Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide, by Jonathan A. Rodden (Basic Books, 336 pp., $30)

For many urbanites, “rural America” is another way of saying “provincialism.” City-dwellers—especially on the coasts—give a strong impression of disdaining heartland voters and blaming them for unfavorable election results. A liberal policy agenda, they believe, would thrive if not for partisan gerrymandering, which favors sparsely populated areas. 

In Why Cities Lose, Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden undercuts this contention. Exploring why cities incubate left-leaning coalitions that remain electorally disadvantaged, Rodden shows that any electoral system balancing urban interests with rural ones—as America’s was designed to do—will penalize the party with a more geographically concentrated base of support. The Left’s numerical supremacy in urban centers comes at the price of competing in the suburban and rural districts necessary for legislative majorities.

In the U.S., Rodden maintains, the median voter is to the left of the median U.S. House district, helping explain Democrats’ underperformance in congressional races, compared with their success in raw popular vote totals. In metropolitan areas, a congressional candidate must address a leftist base at the risk of being outflanked by a centrist opponent favorable to suburban voters. Democrats are “pulled in one direction by their urban purists—and by their desire to win statewide and presidential elections—and in a different direction by candidates seeking victory in the pivotal congressional and state legislative districts.”

Rodden finds a close association between a precinct’s proximity to city hall and its likely control by Democrats—not just in bigger cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but also in smaller locales like Reading and Williamsport. These blue pockets in a map of non-metropolitan red can be found across the country; Rodden traces their persistence to nineteenth-century development patterns that clustered laborers’ housing around railroad hubs. Over time, manufacturing industries declined in cities, and many working-class residents moved to the suburbs. Urban neighborhoods became home to minority voters and public-sector workers. These residents maintain a steadfast allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Why don’t Democrats use their urban power to draw electoral maps that marginalize rural interests? Some of the constraints are political—legal and legislative precedent favors compact districts, and incumbents desire safe seats. But systemic factors play a role as well. Rodden demonstrates that a tension between center-left and far-left movements is a consistent feature of first-past-the-post electoral systems, where the candidate tallying the most votes in a district wins.

Progressives often argue that the political tension between city and country is a Gordian knot waiting to be cut. Proportional representation, which allots seats based on the percentage of votes won by each party, would be a “boon not only for the representation of cities, but for the policy agenda of the urban left,” Rodden writes. Abolishing the Electoral College or single-member districts would strip geographic considerations from the U.S. system and instead give each citizen an equally weighted voice. But these higher-proof grades of pure democracy distort the counter-majoritarian compromises of our Madisonian Constitution.

Rodden finds that Democrats are likelier to live among other Democrats than Republicans are to live among other Republicans—one reason why the 2016 election came as such a shock. Cities lack ideological diversity, and low levels of residential mobility widen the urban-rural divide. Rodden thinks that Democrats should embrace a wider range of viewpoints, playing to the center on social issues. Republicans in the suburbs, meantime, must resist a temptation to emulate Democratic infighting. “Rural backlash,” he writes, could cause “parties of the right to be overtaken by the interests and aspirations of their rural core supporters on issues like trade and immigration . . . [and] lose their grip on the pivotal suburban districts.”

Rodden’s focus on the geographical divide, though important, leads him to overlook other dimensions of the political puzzle. He suggests that the “alignment of party platforms in the 1970s and 1980s is fundamentally a story about political geography,” and asserts that we might soon abandon “left” and “right” for simply “urban” and “rural.” This seems premature, at best, oversimplifying the heterogeneous political interests of suburbia, where the majority of Americans reside.

Rodden would have strengthened his argument if he had explained how, precisely, urban living seems to lead to progressive values. Are progressive-leaning people more likely to seek out life in the city? Or does life among urban leftists rub off on newcomers and shape their thinking? A deeper examination of why progressives prefer urban life, or why cities inspire liberal viewpoints, could offer insight into, say, the fate of midsize blue cities within red regions or conservative prospects for reaching out to urban voters.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images


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