The Baltimore riots have — for now — refocused the political argument on government’s past and future role in addressing inner city poverty. There is increasing bipartisan agreement on the need for police and sentencing reform. But other large ideological disagreements — over the legacy of the Great Society, and what future policies to aid poor urban areas should look like — seem as intractable as ever.
Republicans have labeled the conditions producing riots a consequence of failed liberal policies, with Paul Ryan prominently claiming — based on misleading statistics — that the War on Poverty has failed. Democrats have sought to highlight the way GOP budgets would gut government programs that help the urban poor.
Either way, urban anti-poverty and renewal policy could play a key role in the 2016 race, and reform conservatives — who are already prodding GOP candidates to develop a comprehensive agenda for working and middle class Americans — are likely to call on them to develop an urban agenda, too.
But the simple truth may be that the GOP just doesn’t have any real incentive to develop a serious, comprehensive urban poverty agenda. The chart below helps suggest why.
It’s often pointed out that thanks to population distribution patterns and redistricting, Democrats have found themselves packed inefficiently into dense urban areas, while Republicans are more efficiently distributed across a greater number of districts, helping explain the impregnability of the GOP’s hold on the House.
The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman suggests one useful way to measure the two parties’ relationships to urban America: Look at the amount of land mass each represents in the House. He crunched the numbers, based on census data.
The result is startling: Republicans represent 57 percent of House seats, but those cover 85.7 percent of land mass. Democrats represent 43 percent of House seats, but those cover 14.2 percent of land mass (run your cursor over the bars):
“Republican members of the House are the most disconnected from urban America — they represent disproportionately rural and suburban districts,” Wasserman tells me. “No party has ever held that great a percentage of land mass.”
“That’s how House Republicans are distributed across the country,” Wasserman adds. “It also drives the point home of how urbanized the Democrats have become.”
Of course, this is only the House of Representatives. The picture is somewhat different in the Senate, Wasserman notes, where some Republicans represent states (Florida, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, etc.) that include major urban centers. “Senate Republicans are a little closer to the middle,” Wasserman notes, but even they “are skewed more rural than the country as a whole.”
And then there’s the electoral college. Republicans probably need to win Florida and Ohio to win the presidency, and those, along with other states they will set their sights on, such as Wisconsin, Virginia and Pennsylvania, all have major urban centers. Wasserman notes that the debate over urban policy might actually end up mattering more in terms of the battle for suburban voters — rather than urban dwellers — in these states.
Republicans are “competing for suburban voters around places like Richmond and Milwaukee,” Wasserman says. “They don’t need to prove they are activists. They just need to prove to moderate suburbanites that they care.”
But in a twist, the GOP strategy for tightening the party’s grip on the House — the party’s bulwark against national demographic change — could end up acting as an obstacle to developing urban policies that might accomplish that. “Republicans have dis-incentivized their participation in addressing these issues because they have stuffed heavily Democratic, heavily minority precincts into urban seats,” Wasserman says.
Of course, the chief imperative for 2016 GOP candidates right now is to talk to GOP primary voters. Jonathan Allen recently noted that the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s response to the riots (she called for an end to “mass incarceration”) and Jeb Bush’s response (he blasted government “dependency”) neatly showcased the different audiences (minorities versus conservative voters) they are playing to.
However, some reform conservatives will continue urging the 2016 GOP candidates to develop an urban policy blueprint that goes beyond condemning big government liberalism. Among them is Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, who has (among other things) pushed Republicans to support lower-income tax relief, paid for by nixing tax loopholes for the wealthy, to encourage work.
“Even though dense urban areas are relatively more liberal than other areas, conservatives and republicans should not ignore urban issues,” Strain says. “I hope that the Republican presidential candidates, in their efforts to lead all Americans, will include a discussion of urban problems and conservative solutions in their policy platforms. Those platforms should include, in part, an urban agenda.”