Electoral Grad School

Office of Urban Policy Awareness

Office of Urban Policy Awareness

Word on the corner is the Big Man’s gonna hustle some of that paper all the way down to City Hall, see? Yeah that’s right, Future-President Obama plans to establish an Office of Urban Policy.  By creating a path for America’s mayors and urban leaders to bypass state governments and coordinate with the White House, the Obama administration could develop new tools for tackling issues like crime, education, and even energy policy. If you read the link above, it includes a snippet from an Obama speech to America’s Mayors last spring where he supports a proper urban development policy as a big part of his plan to renew economic strength.

This sort of agenda is also extremely helpful to black people, for no other reason than they are statistically more urban and poor than white people so improved government services in America’s cities will improve thier lives most directly, demographically speaking. This is pure Obama: a bottom-up approach to improving equality of opportunity that is economic in nature and thus nominally color-blind. Obama never needed to be ‘the black candidate’ because being the progressive candidate puts you de facto in line with African-American interests.  Just by being truly urban, the office  is also ‘urban,’ like when squeamish white people don’t feel comfortable saying ‘black.’

Anway, if a federal office catering to the needs of American cities is such a great idea, why haven’t we had one before? I blame the Electoral College.  Explanation below the fold.

I’m taking this from the top, but trust me it’ll come back around. At the Constitutional Convention back in the 1780s, the smaller states were all afraid that the bigger, more populated states would join forces to oppress them if the president was elected by popular vote.  James Madison was all like, “Are you feeble? The biggest divide between states is economic systems, not population size. You want to talk oppression, let’s talk slavery!”

And yet for some reason none of the slaveowners at the Convention wanted to do that. So the general consensus was “Country first, Civil War later,” and they tip-toed around the issue as much as possible.  Probably the most awkward part was when the pro-slavery delegates decided that while their slaves didn’t count as people in terms of like, rights and stuff, they should definitely be counted as people in the census, because the number of congressmen each state got in the House was determined by this number, so this way the slavers could get more seats in Congress, and more Electoral College votes.

The rest of the Convention delegates were hopefully thinking “Wow, really? I mean I knew you were a douchebag before, cuz of the slaves and all, but, I mean, wow,” but in terms of writing the Constitution they went with the infamous “Three-Fifths Clause,” wherein the slaveowners’ political power was falsely inflated by 60% of the enslaved population, instead of 100%.  Democracy in action!

Anyway if you’re familiar with the 19th-century term Slave Power, this is what it refers to. Many American politicians in the decades leading up to the Civil War railed against the cancerous influence of Slave Power. During these decades America was admitting new states to the Union like all the damn time, and each state had to declare whether slavery would be legal there or not.  Terms you remember from middle school history class like “Missouri Compromise” were all major bills passed to keep the number of Slave and Free States equal, and thus keep Slave Power in check and preserve the Union. In the 1850s, Kansas was basically a war zone between slavers and abolitionists who were settling there specifically to make sure that when Kansas became a state and broke the Slave/Free tie, their side would win.  Then, just as the Founders figured, there was a Civil War, and Slave Power went away.

But fast-forward to a century later. The Republican party had lost the black vote because the Democrats had taken up the mantle of civil rights.  When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, he worried that by doing the right thing he was sentencing the Democratic Party to death, because he knew the Democrats would lose the South, which were traditionally blue states.  He was right: the Republicans adopted the “Southern Strategy” of appealing to conservative cultural resentment (Nixon’s “Silent Majority”) and the former Confederacy became a stalwart Republican voting bloc. In the forty years after LBJ, the only Democratic presidents were Southern governors — Carter and Clinton — who could steal states from this bloc.

During this era, especially the conservative ’80s, the GOP constantly hammered issues like crime and welfare, which are predominantly the problems of cities.  And yet, Ronald Reagan’s policies were so out-of-sync with the urban poor that many blacks suspected the government was not just indifferent to their needs but malevolent. Black leaders like the now-infamous Jeremiah Wright have voiced fears within the black community that crack and AIDS were introduced into black neighborhoods by federal operatives. There have been similar conspiracy theories about AIDS in the gay community.

In the ’90s, crime dropped and the issue fell off the radar. Not because Rudy Giuliani sprinkled fairy dust over every ghetto in America, mind you, but as Steven Levitt points out in Freakonomics, because a lot of the babies with poor, unfit parents who would have been most likely to become the criminals of the ’90s got all aborted after Roe v Wade passed. Irony!

So what does all this have to do with Barack Obama’s Office of Urban Policy and the Electoral College?  Everything. If the Electoral College were abolished and the president was elected based on the national popular vote, think about how that would change the structure of political campaigns.  Instead of focusing on a few swing states, the candidates’ ripest targets would be America’s cities. America’s cities, by the way, lean Democratic far more than rural areas.  Even though W won the popular vote in 2004, I suspect that had the Electoral College been abolished after 2000, he would have lost 2004 based on the changes in campaign strategy.

Basically, what I’m suggesting here is that the Republican ‘Southern Strategy’ is in effect an echo of Slave Power. While Slave Power no longer exists, the Electoral College was built in a way that gives inflated political weight to less-populous states, because of that concern the small states had about being ganged up on back in 1780-something.  Meanwhile, reactionary cultural conservatism is fast becoming the GOP’s only remaining principle, stoked by decades of the GOP using urban blacks as symbols of fear and suggesting urban welfare systems only encourage stereotypical black laziness.  The appeal of this strategy is highest in the South and in rural areas.  The echo of Slave Power in the Southern Strategy consists of two things: shared cultural sympathies between the two, and the fact that both exploit built-in electoral advantages towards rural, conservative areas.

What it all means for the future is that the GOP is fucked.  The American population is more city-based than ever before.  The GOP apparently refuses to seriously consider reform as the lesson of 2008 while it continues a strategy that works better on a voter the less human interaction that voter has.  Seriously.  If you go take a look at this list of U.S. states by population density, you get to number 18 before you find a McCain state.  The top 17 include Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, AND Indiana: nearly all of the swing states that Obama pinched from the red column. 18, Georgia, was moving into swing state territory in the days before election day. And the least densely populated state? Alaska, of course.

So if you’ve actually read this entire diatribe, congratulations.  You and I now share super-secret knowledge about the future of American politics: the faultline between American voters today is not primarily race-based or class-based, it’s city folk v. country folk. And city folk are winning.


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