Sunday, September 14

Conservatives and Urbanism

When I first wandered onto the political landscape of urban planning, it didn't take long to figure out that the teams had already been lined up neatly along the left-right spectrum. Conservatives were supposed to champion the suburbs, and liberals were the cosmopolitan urbanites (or hippie farmers). The Right wants tacky cul-de-sacs to raise a family, and the left wants to cram everyone into soviet block housing so wildlife can roam the countryside. This immediately struck me as nonsensical, at least from an ideological point of view, probably more the accidental result of current American demographics than any preconceived outworking of values or beliefs. This is one of those issues that ought to transcend these fault lines, or maybe just side-step it. There are plenty of (conservative) reasons for conservatives to ensure that cities stay cities and country stays country.

That's why it was pleasant to read Dana Goldstein's the Conservative Case for Urbanism, even if she did sneak in some unecessary digs against Republicans.

"Policies in favor of dense development shouldn't be viewed on a left-right spectrum and certainly needn't be filtered through culture-war rhetoric, the panelists said. In fact, one doesn't have to be concerned about climate change at all in order to support such policies; values of fiscal conservatism and localism, both key to Republican ideology, can be better realized through population-dense development than through sprawl."

I'd add that it's not only the fiscal conservatives who may want to embrace urbanism, but social/traditionalist conservatives have a lot in common as well. Many have noted that all civilizations throughout history have abided by certain patterns of urban growth, only to be completely trashed, in the name of modern efficiency, by the growth patterns within the last 50 years. This simple fact should be enough to make any Burkean raise his eyebrows.

I understand differences in how to get there, but I don't understand why there is not more consensus on where we ought to go.


J.W. said...

I think Tocqueville is onto something when he talks about the unique fusion of the democratic spirit and orthodox Christianity that occurs in America, and I think this goes a long way toward explaining why conservatives (not just modern conservatives, but even older ones like Benjamin Rush) have traditionally hated the city. Tocqueville writes, "not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." If democracy encourages autonomy, as Tocqueville here argues, and if economic, social, and technological changes have fragmented the communal bonds that once balanced this tendency, suburban patterns of development would be uniquely suited to the conservative who now maintained a conservative ideology in a distinctively non-civic way, i.e. in an emotivist or aesthetic way, as a matter of preference. As suburban development is virtually all private space, the conservative can 1) choose a neighborhood that isolates him or her from socio-economic classes unlike him/herself and 2) further limit his/her interaction with others to those invited into that personal space. I think, on the basis of this insight, that a more fundamental distinction than fiscal/social conservatives would be between aesthetic or emotivist conservatives and principled conservatives, i.e. conservatives that appeal to some criteria outside their personal experience to substantiate the values that they profess.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks J.W for bringing this post to another level. I think you're right to apply MacIntyre's ethical language of emotivism to different types of Conservatives. Maybe that distinction is more appropriate than the social/fiscal one we usually see.

Your Toqueville comment set me thinking. I wonder if, in the 19th century, the primary threat to the essential social institutions were the cities. They were growing so quickly and broadly and were challenging social mores, which would have led Conservatives to see them as threats to cultural fabric. But I wonder if real the problem was not cities as such, but the scale and pace of growth of these cities. Maybe an understandable industrial revolution response has held on to longer than it fit the actual reality.

In the 20th century, of course, most of the new growth happened in the suburbs. And it is here where the social fragmentation that Toqueville warned against is the most evident. Yet the bias is still anti-urban.

J.W. said...

On a relevant note, I was just reading Kenneth Startup's The Root of All Evil, which attempts to get at "the economic mind" of the South from approximately 1830-1850 through the lens of southern ministers. These ministers were, to my surprise, almost uniformly negative about economic attitudes among the gentry and among Jacksonian democrats in the South; they believed that the South was being ruined by the disease of "mammonism." Now, we tend to think of the antebellum south as an agrarian society, and to a great degree it was, but it was experiencing tremendous urbanization during the antebellum period as well. Expectedly, ministers were distrustful of the new centralization and took at as evidence of the increasing influence of mammon on Southern culture. But apparently, they did not hate cities in and of themselves: "Though some clerics perceived cities as especially dangerous to the spiritual well-being of southerners, they did not evidence any sense that the cities were an aberration in southern culture. Rather, they seemed to regard the cities as simply the most glaring examples of the South's materialistic mentality" (27-28). Just an interesting addition to the conversation.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thoughts of "mammonism" may be on the minds of lots of people today as we take a look at Wall Street!