Where did President Obama and the Democrats lose their way? In the suburbs, argues demographer Joel Kotkin:
Ideologues may set the tone for the national debate, but geography and demography determine elections.
In America, the dominant geography continues to be suburbia — home to at least 60 percent of the population and probably more than that portion of the electorate. Roughly 220 congressional districts, or more than half the nation’s 435, are predominately suburban, according to a 2005 Congressional Quarterly study. This is likely to only increase in the next decade, as Millennials begin en masse to enter their 30s and move to the periphery. [Note from Kyle: Keep this line about the Millennials -- Americans who are in their teens and 20s -- in mind for later.]
Now the earth is shaking under suburban topsoil — in ways that could be harmful to Democratic prospects. “The GOP path to success,” according to a recent Princeton Survey Research Associates study of suburban attitudes, “goes right through the suburbs.”
The connection between suburbs and political victory should have been clear by now. Middle- and working-class suburbanites keyed the surprising election win of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts in January. Suburban voters were also crucial to the 2009 Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, two key swing states.
Nationally, suburban approval for the Democrats has dropped to 39 percent this year, from 48 percent two years ago. Disapproval for President Barack Obama is also high — nearly 48 percent of suburbanites disapprove, compared to only 35 percent of urbanites. Even Obama’s strong support among minority suburbanites, a fast-growing group, has declined substantially.
The difference in approval levels from just two years ago is telling, but not exactly unique. Ditto for Kotkin’s observation that the poor economy is still weighing on suburbanites. But, he then writes,
there may be other, perhaps more nuanced, reasons for the administration’s suburban disconnect. Many of the administration’s most high-profile initiatives have tended to reflect the views of urban interests — roughly 20 percent of the population — rather than suburban ones.
When the president visits suburban backyards, it sometimes seems like a visit from a “president from another planet.” After all, as a young man, Obama told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”
More recently, Obama made clear that he is more interested in containing suburbia than enhancing it. In Florida last February, the president declared, “the days of building sprawl” are “over.”
Much of the Obama policy agenda — from mass transit and high-speed rail to support for “smart growth” policies — appeals to city planners and urbanistas. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has spoken openly of “coercing” Americans out their cars and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is handing out grants to regions which support densification strategies that amount to forced urbanization of suburbs.
This is a problem since the vast majority of Americans — consistently more than 80 percent — do not prefer to live in dense big cities. Most want a house rather than being forced to live in an apartment. And for all but a handful, a car, not a bus or train, remains not only the preferred way to get to work, but often the only feasible means to get work — mostly in the suburbs.
I think this is a critical point. A big reason the president’s “change” agenda has fizzled is that it wasn’t really change that most Americans believed in.
It is not an accident that, as Kotkin reports, four out of five Americans do not live in urban areas. For the most part, they live elsewhere because they choose to live elsewhere. There may be down sides to those decisions — there are trade-offs in all of life’s big decisions — but those four in five Americans want solutions that fit with the decisions they’ve made. They don’t want to be forced to adapt to someone else’s vision for the way they live.
Kotkin points explicitly to the issue of transportation, and not just in the above quote about Ray LaHood. He also questions why Democrats don’t “offer solutions to suburbanites that go beyond devising their forced conversion to dense urbanity.”
[Democrats] could refocus their efforts on climate change to suburbs-friendly strategies like telecommuting — perhaps the cheapest, quickest and most socially acceptable way to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
Outside of greater New York, which has half the nation’s transit users, there are already about as many telecommuters as transit riders. Why not work to expand this phenomena, so well suited to the vast majority of the country?
Now, about those Millennials. Knowing which way this generation is going to turn as they begin to settle down and raise families is crucial to future development — especially in metro Atlanta.
The trend of suburban dominance is not new. A majority of Millennials grew up in suburban, exurban or rural areas.
It’s possible that they will turn against that upbringing and desire to live in smaller, more dense urban developments, skipping the yard work and relying on public parks and public transportation.
Possible — but, I think, unlikely.
I think my own path is more likely. I grew up in a medium-size town, married a girl from Atlanta and shortly thereafter moved to Brussels, a city of more than 1 million people. We lived in a flat, shopped primarily at a small grocery store around the block, and relied on public transportation.
But when we moved back to Atlanta — with, importantly, a 3-month-old son — we did not give a moment’s thought to replicating that lifestyle here. Not a single second. We wanted more space (babies are small, but their stuff isn’t), a little bit of distance from neighbors (which makes a big difference in the stress that a crying baby creates), a yard, good schools.
Yes, we ended up in Buckhead rather than Woodstock, but that was mostly because of proximity to family and the fact that, because we were shopping in the wake of a housing market bust, we were able to afford to buy a home that would have been way out of our price range in normal times. If we decide to move again, we will almost certainly be edging outward, not inward.
I will be surprised if most Millennials don’t travel a similar arc. The big challenge for metro Atlanta — and America more broadly — will be finding a way to accommodate them, rather than trying to “coerce” them into a lifestyle they don’t want, and which will make them less happy.