This piece was originally published by City Journal on March 11th, 2021.
Today, “Republican mayors,” like “Jewish sports legends,” is a niche category. None of the ten largest cities in the United States is led by a Republican. The margins by which Democrats win mayoral elections in these cities are impressively large: in New York, Bill de Blasio won 73 percent of the vote in 2013 and 66 percent in 2017; in Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti won 81 percent in 2017 and won by a smaller margin in 2013—against another Democrat; in Chicago, two Democrats competed in the 2019 runoff; in Houston, Republicans have been shut out of the office for 40 years; and in Phoenix, two Democrats combined to take 70 percent of the vote in the 2018 election’s first round. The largest city in the United States with a Republican mayor is Jacksonville, Florida, at 12th.
Concluding that Democrats have established a lasting hammerlock on urban governance would be a mistake, however. As Joe Strummer once said, the future is unwritten. Whether Republicans can start winning mayor’s offices in American cities again depends on decisions that Republicans themselves will make. Tensions and contradictions simmering within Democratic urban governance will soon present opportunities for the GOP—opportunities that Republicans, representing a party that many urban voters find unappealing, may have difficulty exploiting. If the fate of Republicans in cities is linked to that of the party nationally, the success of the national GOP also hinges on its ability to curtail its losses in cities. For their own good and for the good of the country, Republicans must work to develop a more urban-friendly niche brand within what is still likely to be a city-skeptical national party.
Proximity to an urban center increasingly predicts voting behavior in the U.S. The culture of the Democratic Party has become more urban in character, shaped by racial heterogeneity and cultural liberalism and responsive to—if not necessarily supportive of—globalized, knowledge-intensive urban markets and the redistribution that accompanies them. By contrast, the Republican Party has become more exurban and rural, characterized by racial homogeneity, cultural conservatism, and suspicion of—and alienation from—urban economies.
That geographic divide creates a huge hole in the political life of American cities where the Republican Party should be. Not long ago, Democrats feared challenges from Republicans like Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Rudolph Giuliani in New York. Today, even in cities where Republicans have recently been competitive, such as San Diego and Indianapolis, Democrats have won recent elections by overwhelming majorities.
As Daniel Hopkins has argued in The Increasingly United States, this one-sidedness reflects the increasing nationalization of politics: voters now use national party brands as cues for local and state elections rather than rendering more idiosyncratic judgments based on local issues. In a recent Niskanen Center paper, Robert Saldin shows that this process works against Democrats in rural states, making it harder for them to distinguish themselves from their national party. For Republicans in cities, the process works in reverse.
So far, the nationalization of politics has made each party more homogenous and cohesive. Intra-party differences between Republican or Democratic officials in different places matter far less than they used to, from the White House and Congress to the governor’s mansion and City Hall.
But that homogenization may be reaching its breaking point. The nationalization of politics is unlikely to reverse, given our media environment and the associated difficulty in developing geographically differentiated political identities. But as Saldin and I have argued, the national parties are on the cusp of splintering into durable, deeply institutionalized factions. In the Republican Party, tensions between economic populists appealing to a less affluent voter base and traditional Republicans connected to business and the upper-middle class will drive the process, intersecting with personalistic divisions over Donald Trump and his style of politics. On the Democratic side, organized factions will break out around Joe Biden–James Clyburn mainstream Democrats, with Abigail Spanberger–Conor Lamb moderates on one side and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) leftists on the other. These specific, factional brands will remain part of their parties but will become ever more salient in elections, especially primaries. They will also shape how legislative coalitions get built—even, perhaps, across party lines.
The Left’s factional conflicts are already visible at the municipal level. With Republicans more or less out of the picture, a surging DSA wing distinct from mainstream urban liberalism has gained a foothold in many American cities. In San Francisco, the split manifests in the conflicts between Mayor London Breed and those to her left on housing and school reopening (though not yet, it seems, on policing). In Minneapolis, the liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party lost ground to the Left this summer on the issue of defunding police.
If the liberal mainstream of the municipal Democratic Party manages to hold the line against the Left on these issues—and to prevent it from taking over City Hall—then it may preside over a wide coalition containing business, the professional middle class, and the ethnic-minority working class. But low-turnout primary elections allow ideologically zealous, intensely engaged actors to wield disproportionate influence, making such a victory far from inevitable.
