Are Democrats Out of Touch with Suburbia?

Some say Democrats suffered big blows in November because they’ve become a party of urban elitists.

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It’s been hard to open up a newspaper or visit a website these past couple of months without coming upon somebody’s pet theory about why Democrats took such a beating in November. It was the health law; it was foreign policy; it was the job market; it was Obama’s race; it was his aloofness; it was the failure of Democrats to stick up for themselves; it was the money Republicans poured into negative ads on television; it was turnout.

Most of these theories contain at least a grain of truth, but after a while one gets tired of reading them. It’s time to put aside the postmortems and move on. There’s one theory about the 2014 election, however, that has a direct connection to the future of government at all levels in this country. It’s the argument that Democrats lost badly because they have become a party of urban elitists led by a president grossly insensitive to the values and problems of the middle-class suburbanites who cast the deciding votes in state as well as national elections.

Joel Kotkin has been the most prolific promoter of this point of view. In one widely read article that originated in The Daily Beast and soon began bouncing all over the blogosphere, he attacked the “progressive clerisy” that wishes “to destroy the suburban dream.” They “will not be able to stay in office long with such attitudes,” he continued. Suburbanites will continue to reject “progressive ideologues who continually diss the very places they have chosen to live.”

Kotkin cites former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan as a primary culprit. He quotes Donovan to the effect that the move to the suburbs is “over,” and accuses the administration of fostering “thinly disguised efforts to promote densification and put the squeeze on suburban growth.”

If all of this is true, and suburbanites really did flock to the polls in 2014 to punish a party and a president that had continually insulted them, the political implications scarcely need to be spelled out.

Democrats who want to win state elections would need to stop talking about an urban renaissance and begin catering to the automobile-based suburban culture and the subdivisions of single-family homes that continue to sprawl out 40 and 50 miles beyond the centers of large American cities.

But is it true? Well, some of it is. There’s no denying that Democrats lost badly in the suburbs in 2014. By one accounting, Republican candidates for Congress won in the suburbs by 12 percentage points last November, while Democratic candidates carried urban precincts by 14 points.

On the other hand, the closer you look, the less interesting those figures seem to be. The Democratic vote fell off badly almost everywhere in 2014: suburbs, exurbs, rural counties and even the cities.

Conservative blogger Michael Lewyn dug into the numbers and found that successful statewide Republican candidates were improving on their 2010 suburban performance in very nearly the same proportions by which they were improving statewide. The decline of the Democratic vote in the suburbs wasn’t markedly different from what was happening nationwide.

It’s also interesting to look at how the president fared among suburbanites when he himself was on the ballot in 2012. Obama came within 2 percentage points of his Republican opponent among suburban voters, not quite as good a showing as he had made in 2008, but still a performance that almost any Democratic nominee of the past half-century would have been glad to get.

In winning re-election in 2012, Obama carried almost all of the big suburban counties on the edge of major Eastern and Midwestern cities. He won comfortably in affluent Montgomery County and middle-class Delaware County, both on the edge of Philadelphia, as well as in inner-suburban Fairfax and exurban Loudoun counties in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to argue that Obama’s ability to pry loose previously Republican suburban voters in battleground states was the crucial element in his two presidential victories.

At the very least, it’s fair to conclude that the suburbanites of 2012 didn’t show any signs the Obama administration had dissed them during his first term. Maybe there’s something he’s done in the two years since then, but it’s hard to imagine what that might be. To the naked eye, it would seem that gridlocked Washington did scarcely anything of consequence in urban or suburban policy in 2012 or 2013. There was Shaun Donovan talking New Urbanist talk at HUD, but it strains credibility to think that many suburbanites were paying attention to this, or that many of them even knew who Donovan was. Obama made a splash calling for reduced dependence on fossil fuels, but that’s pretty much what millions of suburban drivers were doing by purchasing fuel-efficient cars. It’s difficult to turn up anything that would explain a mass protest by suburban voters against a president who had wounded them unforgivably.

