How "Cities Make Democrats"

I tend to assume that elected officials generally know more about electoral politics than I do. After all, many of them have large teams of campaign strategists and pollsters at their disposal. Perhaps 2015-16 should have disabused me of this view, after Donald Trump, who had never been elected to anything, wiped out a field of governors and senators in the GOP primary and then defeated the Obamas and the Clintons, who had won four previous presidential campaigns. 

But 2019 was the year that really clarified for me that maybe the politicians aren’t all brilliant strategists. Early last year, before the release of the Mueller Report, Nancy Pelosi suggested that President Trump was not “worth” impeaching, that he was “self-impeaching” and that impeachment should only go forward if it had bipartisan support. I found these comments odd. There is no such thing as self-impeachment. It seemed as if the Mueller Report would likely show that Trump was obstructing an investigation into his conduct, which was considered worthy of impeachment in the cases of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. Finally, making bipartisanship the standard for impeachment meant that to avoid impeachment Trump simply needed to enforce party loyalty on congressional Republicans, as opposed to not committing impeachable offenses. In short, Pelosi’s comments seemed like an invitation for Trump to do something illegal and unethical, and then cast impeachment as illegitimate when House Republicans didn’t join the Democrats. (A few months later, when Trump was personally involved in an attempt to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, Pelosi was basically forced to start an impeachment process. Trump did indeed turn that process into a partisan loyalty test. No Republicans in the House supported it, and Trump and others in the GOP argued the party-line votes made the process illegitimate.) 

What seemed to be motivating the strategy of Pelosi and House Democrats was memories of the 1990s. I suspect that a lot of older House Democrats recall the story of 1998-1999 as essentially Republicans pushing to impeach Bill Clinton and it backfiring on them, as Clinton maintained high approval ratings and the Democrats gained seats in the 1998 midterms, even though the president’s party usually loses seats in a midterm. This analysis is flawed for two reasons. First, impeachment didn’t backfire on Republicans too much --they won the presidency and control of the House less than two years after Clinton’s impeachment. But the second reason is that the circumstances of 2019-2020 were much different than those of 1998-1999. Bill Clinton was much more popular than Trump ever has been. And Americans are divided along party lines much more than in 1998. Today, polarization ensures nothing can backfire on either party too much---each side seems basically guaranteed to earn at least 45 percent of the national vote, no matter what. House Democrats impeached Trump, the Senate acquitted him and then the issue vanished. It’s not clear their vote on impeachment really affected any member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, in the 2020 election. 

Pelosi wasn’t the only politician making strange decisions in 2019. During the Democratic presidential primaries, once the centrist wing of the Party successfully reframed “Medicare for all” as favoring “abolishing private insurance,” it was clear that supporting MFA would be cast as dismissing concerns about electability. But Elizabeth Warren, who was running as a kind of more electable, moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders, insisted on embracing Medicare for All, instead of backing away from it. This was an obvious strategic mistake when it was happening, given that basically all Democratic voters were obsessed with electability against Trump, and I think it severely weakened her candidacy. 

But on the flip side, the Democratic candidates who focused heavily on electability, like Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, all refused to embrace a wealth tax, which polls suggested was a very popular idea, even across party lines. (Perhaps not with their campaign donors, of course.) 

What these instances suggested to me was that the Democratic Party isn’t simply divided between a center-left wing and more left- in terms of ideology and policy issues, even as a lot of media coverage frames it that way. Instead, the divide is often between Democratic officials who came to power in the partisan-but-not-that-partisan era from 1970-2000 versus those who came to power in more partisan times, particularly the 2010s. The veteran Democratic officials seem to be wary of issues that will create lots of conflict (a wealth tax, impeachment) and fearful of backlashes, even if polling and other evidence does not suggest such a backlash will occur. The newer Democrats are less risk-averse and more open to conflicts. Warren, who was first elected to office in 2012, was an early advocate for impeachment, while Sanders, who has been in Congress for decades, was not, even though Sanders is more left-wing on policy issues than Warren. That divide can also be seen among rank and file Democratic voters ---younger (under age 45) Democrats tend to want the party to be more aggressive and unafraid, older Democrats tend to be more cautious and wary of the party offending white swing voters. 

