After the presidential election in November, New York Times exit polls found that Republican candidate Mitt Romney had received only 29 percent of the big-city vote to President Obama’s 69 percent. That gap prompted Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, to conclude that it was “the turnout especially in urban areas” that “gave President Obama the big margin to win this race.” Ryan was right: the GOP has an urban problem. And it’s partly a self-created one. The party, nationally and even locally, has focused on winning suburban and rural votes and has stopped reaching out to city dwellers.
The cities-as-foreign-territory approach is bad politics for the Republicans: after all, successful cities like New York and Houston surge with ambitious strivers and entrepreneurs, who should instinctively sympathize with the GOP’s faith in private industry. The Republican move away from the cities is also bad for the cities themselves, which have hugely benefited—and could benefit a lot more—from right-of-center ideas.
The GOP wasn’t always so dismissive of cities. Almost at the front of its 1968 platform was a section called “Crisis of the Cities,” which declared that “for today and tomorrow, there must be—and we pledge—a vigorous effort, nation-wide, to transform the blighted areas of cities.” The platform advocated “greater involvement of vast private enterprise resources in the improvement of urban life, induced by tax and other incentives,” as well as “new technological and administrative approaches through flexible federal programs enabling and encouraging communities to solve their own problems.” After Richard Nixon won the election that year, he sought to deliver on those promises. Aided by his HUD secretary, George Romney (Mitt’s father), he moved federal policy away from subsidizing disastrous public-housing projects and toward a system of housing vouchers. Nixon also championed block grants, which gave cities flexibility in distributing federal aid, allowing them to target their greatest needs.
The 2012 party platform, by contrast, had no city-oriented policies whatsoever and used the word “urban” just twice—once to decry the current administration’s allegedly “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” (The Obama administration’s urban policy has actually been rather timid. It has done little to reduce one of the federal government’s largest real social-engineering efforts, one that favors suburbs over cities: promoting homeownership with the mortgage-interest tax deduction and with subsidized mortgages from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That policy amounts to bribing people to leave rented urban apartments and buy suburban houses.)
Cities have suffered from the GOP’s departure. For one thing, any group or place benefits from being the object of political competition: swing groups in swing states, such as Cubans in Miami and autoworkers in Ohio, receive political attention and favors, while solidly Republican or Democratic constituencies get taken for granted. The Obama administration surely did less for cities than it would have if it had feared losing urban votes.
But handouts and other pandering are far less valuable than the other asset that Republican-abandoned cities have lost: the particularly Republican perspective, with its focus on economic freedom, competition, and law and order. That perspective formulated some of the most successful policies in memory for making cities better places to live. Without it, the urban success stories of recent years could wither.
Some of our greatest cities, including New York and Los Angeles, are much safer today than they were 20 years ago, thanks to Republican leaders, such as former Gotham mayor Rudy Giuliani. Forty years ago, conservatives and liberals disagreed about how to fight crime. Conservatives looked to more effective policing; liberals, believing that poverty caused crime, bet on redistributive social policies. The past decades have overwhelmingly vindicated the conservatives. The expansive government programs of the liberals’ Great Society coincided with rapidly rising urban crime rates. Cities became safe again only when they embraced tougher—and smarter—policing.
Yet not all cities have gotten on the bandwagon, and safety remains a grave concern in many. The Republican Party should point to the success of the crime-fighting revolution and push for its adoption across urban America. Among the innovations that it could promote is New York’s justly renowned Compstat system, which makes a police force more accountable by mapping crime, identifying hot spots, and demanding that the precinct commanders responsible for those areas make them safer. Simply hiring more cops also helps. And Boston and Los Angeles have achieved results by building connections with leaders in local minority communities, who came to see the police as friends rather than as outsiders (see “The LAPD Remade”).
Flourishing urban life depends on keeping the peace, and every American deserves to be able to walk down the street without looking over his shoulder. The GOP, historically the party of law and order, can convincingly make the case for urban crime reduction.
Republicans are also the natural champions of meaningful school reform, since they’re far less likely than Democrats to be in thrall to the teachers’ unions that bear much of the responsibility for the failure of our urban public schools. The Right has correctly promoted choice and accountability as key principles in making schools better. Great enterprises, from law firms to restaurants, spring up in cities because cities’ agglomerations of people produce free-market maelstroms, which encourage vigorous competition and innovation. Imagine what would happen to the quality of food in New York if the city replaced its thriving, hypercompetitive restaurant scene with a single public canteen. That’s exactly what cities have done by accepting monolithic public school systems. With no incentive to excel or improve, the schools can get away with selling a lousy product, and they do.
