In Defense of Cities

Why do Republicans lie about the cities?

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Illustration by Peter Grabowski.

If you were to listen to Donald Trump (or the GOP) discuss American cities, you would be quite frightened. At various points, the president has asserted that US cities are “more dangerous than war zones” overseas.

Baltimore? A “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Chicago? Both “embarrassing to the nation” and “a disaster.” New York? A “hellhole.”

Of course, urban animus is not reserved for only the head of the party. The rest of the Republican establishment seems to hate American cities as well. When Ted Cruz derided “New York values,” the New York Daily News was quick to respond — “Drop Dead, Ted! You Don’t Like NY Values? Go Back to Canada!”

The cities, according to conservatives, are rife with cosmopolitan elites overseeing systemic poverty and violence. The entrenched politicians are the product of the Democratic machine. High taxes and burdensome regulations drive business and middle class folks out of cities in droves.

This, of course, is fiction.

Let’s first start with the issue of urban violence, since so much of right wing media has been so laser focused on the recent racial justice protests. The most recent FBI crime statistics are from 2018. Overall, the violent crime rate nationally fell 3.3% from the previous year.

Looking at raw crime statistics in cities is a mostly useless endeavor. Of course there are more murders in New York City than in Idaho. Population differences render these comparisons fruitless. Instead, the FBI uses a per capita statistic — violent crimes per 100,000 people — to more accurately gauge safety.

Here are the ten states with the most violent crimes per 100,000 people, based on the most up-to-date statistics from the FBI:

  1. Alaska
  2. New Mexico
  3. Tennessee
  4. Arkansas
  5. Nevada
  6. Lousiana
  7. Alabama
  8. Missouri
  9. South Carolina
  10. Arizona

Not urban, and pretty red. Only New Mexico and Nevada are truly blue states — and I would hardly consider New Mexico to be a bastion of urban life. Indeed, you are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in one of these Republican controlled, primarily non-urban states than your average big city.

Now let’s talk about population flight. A central tenant of the city myth that Republicans tell themselves is that urban centers are so poorly run that thousands of families are fleeing.

It is true that some of the largest metro areas have seen a stagnation in population growth in recent years. But the reasons may surprise you.

First, and perhaps most importantly, city goers have fled their crowded streets during the coronavirus pandemic in search for more spacious alternatives. How much of this plague-induced diaspora remains permanent once the virus is under control remains to be seen.

Second, US population growth nationally is the slowest it is has ever been. Americans are having fewer children than ever before, if they choose to have them at all. Population growth is down everywhere, and cities are no exception.

Third, immigration levels have plummeted. Cities have long relied on both high-skill international talent and low-skill foreign labor to satisfy job openings. Trump administration policies have cut legal immigration by 49%, depriving cities of a source of population growth.

Fourth, those leaving the city are primarily doing so because of how expensive city life is. Over the last decade, housing prices in Los Angeles have increased by 75%, effectively pricing out many working class or middle class families. The expensive nature of urban life has prevented young couples from having children. “Raising a family in the city is just too hard,” Derek Thompson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, notes. “And the same could be said of pretty much every other dense and expensive urban area in the country.”

People aren’t leaving the city because of economic decay. Quite the opposite. People are leaving the city because its economic success makes calling the city home only tenable to the affluent.

Fifth, and finally, perhaps the “city in decline” narrative is overblown. From 2018–2019, only a dozen of the nation’s 53 largest metro areas saw a population decrease. According to census data, ten cities welcomed an annual increase in population of over 50,000 people.

Next there’s the urban economic ruin that conservatives talk about. Budget shortfalls, municipal debt, high taxes, red tape, and general budgetary malfeasance seep into urban economics.

New York City’s annual budget is a staggering $90 billion. Is every cent meticulously spent? Is every nickel efficiently invested? Probably not. But that shouldn’t take away from the sheer economic force of New York City specifically and big cities generally. James Pethokoukis notes:

“America’s cities are the nation’s warp engines of innovation and GDP growth. The 10 largest metro areas combine for a massive 34 percent of the country’s total GDP, notes Business Insider. Some 80 percent of the nation’s 5,000 fastest-growing businesses are located in large urban areas. Between 2000 and 2015, 59 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to applicants living in 20 metro areas with only 36 percent of the population. And American tech hubs, like the Bay Area and Boston, dominate any list of top global cities for tech talent.”

It’s true. Thanks to its cities, California would be the fifth largest economy in the world if it were its own country — ahead of the United Kingdom. The economy of the State of New York, due in large part to New York City, rivals the entire economic output of Canada.

Cities are the economic engines that drive the American economy. Dynamic capital, startups, and high skilled labor flood city streets. In fact, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, a whopping 85% of the entire US economic output comes from just 259 large American cities.

So why do Republicans lie about cities? Why does the GOP, which considers itself the “party of growth,” hate the pro-growth part of America?

First, it should be noted that while the Republicans do hate the cities, the hatred appears to mutual. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats won every single urban district. Additionally, Democrats won all but one of what CityLab deems as an “urban-suburban mix” district. This means that of the 82 Congressional districts that are either totally or partially urban, Democrats control 81 of them.

Republicans don’t perform very well politically in urban settings. Of the 37 largest cities in America, only six are run by Republican mayors (San Diego, Jacksonville, Fort Worth, El Paso, Oklahoma City, and Fresno).

The list is even more bleak than it would initially appear. Technically, California law mandates that mayors remain officially nonpartisan (sorry, San Diego and Fresno). Of the remaining four cities, three Republicans are not mayors in the typical “strong” sense. Rather, as Ballotpedia notes, these mayors fit more in the mold of “council-manager,” focused more on heading the city councils and delivering services efficiently than instituting partisan agendas.

The remaining (Republican) “city on a shining hill” is…Jacksonville, Florida. Never been, I’m sure it’s lovely.

Republicans hate cities because they can. Republicans rarely, if ever, enjoy a constituency in high population areas. Nationally, Republicans focus more on dampening turnout in the cities and focusing all of their resources in winning the suburbs and turning out rural areas. They concede the high economic output, high population centers. Instead of offering their own urban vision, Republicans just blame these areas for their electoral woes.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted the following insanity after Kamala Harris was chosen to be the Democratic nominee for vice president: “Kamala Harris wants to turn the entire United States into San Francisco.”

Really? San Francisco, the global home to the tech industry, is suppose to make me fearful? What should I fear about San Francisco — its almost 6% annual growth rate, its GDP per capita of over $100,000, or its sub 3% unemployment? Perhaps a Kevin McCarthy wet dream is Arkansas from coast to coast.

He says Kamala Harris will turn us into San Francisco. For once, I hope he’s right.

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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