I came to understand the Democratic Party as divided between older and younger Democrats and more cautious officials versus less cautious officials in part because Will Stancil kept  saying this in his tweets. Will, who is 35, isn’t a political reporter and doesn’t live in Washington. He works at a think tank in Minneapolis, mainly researching policy on metropolitan issues. But with the rise of Trump, he became worried that policy research wouldn’t matter much if U.S. democracy and government overall was severely weakened. So he declared himself a “Proud Member of Do-Something Twitter” and spent much of the last four years imploring the Democratic Party to take a stronger stand against Trump. He used the only tool he had to potentially reach political elites: his Twitter account. I don’t know how I first found Will’s tweets, but when I did, he had a data-based take on why impeachment wouldn’t hurt Democrats. That view mirrored my instincts. Having a second person with this perspective, even if it was a man in Minnesota I had never (and still haven’t) met in person, made me feel less crazy for holding this interpretation , and I ultimately wrote a piece about it. I spoke to Will recently about his broader views on subjects he frequently talks about, like the Democratic Party, what pundits are getting wrong about urbanization and politics, school integration in Louisville and around the country, and more. Here is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation: 

You are always expressing the idea that outcomes are not certain in politics (aAnd maybe not in life in general) and we can't predict the future very well. Why is this such an important idea in terms of thinking about politics, in your view? 

I think that one of the things that's really debilitating for people in politics and people in political media is that they struggle to understand that the range of possible outcomes is so much wider than anyone ever wants to admit or acknowledge. 

Imagine it's January 2020, and someone says, "Hey, just give us the best guess for what happens this year.”  What would you say? You'd probably say something like, "Well, the biggest story will be the presidential campaign, which will proceed like this: primaries, then a general election over the summer, debates, etc., Then there's an election and the polls suggest the Democrat is currently the frontrunner." And while all that stuff did happen, obviously you'd have missed literally the entire year, you'd have gotten everything meaningful wrong.

And I tend to think there's a lot of effort expended, in politics and media, to try to get these predictions right. But in reality, almost all the time, no one can predict the future. No one would have predicted COVID-19, George Floyd, RBG dying right before the election. 

2020's obviously an especially crazy year, but then go back to the GOP primary in 2015, or Trump's election, or the 2008 crash, or the Kavanaugh hearings, on and on. 

So to me it's really a huge error to expend all this effort trying to predict politics when you could instead just accept that the future is unknowable and either A. Advocate for a particular future you think would be good, or B. Build safeguards to protect against the truly awful disasters that could occur. 

One thing you helped me understand in 2019 was that while all the media coverage is that Democrats are divided by ideology, kind of center versus left, in the Trump era often the difference wasn't quite that. You had a kind of "Don't Be Too Aggressive About Trump's norm violations” bloc and that included I think both Bernie and Biden. You had other people pushing in the other direction. The divide was not ideological as much as tactical. That is what you are getting at in saying you are part of "Do SomethingTwitter,” right? Like it seemed obvious to you that Trump was committing impeachment offenses and less obvious to you that pushing impeachment would backfire on the Dems politically, but it was treated by many Dems in Washington like the electoral backlash was obvious and would be so large that basically nothing he could do would merit impeachment. 

Ultimately to me the fundamental split in the Democratic Party isn't between left and center, although that is obviously a split that occurs. It's between a group that tends to be younger and more aggressive (and usually, though not always, more left-wing), and a group that is older and more norm-bound (and often, but not always, more centrist). 

I think there are a lot of reasons for this split, probably first and foremost that the older group learned the political ropes in an era where Dems were just getting absolutely walloped in national election after national election, and so the thing they have come to fear the most is "backlash," particularly against looking liberal, looking partisan, and most of all, against anything and everything that might raise the specter of race. It's not a coincidence that the 1968, 1972, 1980, and 1984 elections that define this mentality were themselves hard to detach from reactionary white anger about civil rights, school integration, white flight, and so forth.

But however we got it, there now appears to be basically two kinds of Democrats: Democrats who believe that they have proactive control over their own destinies, who can go out and get stuff done and actively make the case for positive change, and fight back against what they see as outrageous behavior by the GOP; and then Democrats who see elections as almost preordained against them, the voting public as a sleeping tiger, and the way to win elections is to stay as quiet and dull and invisible as possible, say nothing controversial, talk about relatively anodyne issues like how increasing health care coverage would be good (who could possibly disagree?), and hope that electoral majorities are delivered to them almost automatically, like the tide gradually lifting a boat to its destination.