For that matter, there’s room for debate over whether the Obama administration has ever been as resolutely pro-city as the apologists for suburban sprawl would have us believe. It’s true that Obama is the first genuinely urban-based politician to win the presidency in a long time.

It’s also true that city leaders have had an entrée to the White House -- and a sympathetic reception -- that they haven’t had during any recent regime.

But locating any policy change during the past six years significant enough to create a massive suburban revolt is challenging. Federal lending policies remain skewed toward single-family suburban home buyers at the expense of urban renters or multifamily housing development.

Federal dollars continue to flow toward suburban-oriented highway projects. When stimulus dollars for transportation began to flow out of Washington in 2009, mayors were disappointed to find that the bulk of the money was funneled through state transportation departments, far friendlier to road-building than to the transit systems that many cities wanted.

If the Obama administration had really wished to teach the suburbs a lesson, there are plenty of conspicuous ways they could have achieved that goal. It would have been a politically perilous thing to do, and there’s very little evidence they had a desire to do it.

Do presidential administrations ever truly take sides in the city vs. suburb debate? Actually, they do. The Eisenhower administration, whether it said so explicitly or not, pursued a profoundly pro-suburban course in the 1950s by authorizing construction of the interstate highway system and offering the home mortgage interest deduction for new home purchases but not for urban renovation.

The Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s was inescapably pro-city, and pro-minority, and, as is well known, generated an intense backlash from suburbanites and the middle-class homeowners who fled the cities to join them. But this bit of history turns out to be a little more complicated than it seems at first glance. The Republicans, in their way, were also pro-city in the 1960s. The Republican platform in 1968, as professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard University has pointed out, contained an entire section called “Crisis of the Cities,” which promised “a vigorous effort, nationwide, to transform the blighted areas of cities.” The GOP gradually abandoned that approach. The 2012 GOP platform, Glaeser recounts, uses the word “urban” only twice, and then only to denounce “an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”

The city vs. suburb question was a lot simpler in the 1960s than it is now. Cities were where minorities lived; suburbs were for whites. That’s not remotely the case now. Indeed, the whole issue of pro- or anti-suburban policies can’t be discussed meaningfully until we stop talking about suburbia as if it were a monolith. The suburbs around every city in the U.S. are changing quickly before our eyes. Suburban counties that were lily white two decades ago are now majority-minority, or very close to it. White Anglo residents are outnumbered in one-time white flight bastions such as Gwinnett County, Ga., and Prince William County, Va.

Dissing those suburbs in 2014 would mean dissing millions of blacks, Hispanics and Asians who have little in common with the people who moved out there originally in the final quarter of the last century. To reach lily-white suburbs these days, one often must drive 30 to 40 miles beyond the center of a city into territory that’s more properly described as exurban. Democratic candidates performed abysmally there in 2014. The exurbs have been voting Republican in most elections since developers began building subdivisions there a generation ago. It would be hard to suggest any urban policy choice by Obama that would have made him more unpopular in this corner of metropolitan America than he was already.

Anyone arguing that Democrats lost in 2014 because Obama dissed the suburbs is really advancing a skewed version of another argument: that Democrats have lost the confidence of the white middle class. There are plenty of reasons why this might be the case, starting with the fact that millions of middle-class jobs permanently disappeared in the Great Recession; the botched start of the Affordable Care Act, from which most middle-class Americans don’t expect to benefit; and the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem further from conclusion than ever.

Millions of suburbanites turned against Democrats in 2014 for some or all of these reasons; some may even have done so because Obama seemed to them an aloof and diffident man to whom they could not comfortably relate.

But I doubt if many of them went to the polls determined to punish the Democratic Party for its urban policy, or gave a great deal of thought to just what that policy was. The suburban dream may be receding in many of the precincts of metropolitan America, but it wasn’t federal urban policy that brought that about, and it won’t be a scripted apology to the suburbs that will turn the situation around.

Alan Ehrenhalt served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine, and is currently one of its contributing editors. He can be reached at