indeed, it appears that while an Alexander Tytler did exist, his authorship of scholarship on Athenian democracy is, to say the least, lacking in evidentiary support:

The “Alexander Tyler” quoted at the head of the article is actually Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian/professor who wrote several books in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, there is no record of a Tytler’s having authored a work entitled The Fall of the Athenian Republic (or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic), and the quoted material attributed to him above is likely apocryphal.

Would it surprise you to learn that Ronald Reagan was an important figure in catapulting this bit of propaganda into our collective consciousness? If it does, you should read Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge as soon as possible (though the fact that the Trump campaign could have used it as a how-to manual is distressing).  Their historical fraudulence notwithstanding, the words attributed to Tytler have been mouthed with disturbing frequency by Republicans in Congress, usually while advocating policies of upward wealth redistribution (and often after having been forwarded the quote by a constituent!).

I’m just not lucky enough that Tom Price himself ever read this quote into the Congressional Record– although his Republican colleague Mark Sanford (whose judgment is unquestionable) did, in a debate on the FY 2015 budget for which Price was the Republican leader. Here’s Sanford’s conclusion:

Ultimately, what I think that this budget is about is avoiding that very bondage that that historian and many others have talked about over the years.

To sum up, then: Mark Sanford thinks the federal budget should be written based on the fabricated musings of a non-expert on ancient Athens, who, even had he offered comment on that democracy’s failure, made no observations of republican government in the United States or anywhere else in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The case is airtight.

And, if Price never offered the Tytler quote, he certainly channeled its spirit in his own remarks in the same session:

Remember, Mr. Chairman—the American people know this—every dollar that is taken for taxes and every dollar that is borrowed, stealing from the next generation, is a dollar that can’t be used to pay the rent, to buy a car, to buy a home, to send a kid to college, to open a business or to expand a business and create jobs. We think there is a better way.

Social expenditure is theft, from the deserving (you) to the undeserving (them). But, to make it sound less like whining and more like principle, Price and his colleagues have continued to dress this essentially political mantra in the universalist robe of obscure enlightenment figures to make Obamacare, or Medicaid, or SNAP the equivalent of an attack on democracy itself and the supporters of such programs the equivalent of the Barbarians.

Even when Tytler isn’t dragged into it, the formula jumps up repeatedly. It echoed in Rick Santelli’s call for a Tea Party to protest a tiny proposal for mortgage relief, aptly described by Ian Haney Lopez as a dog-whistle of group antagonism:

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Paul Ryan turned the Tytler formula around to pretend to care about poor people’s own good, calling social services a “hammock” that could trap people in poverty by eroding their self-reliance. The Tytler formula animated the Tea Party attack on the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, suggesting a tidal wave of moochers threatening the Republic. And, in a March 2010 debate over legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act so loathed by Tom Price, Republican Congressman Tom Posey of Florida (a birther whose professional life has unfolded in the federally supported industries of aerospace and real estate) trotted it out once more, though this time not even bothering to attribute it to anyone, noting “it has been said….”

So, this fabricated quotation from a figure of no authority on modern governance is so entrenched in the culture of right-wing Washington as to hardly require attribution, let alone critical reflection on its merits as a guide to policy. But, it’s core premises are also deeply entrenched in metropolitics, where the politics of taxing and spending are just as contentious but often more immediate.

As I’ve argued in another article (available through Journal of Urban Affairs) that links the tax revolt to prior and subsequent politics of suburban separatism in north Fulton County, the racialized tax politics of the 1990s were critical to building political support for incorporating Sandy Springs in 2005, which sparked a wave of new cities formed in the next decade and was part of a campaign to split north Fulton from Fulton County, which would have substantial benefits for wealthy north Fulton residents and dire consequences to the (poorer and majority-Black) remainder of the county. As I wrote,

As the near absolute segregation of [north Fulton] has receded in the new century, so have overtly racial declarations of community interest given way to public appeals to efficiency, local control, and privatization as rationales for Sandy Springs’s political independence. Yet, black voters and officeholders remain the prime symbol of threat to the interests of white homeowners and taxpayers, who seek, as their predecessors did, to organize political space to avoid the influence of black officials and common obligations to black fellow citizens.