Interesting. So, for a certain bloc of Democrats, "Clearly the Floyd protests/defund/riots/talking about race caused us to almost lose the House” is kind of obviously true, even if the evidence for that conclusion is basically non-existent in the data. It is kind of an ideological belief--talking about black issues is always bad for Democrats, duh. I assume you think Warren/AOC are part of the "own destinies" crowd. But in my view, Biden is not quite in the "quiet and dull" bloc or not as deep in it as Pelosi. What do you think? 

Yes, I think that it's accepted among a lot of older Democrats - older people generally - that anything that looks like a "black issue" is just electorally toxic, even though there's almost no evidence of this in decades, and lots of reasons to think that this might have changed. (For the record, I think you could make a case that this was true in 1972, but the country was five-sixths white and the civil rights movement was fresh. Today the US is barely half white and many of the basic ideas about racial equality are pretty deeply culturally embedded.)

And I agree Biden, so far, isn't as bad about this as many of the congressional Dems.This is just speculation, but I think one thing that makes Biden a little better than some of his generational peers is that he is so purely a retail politician who operates on instinct. Joe Biden does not seem like a guy who is out there getting consultants to feed him message-tested pablum. He just thinks he speaks to voters on a personal level. You saw that some in the primaries when he was getting in weird (and probably inadvisable) scuffles on the campaign, but it was just Joe being Joe. That willingness to fly by the seat of his pants and trust his political instincts makes him a little more flexible as circumstances change... I hope.

There is a notion out there that liberal-leaning people all move into left-leaning cities because they are intolerant of Republicans, therefore making cities super-blue but making the GOP strong in suburbs and rural areas and hurting the Democrats electorally.  You think this is basically wrong. Explain your thinking here. 

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Basically, you've seen, for years, articles about how Democrats suffer political disadvantages because they're concentrated in cities. First of all, just as a mathematical matter, it's wrong in a lot of contexts. The GOP advantage in the Senate doesn't come from this; many of the smaller states are highly urban (Hawaii, Delaware), while many large, highly urban states are actually red or reddish (Florida, Texas). 

But there are some ways in which the distribution of the population does hurt Democrats. It's harder to draw House districts that don't favor the GOP because of the highly Democratic cities. But even in those cases, this isn't because Democrats are clustered in cities. It's because Democrats are wasting too many votes in rural areas. I mean, think about it: ideally, you wouldn't want a single vote in a district you're going to lose. The problem Democrats have is that they have a bajillion votes in cities, which they win in landslides, and another bajillion votes in the rural areas, which they lose. Republicans, by contrast, have the large majority of their votes concentrated in non-city areas; they're not wasting any votes in cities. 

If you realize that, you realize that the basic issue isn't "Democrats won't live around Republicans," which is the take you always read.  It's actually, "Republicans won't live in cities." And why won't Republicans live in cities? How did this happen? White flight is the main reason. There used to be Republicans in cities - the cities themselves predate this geographic partisan split - and then they all left. 

The other reason is that there is a lot of evidence that living in a diverse environment will make someone tilt towards the modern-day Democratic Party instead of Trump's Republicans. In 2016 (we don't have 2020 data yet, but it's probably the same), the propensity of a white person to vote Republican was highly correlated with the whiteness of their surrounding community. In other words, even among white people, Democrats don't cluster into cities, cities make Democrats. And it's Republicans who seem to be in a bubble, unwilling to live in diverse environments.

But the really annoying thing about this take is the role it plays in the larger discourse. There's a reason (usually white) journalists keep writing this sort of morality-play story about how Democrats need to open their minds, and move to areas full of people different to themselves, and how their electoral disadvantage is the consequence of their refusal to do so. It's because unless you tell that story, it's hard to miss the fact that most of the Democrats being "concentrated" in cities are actually predominantly nonwhite, and they aren't willingly concentrating themselves, but being segregated into those cities. You'd have to admit that American politics is being warped in a deeply unfair way by the long-standing reality of residential racial segregation, and there is no justice or fairness or deservedness to the electoral problems it's causing.

So everyone I think knows about white flight from cities in the 70-90's and then maybe a return to cities and resulting gentrification in the period of say 2007-2018. What is the story of American cities, suburbs and rural areas now? What are the migration patterns we are seeing? 

So this is actually a pretty easy question: white flight is still happening, it's just happening in the suburbs too now. Most major cities are still losing white population. Gentrification is a relatively rare phenomenon that's all-but-unknown in many poorer metros. It is occurring in some of the coastal areas - Seattle, Portland, SF, LA, DC, NYC all have an appreciable amount. But even in those places, it's almost always restricted to a few core neighborhoods and most city neighborhoods are either economically stagnant or declining over the previous decade.

