Urbanities

David Brooks
Out-of-Step New York
Spring 1995

It's a cliché that New York City is not America, but never before has New York been so out of step with the rest of the country. It's not only that in last November's election the city remained solidly Democratic while the country turned Republican. Beneath partisan labels, the vote signaled a more fundamental opposition. With candidates of both parties stampeding to ally themselves with rural virtue against urban vice, the election testified to the decisive ascendancy of suburban and exurban concerns and the fast-shrinking influence of urban voters. As for New Yorkers, as they gaped with stupefaction at the newly ascendant Republican Congress, it was clear that to them the America that had elected such legislators was as foreign as an alien planet.

It was not always so. For evidence, take a drive around New York—maybe up the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, then all the way over to John F. Kennedy Airport, coming back to Rockefeller Center or over to Carnegie Hall. The names of these institutions remind one that, for most of American history, New York, whatever its peculiarities, was in step with the broader flow of American life. During the era of Democratic dominance between 1932 and 1980, New York could feel pleased to name public institutions after the leading politicians. In that liberal era, even the leading Republican faction, liberal Republicanism, had strong New York roots in Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. But it is hard to imagine a Reagan Boulevard or a Gingrich Airport in New York, or even a Clinton Center.

While Republicans swept nearly every other region of the country last fall, Democrats carried 13 of New York City's 14 congressional seats. More than two-thirds of city voters opted for Mario Cuomo in his doomed reelection effort. But New Yorkers, and urbanites generally, compose an ever shrinking slice of the electorate. Even in New York State, the city represented only 29 percent of the total vote, down from 31 percent just 12 years ago.

Nationwide, the percentage of voters who are urbanites has been dropping since World War 11. In 1966, to isolate the past 30 years, the nation's congressional districts were evenly divided between the urban, the rural, and the suburban. But today the number of primarily urban districts is down to 82, from 106 in 1966. Meanwhile, the number of suburban districts increased from 92 to 212.

Why is the rest of America so down on cities in general and New York City, the national metropolis, in particular? Why did so many candidates of both parties present themselves as such down-home, open-spaces types? Tennessee senatorial candidate Fred Thompson, for instance, leased a pickup truck that became the symbol of his campaign. And candidates of every stripe wore enough flannel shirts to supply an army of Kurt Cobain wannabes.

The answer is clear in a post-vote analysis by Dennis Farney of the Wall Street Journal.  Traveling around the country, Farney found the most impressive divide was between what he called, in Robert Reich's phrase, the "glass tower people" and the rest of the population. The glass tower people are well educated, prospering, usually urban. Much of the rest of the nation deeply resents them. Farney emphasizes that this resentment is not just a revolt against Washington but is part of a broader cultural backlash against the knowledge class. "Politicians," he remarks, "are only the most visible symbols of this class—and one of the few members that ordinary people can reach out and topple. But the same gulf estranges Middle America from lobbyists and bankers, from consultants and artists, from journalists and academics—from a whole class that has come to dominate the nation's dialogue. It is unlikely that this backlash is over—a point of glee to Republican conservatives."

Note that the resentment is not directed at education per se. It is not pure populism. The great victors of the election, men like Messrs. Gingrich, Gramm and Armey, are well educated—Gingrich never lets you forget it. The object of the revolt was cosmopolitanism, the image of an urban elite, the elevator aristocracy.

America has long had an urban upper class, of course: the glass tower people of, say, the Time and Life Building were preceded by the masonry tower people of the Woolworth building. The mere existence of an urban elite doesn't necessarily generate the sort of anti-urban backlash we saw last November.

Many analysts have explored causes of the backlash. There are economic ones: the incomes of the glass tower people appear to rise and rise while those for the rest of the country stagnate. There are sociological ones: our credentialed society has gotten more efficient at segregating by intelligence, so the glass tower people today are more likely to have spent their entire lives with people like themselves—from elite college to grad school to law firm—than are the more self-made urban successes of yesterday.

But there is also a politico-cultural explanation, which maybe the most important. As has been described many times, in the 1960s the adversarial attitude that had long characterized the bohemians and the beats took root in the sophisticated urban bourgeoisie, showing up in movies like The Graduate, with its ridicule of suburban life, and in Neil Young songs, such as "Southern Man," with its contempt for pickup-truck owners, Bible-quoters, and the rural and suburban lower middle class in general. It's no wonder so many people have described the riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—upper-middle-class leftists fighting lower-middle-class white cops—as a quintessential event of the time.

A lot of what those kids were shouting has faded away with time, but their adversarial attitude has hardened into urban snobbery. Anybody with an ear picks up this snobbery constantly in New York City conversations: in ridicule for the "bridge and tunnel crowd," in the contemptuous use of the phrase "Middle America." The list of inferior citizens is long: suburban housewives, evangelicals, chamber-of-commerce officers, polyester wearers.