Throughout, the theme of zero-sum conflict was sounded. As I wrote, no one in Atlanta politics exemplified this better than attorney and anti-tax activist Robert Proctor, described by a local columnist as “Rush Limbaugh with a law license.” Proctor’s rhetoric merged the concepts of social services as theft and black political leadership as an illicitly race-conscious enterprise:

Proctor, described as “Atlanta’s Rush Limbaugh with a legal license” (Pendered, 1994a), became the director of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), and initiated a series of lawsuits that demonstrate the deep intersections of the tax revolt and white political grievances. Proctor and SLF challenged affirmative action policies of the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems, DeKalb County, and Grady Memorial Hospital, as well as Atlanta’s policy of extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees (Campos, 1999; Helton, 1996). Proctor frequently described affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing “the playing field has been leveled for at least 30 years [but now] is being made unequal” (Kimbrough & Daniels, 1997) to the detriment of taxpayers. Proctor only implicitly identified “taxpayers” as white, but was willing and eager to identify their oppressors as black. Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’s black political leadership, when not busy being “wasteful of taxpayer dollars” and “trad[ing] political favors with each other,” raised the cry of racism to shield themselves from criticism. Proctor further dismissed arguments for government programs to aid black businesses or employment, asking, “Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and … pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think … if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote, unquote, racism … we need to stop talking about race all the time’” (Applebome, 1994). Although Proctor identified black politicians and, indeed, African Americans generally, as his adversaries, he nonetheless framed his own position as the race-neutral one (saying “I’m not a member of the Ku Klux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Public expenditures took from us to give to them, on the sole basis of them commanding more votes. The necessary rhetorical step is to turn democratic outcomes (and Democratic victories) into attacks on democracy; they’re not content to just take your taxes, they’re trying to take your freedom.

So, to summarize and bring thing back to the present. We can understand a bit more what’s driving Tom Price if we can understand the specifically metropolitical context of his career. The Fulton County Republican Party, mobilized around property taxes, became a key bloc in an ascendant conservative and suburban Republican caucus in the legislature that thrived not only by preaching austerity, but by specifically attacking Black-serving institutions like public hospitals. Rather than providers of key services, they were corrupt vehicles for self-dealing, wasting taxpayer money to give others something for nothing.

This is the context in which Tom Price, representing north Fulton County, became the Georgia Senate Majority Leader in 2002 before jumping to fill Johnny Isakson’s open Congressional seat in 2005. If you are looking for principles that might predict Price’s actions as HHS Secretary, “screw them, we’ve got ours” is probably as good a place as any to start.

Special Virtual Issue of Journal of Urban Affairs

A quick note during a week when there’s not much else to talk about. My article Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta has been included in an accessible virtual online issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs on “Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in the City” (or in my case, the metropolitan county).

Here’s the abstract:

The Reverend Joseph Lowery and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus sponsored a 2011 voting rights suit, Lowery v. Deal, that demanded the disincorporation of several majority-white cities in Georgia’s Fulton and DeKalb Counties and preemption against attempts by affluent and majority-white north Fulton to secede from the rest of the county. Secession would have severe consequences for racial equity in the metropolitan area. Lowery’s 2011 dismissal by the District Court reflects ascendant color-blind racial ideology that defends white privilege in metropolitan space by attributing it to culturally and legally legitimate race-neutral processes. Historical analysis challenges this color-blind interpretation, identifying the nominally class-based interests of north Fulton residents with systemic racial discrimination and the politics of secession with historic patterns of spatial politics that have sought not only to exclude but also to manipulate political space to limit the ability of black voters and officials to make decisions affecting whites and their property.

