Those of us eagerly awaiting the Republicans’ return to urban policy will have to wait a little longer. While the party was once considered a credible, reform-minded alternative, or at least a counterweight, to Democratic political machines, the GOP’s radical rightward shift has left its pols struggling to compete in urban America. Of America’s 25 biggest metropolises, only three have Republican mayors. The current softening of the GOP’s position on drug-crime sentencing and imprisonment isn’t enough to make the party a serious contender in U.S. cities.
A quick glance at the Republican platform shows why, and it has nothing to do with social conservatism. To the extent that the Republican Party offers an urban agenda, it is a Godzilla policy: a program for destroying cities, not restoring them.
The urban philosophy of the GOP can be summarized by its opposition to the Obama administration, which, the 66-page document suggests, “subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit” and seeks to “coerce people out of their cars.” (If only that were the Democratic agenda. The truth is that neither Bernie nor Hillary has talked much about urban poverty, transit, evictions, rents, or growth restrictions, and Obama—once heralded as the “urban president”—has not much changed the status quo. We’ll have more on their platform shortly.)
In this, the GOP platform’s approach to land use and transportation is ideologically indebted to the Agenda 21 movement, a popular grassroots conspiracy theory that alleges that a nonbinding U.N plan from 1992 is herding Americans into cities as a form of social control.
One of the GOP’s more potent suggestions is that the federal government abandon the Highway Trust Fund’s support for mass transit and sidewalks, among other extraneous outlays. Transit, the document says, is “an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” (The six metro areas with the nation’s biggest transit systems contain about 60 million people and account for more than one-fifth of U.S. GDP.)
On housing, the Republicans pay lip service to the ongoing rental crisis, noting that “nearly 12 million families spend more than 50 percent of their incomes just on rent.” But there is no subsequent mention of Section 8, the severely underfunded housing voucher program (and GOP brainchild) that covers only a fraction of eligible families. The party also calls for a comprehensive review of regulations impeding the growth of the housing supply, particularly environmental laws.
The biggest opening for the GOP at the metropolitan level is to position itself as the anti-regulation party, particularly with respect to schools, small businesses and zoning. Republican support for charter schools could be a part of that platform (though many powerful Democrats are also in that camp).
If there’s one roll of red tape conservatives like, though, it’s restrictive zoning. Echoing Stanley Kurtz’s periodic op-eds in National Review, the platform blasts the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to bring low-income housing to wealthy communities:
Zoning decisions have always been, and must remain, under local control. The current Administration is trying to seize control of the zoning process through its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation. It threatens to undermine zoning laws in order to socially engineer every community in the country.
That market just isn’t ready to be free.
The other great paradox of the free-market/devolution party is that there’s one American community that isn’t ready for local control: the District of Columbia. Why not? Because unlike less populous Wyoming or Vermont, “it belongs both to its residents and to all Americans, millions of whom visit it every year.”
The Americans it belongs to most, though, are the visiting members of Congress, who have the power to oversee elements of budget and policy for the District’s 660,000 inhabitants.