Town and Country

As the gun debate shows, the priorities of urban and nonurban America are more divided than they’ve been since the 1920s.

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the 2015 United States Conference of Mayors on June 20, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Clinton commented on the Charlestonmassacre during her speech after the shooting deaths of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in , South Carolina. The 83rd Annual Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors runs through June 22.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
June 26, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s im­pas­sioned com­ments about race drew the most at­ten­tion when she ad­dressed the U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors about the Char­le­ston, South Car­o­lina, tragedy last week­end in San Fran­cisco. But the mo­ment of loudest ap­plause dur­ing her re­marks poin­ted to a dif­fer­ent di­vide re­shap­ing Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

Hil­lary Clin­ton com­men­ted on the Char­le­ston mas­sacre dur­ing her re­marks at the 2015 United States Con­fer­ence of May­ors on June 20 in San Fran­cisco. (Justin Sul­li­van/Getty Im­ages)Nearly every may­or in the cav­ernous ball­room rose when Clin­ton pledged to re­vive the cause of “com­mon-sense gun re­forms” that deny weapons to “crim­in­als and the vi­ol­ently un­stable.” As the may­ors cheered, it was easy to for­get that since Bill Clin­ton’s first term as pres­id­ent, an im­pen­et­rable phalanx of res­ist­ance from non­urb­an Amer­ica has blocked all gun-con­trol meas­ures in Con­gress. Though gun con­trol re­tains wide­spread sup­port in cent­ral cit­ies, that hasn’t over­come in­di­vis­ible op­pos­i­tion from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, who al­most all rep­res­ent sub­urb­an and rur­al con­stitu­en­cies, and a few rur­al Demo­crats who side with them. Char­le­ston prob­ably won’t change that.

Gun con­trol may be the is­sue that most sharply di­vides urb­an from non­urb­an Amer­ica. But it is hardly the only one. Pres­id­ent Obama en­joys wide­spread sup­port from big-city may­ors, in­clud­ing some Re­pub­lic­ans, on most of his key do­mest­ic ini­ti­at­ives, from health re­form to provid­ing uni­ver­sal preschool. “He is the first urb­an pres­id­ent since John Kennedy, so it’s not a shock his agenda aligns with what we are do­ing,” says Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first-term chief of staff. But from Con­gress to state le­gis­latures, these same ideas face fe­ro­cious op­pos­i­tion from sub­urb­an and rur­al Re­pub­lic­ans, some­times joined by the dwind­ling ranks of rur­al Demo­crats.

The pri­or­it­ies of urb­an and non­urb­an Amer­ica may con­flict more today than at any point since the 1920s. Back then, rur­al Amer­ica—mostly white and heav­ily evan­gel­ic­al—backed Pro­hib­i­tion and im­mig­ra­tion re­stric­tions in a rear­guard ef­fort to im­pose its val­ues on a rising urb­an Amer­ica teem­ing with the eth­nic and re­li­gious di­versity of new im­mig­rants. The cit­ies for­ging a new Amer­ica won that round when they co­alesced to help elect Frank­lin Roosevelt in 1932 (and to re­peal Pro­hib­i­tion soon after).

The mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion is again over­whelm­ingly centered on cit­ies. In 2012, Obama won reelec­tion by more than 5 mil­lion votes. Yet he won only 690 of Amer­ica’s 3,113 counties—few­er than any win­ner since 1920. Obama tri­umphed by dom­in­at­ing Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lous urb­an cen­ters and many of its in­ner sub­urbs, even as his sup­port withered bey­ond them.

A map of Con­gress, or of most state le­gis­latures, would sim­il­arly show Demo­crats con­sol­id­at­ing con­trol over urb­an cen­ters but wan­ing out­side them. The same demo­graph­ic pat­tern drives both trends. Cit­ies today are largely pop­u­lated by minor­it­ies and by the whites who feel com­fort­able liv­ing amid ra­cial and cul­tur­al di­versity. That sort­ing has cre­ated a left-lean­ing urb­an con­sensus that al­lows Demo­crats to elect may­ors in vir­tu­ally every ma­jor city, in­clud­ing many in oth­er­wise red states (like Hou­s­ton, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City). The flip side is that apart from some white-col­lar, cul­tur­ally lib­er­al sub­urbs (par­tic­u­larly along the coasts), Re­pub­lic­ans are rout­ing Demo­crats among the white voters who have chosen for cul­tur­al or eco­nom­ic reas­ons to live bey­ond city cen­ters, some­where on the con­tinuum from sub­urb to small town.

This align­ment has left Demo­crats strong in the found­a­tion and pent­house of Amer­ic­an polit­ics—city hall and the White House. But in between, Re­pub­lic­ans are en­joy­ing their greatest strength in Con­gress and state gov­ern­ments since the 1920s.

The parties in­creas­ingly wage their policy struggles from these com­pet­ing strong­holds. After 26 Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing states, many of them rur­al, sued to block Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion provid­ing leg­al status to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, 33 cit­ies leg­ally in­ter­vened to sup­port him. While the Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress has ig­nored Obama’s call to in­crease the min­im­um wage, cit­ies in­clud­ing Los Angeles and Seattle are rais­ing their own. Cit­ies are em­bra­cing oth­er Obama pri­or­it­ies Con­gress has shelved, in­clud­ing ex­pan­ded preschool (Den­ver, San Ant­o­nio, and Chica­go), paid sick leave (Phil­adelphia), and equal work­place treat­ment for gay res­id­ents (more than 200 cit­ies). Con­versely, on is­sues from the min­im­um wage to sick leave, some con­ser­vat­ive state le­gis­latures have passed laws pro­hib­it­ing lib­er­al cit­ies from act­ing.

In de­cisions un­der their con­trol, cit­ies are pur­su­ing a his­tor­ic wave of pro­gress­ive in­nov­a­tion—of­ten with White House sup­port. But cit­ies con­tinu­ally face frus­tra­tions over na­tion­al policy, es­pe­cially in the Sen­ate where the Founders’ de­cision al­loc­at­ing two sen­at­ors to each state com­bines with the fili­buster to mag­ni­fy rur­al in­flu­ence. Noth­ing bet­ter demon­strated that dy­nam­ic than the Sen­ate’s 2013 vote re­ject­ing uni­ver­sal back­ground checks for gun pur­chases. If you as­sign each sen­at­or half of their state’s pop­u­la­tion, the 55 sen­at­ors sup­port­ing back­ground checks rep­res­en­ted 194 mil­lion people, and the 45 op­pos­ing it 118 mil­lion. Yet by sus­tain­ing a fili­buster, the minor­ity blocked the bill.

Hil­lary Clin­ton wants may­ors to charge that hill again, but the last skir­mish over gun con­trol ac­tu­ally offered a poin­ted re­mind­er that on most is­sues re­quir­ing na­tion­al ac­tion, non­urb­an Amer­ica holds a veto over urb­an pri­or­it­ies—and prob­ably will for years ahead.

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