Although I’m sure anyone reading this has had their fill of election analysis, and academic writing moves slowly, I think that there is one key element in my article that resonates with the shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) results of Tuesday’s voting. I highlight the vehemence with which many affluent suburban whites insist on the one hand that their political behavior is not about race (and indeed fixing blame for racism on minority leaders) while on the other hand taking extraordinary measures to prevent Black voters from influencing decisions affecting their property and avoid participating in a political commonwealth with Black people. Maybe that sounds familiar.

For whatever it’s worth, compare the county-level map of Georgia with the results of Congressional races (a precinct level map would be better, and maybe I’ll update with one later). At the larger scale, it seems like Metro Atlanta is a bastion of Clinton support, which makes the final 51.3-45.6 percent Trump margin (231,323 votes) seem inexplicable in a state many talked about flipping blue.

But if you look at the results of several congressional races in metro Atlanta districts, you’ll see the region is starkly cleaved on an east-west line separating strong Dem and strong GOP seats that also roughly tracks the geography of support for suburban secession.

In District 6, which includes much of north Fulton, Tom Price defeated his Democratic challenger by 61.6-38.4 percent (more than 72,000 votes). Adding up the Republican margins in districts 6, 7, and 11 on the north side of metro Atlanta yields a total advantage of 244,672 votes (bigger than Trump’s statewide margin). Assuming most congressional voters cast ballots by party preference for the presidency, that means that Trump won Georgia in significant part by dominating the white suburbs of Atlanta. I’d also heartily recommend Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which remains as relevant and important a work as ever.

A coda to my article. Voters in south Fulton County yesterday approved a ballot measure to pursue incorporation as a city, which would pretty much complete the municipalization of Fulton County. A few brief points: while South Fulton would be poorer and have more Black residents than any of the north Fulton cities I discuss, this does not support the idea that cityhood and fragmentation give desired local control to all communities on an equal footing. I’d say it’s much more likely that south Fulton voters recognized the degree to which Fulton County has been weakened as a service providing government by the incorporations of wealthy areas in the north (and of the more affluent Chattahoochee Hills area in the south) and the risk of incorporating later after existing municipalities annexed valuable land. Going forward, different parts of Fulton County will be using the same tools of local government but with vastly different resources at their disposal.

This is Encouraging

The Intercept has posted what seems to be a leaked Pentagon video about the challenges, from a counterinsurgency and governing perspective, of mega-urbanization. If you’ve been keeping up on your dystopian futurism (my current favorite is Margaret Atwood’s treatment of the Pleeblands outside of the corporate compounds in her Maddadam trilogy, but YMMV) you will recognize a lot of this.


What’s interesting is that the broader alternate possibilities of promoting democratic and humane cities is completely outside the frame for the Department of Defense. If your only tool is a hammer, you start complaining about how many nails there are and wondering why they won’t sit still.

Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.

 

Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.

Trumpism’s Urban Roots

It’s tempting, though inaccurate, to look to articles like this weekend’s Washington Post piece following Jim Cooley, a downwardly-mobile former trucker on disability who packs an AR-15 to the local Georgia Wal-Mart while his wife uses Facebook to alert the local sheriff that his intentions are benign and unworthy of forcible response (illustrated thusly, a bit on the nose),

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Photo Jabin Botsford, Washington Post

and conclude that Trumpism is a tide that laps the edges of metropolitan areas, but properly belongs to some here-be-dragons space off the map.

While this perception is largely based on the use of “non-college educated” as a shoddy statistical proxy for “working class” and ignores the higher-than-average incomes of Trump supporters, as well as their ample (if, perhaps, electorally insufficient) presence in American suburbs, it’s also worth noting that the key professional basis for Trump’s claims to the presidency (whatever their merit may be) is his career as a real estate developer. And, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that that career would be nothing without the regime of tax abatements and incentives that have characterized post-industrial urban governance in New York City and elsewhere.

Charles Bagli has that story in the New York Times. The long and short? Trump’s New York properties were built using tax abatement programs that lowered costs to Trump during development and shielded buyers of luxury condos from the full tax rate, allowing Trump to charge (and receive) higher prices to make more immediate profits. As Bagli writes, Trump’s Grand Hyatt hotel, which opened in 1980,

set the pattern for Mr. Trump’s New York career: He used his father’s, and, later, his own, extensive political connections, and relied on a huge amount of assistance from the government and taxpayers in the form of tax breaks, grants and incentives to benefit the 15 buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire.

