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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Politics of the Urban Archipelago

One of my earliest posts to Amor Mundi way back when complained that there are in fact no “Flyover States,” but only “Flyover Counties” in America:
[P]rogressives are not confined to the coasts but are interspersed throughout the country. And wherever the progressives are one notices that there are the cities where Americans live, there are the Universities where the future is made, there are the thriving centers of commerce that drive the prosperity of the entire nation. [A] county by county map [of party identification] does not show a conservative nation lorded over by elite coastal enclaves, it shows a modern urban cosmopolitan civilization whose politics have been hijacked by the feudal agenda of scattered small-minded mean-spirited hayseeds stuck in the nineteenth century and pining after the End of Days.

I just stumbled upon on a righteously snarky essay from a few months back called The Urban Archipelago that makes this case much more interestingly and entertainingly than I did myself. As I said, it's a few months old, and so most of you may have seen it already, but I missed it somehow and recommend everybody look it over.

Perhaps it is an effect of the post-election siege mentality that prevailed when the article was written, when literally every American with a brain went into that dreadful disgusted Decline and Fall frame of mind as they wistfully pondered the promising skylines nearby... But whatever the cause I would complain that there is a curious and finally unhelpful insularity in many of the essay’s actual policy recommendations. Sometimes the essay seems to imply that environmental degradation beyond city limits won’t come to batter the walls of the city itself in Greenhouse gales, though it will, that gun-nut accumulations of arms out in the Styx won’t find their way to city streets, though they will, that Wal-Martization among the hicks won’t ineluctably derange the economy of urbane sensible citizens as well, though it does.

But I think that the essay diagnoses the progressive landscape very much as it really is, and that its proximate focus on cities is exactly the right one for progressives. I think such a focus on the urban archipelago provides a better lens through which to comprehend even the strategic implications for progressives in the urban/rural interdependencies the essay itself mistakenly rather trivializes. An unswerving focus on progressive urban needs rather than a focus on the hardships of snakehandling premodern bigots who just keep begging to get screwed over by priestly and moneyed elites who disdain them and who relentlessly attack the very ones who try to help them seems by far the better way to go from here on out. Premodern Red-County Hate Mongers are grown-ups even if they are atavisms. We should let them live with the choices they clearly want to make, and make them pay for those stupid choices themselves while we protect ourselves as best we can from the consequences of their stupidity. It's the properly respectful thing to do.

John Nichol’s more recent article in the Nation, also entitled The Urban Archipelago documents what such a focus is looking like on the ground, and provides a more helpful sense of the way forward from here that is less dismissive of the nuances (but also much less funny than the earlier essay). Read them both.


Pace Arko said...

I'm guessing you've already seen this cartogram of the 2004 election?

Brett said...

The Urban Archipelago is an article that would have greatly appealed to me in the days and weeks immediately following the election last year, but my initial impression is that its utility for the most part ends there. It's a nice jeremiad, and good for a few laughs, but as a basis for policy-making and movement-building I think it has some fairly flagrant flaws.

The biggest of these, as you rightly point out, is assuming some insularity for cities from the rest of the country that just doesn't exist. Not only would it be morally wrong to say "fuck you" to small towns and rural areas of the country (an argument which contains a certain level of misanthropy that I, as a progressive, am uncomfortable with), but it would also be misguided and, in the end, simply not feasible. We can't confine progressive policies to the cities; nor should we want to.

I should say that I am somewhat biased as I work in the field of rural economic development. That position, however, also gives me some perspective. I have noticed in my time working on these issues that many of the small towns that are surviving are those with a progressive leadership interested in applying some of the hard-learned lessons of the cities to their rural communities. Towns with a conservative leadership will eventually die or will replace that leadership with a more forward-thinking one. We should encourage that, and we should encourage the progressive leadership of otherwise conservative small communities to work for progressive policies in those areas. There are severe limits to the extent that existing cities which serve as blue enclaves can be grown; hence there are severe limits to a strategy that focuses solely on those cities as the future of progressive America. Rather than forgetting small towns, we should think more about making some of them into the types of places that progressives would like to call home. One can already find plenty of evidence of vocal progressive minorities making positive changes in rural communities across the country. This is something that should be encouraged, and something that we should give some thought to how to sustain. Abandoning these areas might seem attractive in the short-term, but it would be a disastrous policy for the future of progressive politics.

Dale Carrico said...

Pace, I have seen that cartogram, and the fact that it so resembles a monstrously diseased and dysfunctional internal organ, or possibly a bloody blue-veined cheese especially recommendeds it as a representation of the moment when America failed to overthrow the Bush Presidency.

Brett, you are right in all that you say. I think the second Urban Archipelago essay, the one written by John Nichols at a slight temporal remove from the November catasrophe is already taking up what was good in the first essay and nudging it into a more properly progressive focus.

We can repudiate any angry or despairing recommendations that urban progressives abandon the rural, suburban, and small town-dwelling victims of conservative policies, and still draw from these essays that:

[1] an urban/rural model is an incomparably more accurate one than blue state/red state to name the partisan political terrain, one that should have an impact on public rhetoric and electoral strategy

[2] cities provide an institutional location for real-world progressive political intervention and reform right now -- a realization that is very heartening to progressives who appear instead from the perspective of conventional models to be language in the desert

[3] a primary focus on the issues of urbanity is a focus that directs the attention of American progressives back to the problems of the majority of Americans and to the needs of the conspicuous majority of actually existing progressives themselves

I imagine you might object to [3], but while I agree with you absolutely that it is very important not to formulate [3] in a way that implies that there are no non-urban progressives or that progressives should abandon non-urbanites -- and I agree that these articles don't manage to qualify the thesis adequately in this way yet and so I shouldn't have recommended them wothout even more qualifications than I provided -- STILL, I think [3] names a reality that need to be named and which shifts our sense of progressive culture and strategy in ways that will put more progressives in power.

You say: "There are severe limits to the extent that existing cities which serve as blue enclaves can be grown; hence there are severe limits to a strategy that focuses solely on those cities as the future of progressive America." More on this, please. Also, I think the Urban Archipelago concept could use some tinkering vis-a-vis the politics of towns -- at what point do they join into the archipelago exactly and why?

Pace Arko said...

I think this urban and rural political divergance occurs over and over again in countries around the world and throughout history. I don't know if it can really be erased.

Poverty, rural or urban, often makes people very conservative and fearful that what little they have will be taken away from them by the big nasty government or by immigrants or by a bunch of outside busybodies. It's really hard to ease that fear and sometimes it's justified.

In the United States it's ironic that the rural poor has these fears when they ignore how the federal government subsidizes their roads, electricity and telecommunications or how undocumented stoop labor picks their fruit.

If these supports were removed there'd be no one left to operate the machinery for the huge farms owned by agribusiness or the mines or the paper mills. The dynamic is very convoluted.

Cargill and ADM have to sell vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup to the world, therefore rural farm towns, and their eccentric politics, still exist in the United States.

I know that last statement is not really true--rural towns exist for other reasons--but it sometimes seems that way.