Charter schools—public schools that operate free from union contracts and other bureaucratic restrictions—can change that equation by breaking up the regular public schools’ near-monopoly on education. They’re essentially a variation on free-market economist Milton Friedman’s idea of school vouchers. Because of the efforts of Republicans (and of some urban Democrats who’ve broken with the teachers’ unions), charters have begun to make inroads in cities. But they remain limited in number by law and lack the classroom space to meet the growing demand for their services.
Not every charter school is a success, any more than every restaurant is a success. But the best ones have delivered remarkable results. Harvard University’s Roland Fryer has examined students—mostly minority kids from poor families—who participated in lotteries to gain admission to charter schools. He found that the students who won a spot at the celebrated Harlem Children Zone’s Promise Academy, which includes two New York City charter schools, achieved test-score improvements that went a long way toward closing the black-white test gap that prevails in the regular schools.
The reasons for charters’ success aren’t mysterious. According to Fryer’s work, what correlates most closely with their impressive achievements in New York City is their longer class hours. So hard work and discipline—long-standing Republican watchwords—are providing urban students with a path out of poverty. And city students are indeed the prime beneficiaries of charters, as MIT’s Joshua Angrist and several coauthors have shown in another study: charter-lottery winners in cities enjoy large test-score gains, but suburban winners don’t. That difference presumably reflects, among other factors, the higher quality of the suburban non-charter schools.
The GOP has more to offer on education. The No Child Left Behind act, a good first step toward introducing accountability into the nation’s poorly performing school systems, was a product of the Bush administration. Further, the most important ingredients in good schools are their good teachers, and Republicans can point to the private sector for lessons in building a talented workforce. Among those lessons: good performance should be rewarded, workers’ skills should be developed, and employers—in this case, schools—should be free to fire those employees who can’t improve. At present, union contracts tend to make firing difficult.
Republicans have good ideas to share in other areas of urban policy as well. For example, improving city services while reducing costs is a priority in these budget-strapped times. My Kennedy School colleague Stephen Goldsmith, formerly the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, was a pioneer in letting private companies bid to provide services that had previously been monopolized by public workers. Properly managed, private provision can bring huge efficiencies and help reduce the dauntingly high labor costs in many cities.
Transportation congestion, which costs city drivers trillions of hours of time, is another major urban problem for which the Right has a smart policy answer. The congestion can end only when America’s cities stop following what is, in effect, a Soviet-style transportation policy. In the Soviet Union, the government sold eggs and butter at prices far below their market value. The result: long lines and empty shelves. The nominal prices were low, but you couldn’t get your groceries. Today’s cities similarly provide free access to a valuable commodity, city streets. The result: traffic jams, the automotive equivalent of long lines and empty shelves. Until we turn to a market-based solution—following the examples of London and Singapore, where drivers pay for the congestion they create—our cities’ transportation arteries will stay clogged.
The shortage of affordable housing in cities also calls for a market-based solution. Urban housing becomes unaffordable when robust demand for space crashes against an unnaturally fixed housing supply. Over the past five decades, many cities, with San Francisco and New York heading the list, passed zoning restrictions that made it difficult to build. Much of Manhattan’s land, for example, is frozen by historic-preservation districts (see “Preservation Follies,” Spring 2010). In many cities, too, the process that’s necessary to get projects approved is long and complicated, deterring builders. All this depresses the supply of housing and raises its price.
To understand the power of unfettered supply to promote affordability, compare Republican Texas with Democratic Massachusetts. Bay State leaders constantly proclaim their passion for providing affordable housing for the poor. Yet Massachusetts remains one of the least affordable states in the nation for housing because its suffocating regulations restrict building, shoving up prices. By contrast, Texans, who rarely talk about affordable housing, enjoy lots of it (see “The Texas Growth Machine”). Texas’s housing affordability isn’t the result of any top-down government program; it reflects the might of the free market and the Texan aversion to regulation. The power of housing supply is visible in Chicago, too. Housing there is far less expensive than in many of America’s big cities, in part because the city’s leaders have unleashed builders, who create affordability as they erect skyscrapers.
The main reason that cities succeed is private entrepreneurial energy. Yet many of our cities continue to impose arcane rules on would-be entrepreneurs, restricting the formation of new businesses. Here, the party that has traditionally embraced business can be a powerful voice for economic vibrancy. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York has made the process of starting a business somewhat more straightforward. But New York’s economy is so massive that it can survive overregulation. In other cities, such as Cleveland and Detroit, the costs of stymieing entrepreneurship have been far more severe. Those cities will recover from their decay only if they’re able to attract new start-ups, which (among other steps for the government) means shredding every unnecessary regulation in sight.
The Republicans’ abandonment of the city is good neither for their party nor for urban America. The GOP clearly needs a heftier percentage of the urban vote, but winning it by means of fiscal pandering or redistribution isn’t the way to go—partly because such a strategy would cost rural and suburban votes and partly because it would be wrong. A better approach is to offer the good ideas that cities desperately need. Republicans have plenty.