New Yorkers have always felt they were more sophisticated than the rest of the country. In the thirties or forties or fifties, an epidemic of what I call New York Disease raged all over town. This is the malady in which, if you tell a New Yorker something, he feels compelled to demonstrate that he already knew it. If it's a movie, he already saw it; if its a book, he read it in galleys. If God came down to the Number 3 train to declare the end of days, He'd get a car full of people telling Him they'd heard about it last week.

But the 1960s politicized the attitude, hardening it and taking it to an extreme. No longer were New Yorkers at the most sophisticated end of that continuum. Urban sophisticates came to measure themselves on a scale that ran directly counter to the American continuum. No longer ahead of the rest of the nation, they were now against it. And this adversarial attitude was demonstrated by people who did not consider themselves particularly political, in PBS productions, in glossy magazines, in music videos, in movies, on network TV, in Wall Street pontifications about restructuring the industrial heartland and the value of greed, and in "art" specializing in outraging the bourgeoisie—who inhabit the rest of America. By now these adversarial attitudes are so natural to New York life that they are to New Yorkers as water is to fish.

Ridicule the rubes often enough, and eventually they'll strike back. Suburbanites cannot counterattack culturally, but they have done so politically, in election after election. Not a single Republican lost a seat in the 1994 elections, because the GOP managed to project a body of beliefs and ideas that it takes seriously—and which are hostile to urban snobs. The post-industrial Conservative Opportunity Society Republicanism of Gingrich, Gramm, and Armey contains the same anti-urban sentiment as the Southern agrarianism of the 1930s, which looked to the values of a pre-industrial world. Both the pre-industrial and post-industrial visions disdain bigness, bureaucracy, and the centralization associated with industrialization. Both are hostile to cities. Both disdain the cosmopolitan literary and intellectual circles of New York and despise most of all the urban media.

Only their alternatives to urbanism are different. The Southern agrarians preferred the farmer in his unchanging small town. The Opportunity Society Republicans prefer the suburban entrepreneur hooked up to the Internet. The emphasis on cyberspace is crucial. In the Gingrichian world, cyberspace replaces urban space. Conversations are conducted over the modem instead of over dinner at a metropolitan restaurant or club.

Unlike the neo-conservatives, America's older conservative movement, of which the new congressional leaders are a part, cherishes the myth of the journey from the wilderness. The fifties and sixties were conservatism's wilderness years, with people like Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, and others raising their lonely voices. The quintessential image of conservative development is a lonely young man or woman in a small Indiana or Arizona or Georgia town reading Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative or the writings Russell Kirk composed from his own small Michigan town. The movement has since stormed the citadels of power, but the central idea of wisdom emanating from the good common sense of the provincials in the heartland and ultimately triumphing over urban elites remains a dominant part of the conservative ethos.

The metropolitan ideal is very different. It has lost so much self-confidence in recent years that we can scarcely remember it now. But the men and women who founded many of New York's cultural institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had it firmly in their minds. Their idea was that concentrating cultural, intellectual, and commercial leadership in one place would make each branch more powerful. "The conjunction of the forces of rank, wealth, knowledge, intellect...makes such a city a sort of foundry," wrote James Bryce, who in 1888 edited an important book, The American Commonwealth (which included a chapter by former Brooklyn and future New York City Mayor Seth Low). In a city, Bryce continued, "opinion is melted and cast." Then it "can be easily and swiftly propagated and diffused through the whole country." A contemporary offered another metaphor, that of galvanic batteries, which become more powerful as they are connected.

Thomas Bender, the historian, points out that intellectual life in New York has gone through several permutations, from the eighteenth-century civic culture of the city's literate businessmen and scientific amateurs, through nineteenth-century literary culture, to this century's academic culture of Columbia University and City College. Through these phases, New York came to dominate the American marketplace of ideas. Lionel Trilling, a quintessential New York intellectual, could write as late as the 1950s that the liberal imagination had a monopoly in political conversation in this country, and he could have added that New York possessed near monopoly status as the nation's news, information, and idea center.

The liberal monopoly is long gone, and so is New York's monopoly. New York's product line of opinion making—ranging from little magazines and Susan Sontag-style writers at the high end down to glossy newsweeklies and New York-based television networks at the low end—is now under challenge from a different set of opinion-making institutions: think tanks in Washington and around the country, cable television networks, talk radio shows. The spokesmen of these new institutions declare their opposition to New York institutions; they rail against Manhattan snobbery; their style, not surprisingly, grates on urban sensibilities. In the November election, these new opinion institutions were on the winning side, with New York institutions allied with the losers.

Suburban and exurban resentment against cities is resentment against not only the urban glass-tower elites but also the urban underclass—a resentment based on the belief that the underclass lives off the work of the rest of the country.