Since then, Mr. Trump has reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels and office buildings in New York, according to city tax, housing and finance records.

As a product of public subsidies that have created luxury for a privileged elite, starved the public sector, and stinted on obligations to provide affordable and integrated housing, while cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of competitive enterprise, Trump’s empire reflects the trajectory of urban America, uncomfortable though it may be to recognize.

Cities Versus States

I ran across this piece by Abby Rapoport on Politico (which sponsors some good long-form investigations when it’s not playing DC Gossip Rag), by way of Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money. It’s a good analysis of the significance of the conflict between state legislatures and municipal governments, particularly as the former have been gerrymandered to include more seats where Republican primaries decide who’s elected.

Since I’ve studied and written about this issue in some depth, I would point out that this is one of the best popular accounts of the history of preemption and the legal status of municipal power I’ve read. Rapoport gets into the technicalities of municipal home rule, gets quotes from two of the leading academic legal scholars on the subject, and explains why the subject, which even many civically engaged Americans may not understand, is critically important for democracy, by letting the local activists whose work has been preempted by state governments in Texas and elsewhere tell their stories.

What’s particularly important is Rapoport’s summary of the distinction between “minimum” preemption, where state governments establish minimum levels of regulatory or other action that city governments must meet, and “maximum” preemption, where state governments actively prohibit local governments from taking action. Many critics accurately note that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an incubator for maximum preemption bills that specifically target corporate or social conservative boogeymen like local fracking bans, living wage laws, and anti-discrimination laws. What I hadn’t recognized before reading this account was that the strategy of maximum preemption actually goes back to the lobbying efforts of the tobacco industry:

The strategic use of maximum preemption laws dates back to the 1980s, when localities began passing smoking bans and smoke-free requirements. As court documents later revealed, R.J. Reynolds began promoting preemption because, in its own words, “state laws which preempt local anti-tobacco ordinances are the most effective means to counter local challenges.” Although further grim research findings eventually dealt the tobacco industry’s campaign mortal blows, other groups learned from its efforts. The National Rifle Association used similar tactics in the 1990s when concerns about crime prompted local gun regulations; 43 states now have some form of maximum preemption preventing localities from passing additional gun regulations on top of state law.

Which makes sense in a head-to-desk sort of way. The tobacco industry pioneered many of the denialist and doubt-seeding tactics thathave proven useful to thwart climate change action, ignore the need for gun control, and slow environmental and consumer safety laws (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe it in Merchants of Doubt. If you’re really lazy about reading, there’s now a film).

As Americans (rightly) pay attention to the presidential election, it’s important to remember that the battles that define what kind of society we live in will be fought closer to home, in the space between state and local governments. Which space is, sadly filled with lobbyists and hacks operating largely without scrutiny because the state houses are actually far less visible to the typical person than either the Capitol or City Hall.

Loomis offers a good summary of the federalism-of-convenience for the right that I may as well quote here, since I’d be saying the same thing in different words:

There’s a very specific reason why conservatives fetishize state government, even to the point of calling for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. All the talk about devolution that came out of the 90s stops right at the state capitol. It’s not about principle. It’s about conservative control. The federal government is too big for corporations or movement conservatives to easily control. Cities are too small. States are just right. State legislators can be bought off for incredibly small amounts of campaign donations. So making the federal government powerless, unless it wants to do corporate bidding, and making the cities powerless is part the conservative game to maintain power. And it’s been that way since at least the 1930s, when corporations complained about federal control and wanted power to reside at the state level. That’s what these wars on liberal cities are about in red states. Some of these cases, like the Denton fracking ban or Austin’s rejection of Uber, are about corporate control, others like HB 2 in North Carolina, are not. But for each type of conservative group, the state is where they see power residing precisely because that’s where it’s easiest for them to control that power.