But the real action is happening in the suburbs. At one time the suburbs were basically all white - you had the central city, which had black residents, some other nonwhite population, and some white population. And then you had belts of suburbs and they were just lily-white. The major change you have seen in American metros in the last 20-30 years is in the suburbs. The inner ring of suburbs have grown highly, highly diverse in almost every single major metropolitan area. These are the largest, densest, oldest suburbs, so that has meant that the plurality of suburban population lives in a racially integrated area.

And what has happened is that the white flight of the previous decades has replicated, but this time in the suburbs: white people move from these inner ring suburbs further out to exurban suburbs. 

So just like a racially mixed Cleveland or Detroit became almost all-black by the late 20th century, many of these older suburbs are also becoming entirely nonwhite, with this second-wave white flight.

So it looks like Biden did well in the inner suburbs, but not the outer suburbs. So are we in a place where we have a group of white people who are living in areas that are integrated and they are fine with that? Or are we not quite there yet. 

I would not be so sure of that, honestly. Here's what you have to remember: white people tend to be much more Republican - that far predates Trump, obviously - and rich people tend to be much more Republican, which also predates Trump.

The way the suburbs work is you have, roughly, multiple rings:

-inner-ring, which are working-class or middle class, diverse or even heavily nonwhite, dense; 

-second-ring, which tend to be much whiter, much wealthier - think gated communities, McMansion subdivisions, nice new schools; and 

-exurban, which tend to be very low-density, homogeneously white, and middle and working-class again. 

Just because of the racial and economic composition you'd expect the inner ring to be blueish, the second ring to be deep red, and the exurbs to be reddish. But what actually happened after Trump came to define the GOP is that the inner ring became quite blue, the second ring became more blue than before (although it still voted Republican in many cases), and the exurbs became just about the reddest places in the country.

Again, this is all from 2016 and 2018, we don't have good data on 2020 yet. But there's no reason to expect it would have changed and the initial reports are completely consistent with the realignment we saw in the last four years.

So what seems to be happening is that racially diverse places, and places that are wealthier and more cosmopolitan, tilted hard towards Democrats, while very, very white places tilted hard the other way - consistent with heavy racial polarization of politics.

I want to talk about integration. I think school integration and neighborhood integration and just having a more integrated society is a net good. I would say having integrated work places is good too--our society just should be mixed, I think it should reflect the broader country. That said, I get nervous when school integration and the achievement gap are constantly linked or the argument is that neighborhood integration leads to school integration which leads to solving the achievement gap. Like I don't love the idea that all things should be integrated just to help black people, as if we get better/smarter because of the presence of white people. Howard University is good. So are the black churches that are anchors in many communities. We want black people to go to good schools, and sometimes a good school is not integrated and often an integrated school doesn’t do much for its black students. How do you see these issues? 

This is a really, really big question and I'm not sure I can answer it adequately in a short answer. But I think the way to think about it is to understand that the core problem of segregation isn't that it has specific negative effects, like "lowered academic test achievement." The core problem of segregation is that it's used to create and uphold a social caste system, where people's statuses are defined by their race, and people are fundamentally categorized by race. 

(This is where I'm obligated to point out that "race" itself is a totally arbitrary taxonomy - a weird mix of culture, skin color, heritage, nationality, even language characteristics that we pretend makes up coherent, logical groups.) 

So when you segregate something, be it a school, workplace, neighborhood, what-have-you, you are reinforcing the idea that race is a real dividing line in human beings, that everyone has an "official" race they belong to, and that this rightfully should guide their course through life. And so many other horrible things come out of that idea, everything from day-to-day discrimination, worsened health outcomes, exposure to pollution, disproportionate policing, lower academic achievement, lack of access to credit - I could list harms all day and night and never reach the end. 

Of course, with that said, people who have shared cultural and life experiences do not want to feel alone or isolated, they want to be able to know and interact with other people who have shared those experiences, and that's absolutely understandable. Part of integration is allowing people to achieve a critical mass of people who share their experiences in the community where they live; it’s not about achieving tokenism. Institutions like Howard University do this, black churches do this.

But it's really important to identify segregation in really core civic institutions, or in fundamental residential patterns in our cities, and break it down in those places. K-12 schools train children to be citizens, they tell children how to think about the world. Dividing them by race, on top of all the other well-known negative effects caused by segregation, inculcates the idea that racial divisions are natural. So K-12 segregation is incredibly toxic for society. So is housing segregation, which recreates the racial caste system on the urban landscape. It's really important to get rid of segregation that tends to make black people, and other people of color, seem like second-class citizens.