Again, compare the Southern agrarians of the 1930s with the Conservative Opportunity Society Republicans of the 1990s, this time for the contrast rather than the similarity. The agrarians saw cities as engines of wealth but rejected the frenzied pursuit of riches. The Opportunity Society tends to see cities as drains on the national wealth, unlike the hardworking, wealth-creating suburbs.

It was fascinating during the campaign to see welfare reform leap to the top of voter concern, especially in districts with no significant underclass and few of the pathologies we have come to label the urban issues. Why did welfare reform become such a hot issue in places where one would have thought the problems of the South Bronx or North Philadelphia would seem distant?

Surely the spread of street gangs to places like Colorado and Nebraska had profound consequences: when Crips and Bloods start appearing in your boondock, urban breakdown gains immediacy. More important, the underclass is now seen as an emblem of moral decay everywhere—a decay arguably precipitated by the adversarial attitudes of the urban elites. Finally, voters began to feel that they were working harder for stagnant wages because cities were siphoning off the product of their labor to support the underclass. Phil Gramm captures the sentiment in an applause line in his welfare reform speech: the people riding in the wagons, he says, should not be living better than those pulling the wagons.

Big-city mayors are quick to point out that the cities are not drains on the national wealth but wealth creators. Mayor Giuliani's office emphasizes that New York City, with only 41 percent of New York State's population, accounts for 54 percent of the state's earnings. Moreover, the city accounts for over 40 percent of the earnings of those who live in Nassau and Westchester counties. But at a recent breakfast with journalists, Giuliani acknowledged that big cities have gotten the reputation as drains on the national wealth because big-city mayors are forever seen with hat in hand begging for money from Washington. Behave like a pauper long enough, and people believe you are a pauper.

Is there any sign that suburban and exurban voters will soon be cured of their antipathy to big-city elites and big-city pathologies? Will New Yorkers come to understand their fellow Americans? And meanwhile, what will be the result of heightened urban-exurban tensions?

For now, count on an increasing sense of alienation and defensiveness among New Yorkers, a heightened crankiness and disgust when they regard Middle America. New York magazine's post-election cover story, "Why America Hates New York," is a straw in the wind. Yielding few insights about how others view New York, the story is a treasure trove of New York attitudes toward the rest of the country. A reporter was dispatched to Newt Gingrich's suburban Georgia district to interview his constituents. The constituents the magazine chose included extreme specimens: former segregationist Governor Lester Maddox, for instance, along with a fiery preacher who cites Toynbee to describe New York's imminent doom, and a longhaired biker type named "Wildman" Myers, photographed with rifle, Confederate flag, devil rings, and a Klan outfit. New York's writer portrays what he calls Gingrichland as a place of almost authoritarian conformity. He omits the detail that Gingrich wins reelection every two years with but slender majorities.

Over the longer term, New Yorkers might—dare I say it?—change. New York liberalism will gradually dissolve; cultural attitudes will drift toward the mainstream. My own experience suggests a small ripple in this direction. Since the election I've had several conversations with fellow New Yorkers and overheard several conversations in New York restaurants (a typically mixed blessing of urban life)—conversations in which people express disgust with Gingrich and company but then go on to label themselves "conservative" Democrats or independents. These people were not conservative Democrats a few months ago, one ventures to guess. Elections are intellectual events; they shift the frame of debate, even when people scarcely notice it.

Another long-term possibility is that Republicans will develop a metropolitan ideal of their own as they inhabit the citadels of power. Until now, many of the most articulate Republican politicians, above all Newt Gingrich, have been hybrids, sharing the views of the American mainstream but also belonging to an emerging counter- counterculture. As professors, sometimes even city dwellers, they found themselves surrounded by the adversary culture, against which they contended. Their enemies on the left were often more immediate presences than their allies on the right, and they focused much of their energy on combating liberal bias in the media and political correctness on campus.

Things have changed. However appropriate these endeavors once were for conservatives and Republicans, there has been an element of minoritarianism in them. Now, however, the victorious Gingrich and company will find it hard to maintain the characteristic adversarial tone of the little and persecuted conservative standing up to the dominant media elite. Moreover, members of the counter-counterculture have allowed their rivals to be arbiters of how they were doing, ceding supremacy to institutions like the New York Times and whining at perceived slights. Acting like a majority means claiming for yourself the power to arbitrate and consecrate.

If Republicans form a long-term majority, perhaps they'll stop wasting so much energy reacting to Democratic attitudes. Perhaps they'll develop a vision that acknowledges that virtue can sometimes be the product of cultivation and social interchange—of the urbanity that belongs to cities.

An acknowledgment of metropolitan creativity would certainly be good for the Republican party. A flourishing two-party debate would be as good for New York. New York has done pretty well this century as the pinnacle of American ideas and culture. It would be a shame if New York dragged on through the next decades as a wayward home for cranky, marginalized dissenters.

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