In other words, we want to keep Howard, but the majority-black school that we haven’t renovated for years symbolizes that we as a society don't care about black people.

As a white guy, I guess I'm agnostic about places like Howard in some ways. It's not really meant for me, it would be strange for me to have strong views on it! But even as a pretty diehard integrationist that sort of thing doesn't bother me. 

K-12 is different, though. With K-12, it's not just about the majority-black schools with lots of lower-income students, because if it was, one solution would be "just dump a bunch of resources into those schools and call it a day," and we know that doesn’t work. The problem is that if something as fundamental as a K-12 public school, a school for universal education of all children, gets identified as "for black kids" or "for Hispanic kids" or "for white kids," it just creates these great divisions in our social fabric along racial lines. And that's bad, inherently, but it's also bad because those divisions end up being the exact divisions that racial inequalities appear along. 

The first step in treating two groups of people differently is separating them. And we have spent decades and decades separating people in our schools and neighborhoods, along racial lines, and we have spent a lot of that time telling ourselves, with both malicious and benevolent intent, that these divisions are  how things are supposed to be.

I know greater integration has benefits for black people that are often tangible and sometimes even financial. I think integration benefits white people in that they meet people from all walks of life. But integration is exhausting day-to-day, as a black person. I think often white people feel their school/workplace/institution is worse with more integration and are resentful about integration efforts. The benefits of integration that white people get are often intangible and maybe things they don't see as benefits. So Louisville is thinking about allowing more kids in heavily-black areas to go to schools near their homes, instead of them busing for integration. It is basically "dump more resources into those schools.' I am kind of here for that. I am wrong? A school integration plan that white people hate that is supposed to benefit black people is not fun---a lot of my conversations in Louisville are a white person passively-aggressively complaining about our public schools in code that they either don't know or don't care is heavily-racialized. 

Yeah, I think I would disagree with that. I think integration is a massive, complicated project, and it can be done well and done badly. Very often it's been done badly, in ways that put too much strain on the less advantaged party to carry a lot of the burden. That comes from the politics --"White people are sacrificing by doing any of this at all, so black people have to sacrifice everything else - they have to travel, they have to be a small minority in schools, they have to have teachers who aren't trained to deal with black children with different backgrounds."

But the solution can't be to embrace segregation because it's easy, because we know where that goes. It's to find ways to do integration better.

The other thing I'd say is this, and this is really dark: there's no good way to be a black child in America. There just isn't. Segregated schools have terrible outcomes for black children, it's massively established by social science. Integrated schools can be rough too, because integration doesn't delete the racial caste system overnight, and there's still plenty of discrimination and bullying and struggle. But we do know which of those challenges has proven broadly surmountable, and which hasn't. And kids that go to integrated schools just do better. If you ask, "What is the path where everything is perfect?"we're stuck, there’s no good answer. But if you ask, "Which of these two tough roads is most likely to help kids lead healthy, successful, happy lives?" there really isn't any question that integration is the superior option, and frankly, a necessity.

What is a positive story of integration in America. I think a lot of people outside of Louisville say Louisville's schools are a positive story---but lots of people here don’t feel that way. 

So there are two ways to look at that question. The first is, "What is a place with a successful, stable, long-running integration program in schools?" And there are a few places that have done pretty well (although every single major city school system has some problems, none of this is a panacea). I'd count Louisville among that number, but also Raleigh-Durham. Charlotte did pretty well until the program was ended by the courts, and there's a lot of research on that. Hartford, CT has a successful program. It's had a lot of problems too, but mostly for lack of funding and state support.

The other way to answer that question is, "Who are people whose lives have been meaningfully improved by integration?" And I think those stories are everywhere - absolutely everywhere. There's a large number of successful black professionals who grew up in integrated schools. I know many of those same people have terrible stories about things they experienced in those schools, but in the aggregate the numbers don't lie: people in integrated environments just have done much better professionally, academically, and financially than people who grew up in deeply segregated neighborhoods, going to deeply segregated schools. There's just an overwhelming amount of evidence of the long-term benefits of integration, and that's the backdrop we have to keep in mind even while we try to solve some of the frustrations and difficulties of actually pursuing it. 

Thanks for reading. This is an occasional newsletter on government and elections, with a focus on Louisville and Kentucky. You can sign up here.