Instead, urban Democrats will likely become vulnerable—especially as the party gets drawn ever leftward. Cities nationwide have seen frightening increases in violent crime in recent years; at the same time, widespread protests and civil unrest have broken out against the police, and leftist officials have moved to defund police budgets. As Michael Fortner has shown, African-Americans are profoundly divided on policing and criminal-justice issues, reflecting their religious, class, and age heterogeneity. Even creative liberal mayors may not be able to resolve these differences, especially under conditions of surging crime in African-American communities. Similar divisions may also manifest on other culturally charged issues, such as the treatment of race, gender, and American history in school curricula and, increasingly, the names of schools themselves. And contradictions exist between the interests of public-sector workers, who exercise disproportionate power in urban and Democratic Party politics, and those of ordinary citizens, who depend upon those public employees for services and pay the taxes that fund their salaries and benefits. On issues from public-employee pensions to school reopenings, Democrats will struggle to balance the competing interests of the providers of government services with their recipients.
At the same time, the business boosterism of mainstream urban liberals sits uncomfortably alongside leftists’ eagerness to challenge the power of the tech, finance, and real-estate industries on political-economy issues. As the economic effects of Covid-19, including the outmigration of cities’ wealthier citizens, begin to squeeze big-city finances, these tensions stand to intensify. So, too, do fundamental disagreements about handling the spiraling cost of housing in big cities—with the Left pushing to socialize housing costs and to regulate the behavior of property owners, while mainstream liberals align with YIMBY activists and elements of the real-estate industry to advocate increasing the housing supply.
These tensions will entrench well-defined, organizationally anchored factional divisions in municipal Democratic politics. The more that the surging Left organizes to dislodge politicians like Mayor Breed, the more that mainstream liberals will have no choice but to respond with equal vigor. Yesterday’s coalition-builders and pragmatists will have to define and defend their approach on the ideological terrain of the urban Left’s choosing.
As the urban Left works to defeat mainstream liberals and gain the whip hand in urban politics, big-city Republicans will have an opening to cobble together a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats. Even in New York City and Los Angeles, Donald Trump received approximately one-quarter of the vote in 2020. But Republicans must add about one-third of nationally Democratic-voting urbanites to become competitive. Can they do it?
Republicans in big cities cannot compete simply by presenting an attractive package of policy alternatives. If voters in city elections were choosing between two parties defined exclusively by local issues, such as policing, housing, and education, general elections would be far closer. But as it stands, the only general-election banner on which challengers to Democratic governance can actually run is “Republican,” a brand to which many urban voters—including those who might otherwise split their tickets between Democrats nationally and conservatives locally—have become ill-disposed. In the most reductive terms, that brand signifies disinterest in cities; suspicion of immigrants and of racial, religious, and cultural pluralism; and an overall style of politics shot through with exurban and rural concerns. Too often, a vote for a big-city Republican is a referendum on the culture war rather than an expression of how the voter wants her schools managed or streets repaired.
Still, national Republicans can creatively and effectively connect their platform to battles playing out in America’s cities. If factional conflict breaks out at the national level, politicians everywhere will begin to identify not just as Democrats and Republicans but as particular flavors of each—yielding more municipal competition.
Party factions resemble “frenemies”: while they may work together on some legislation and in general elections, they will also engage in intense conflict for control of their own party. They will seek furiously to recruit new groups of voters and organized interests to their side. They will attack, sometimes viciously, members of their own party. The more they do this, the more that ordinary voters will come to distinguish, for instance, a populist and sometimes chauvinistic Republican faction with strongholds in exurban and rural areas from a market-oriented, cosmopolitan, more educated and professional “liberal-conservative” faction with footholds in America’s metropolitan areas.
If that happens, the national party brands would become more heterogeneous. A Republican running for mayor of Los Angeles could show his scars from fights with populists, while also attacking the city’s Democratic Party for stifling economic growth and entrepreneurship, kowtowing to public-sector unions, advancing divisive school curricula and attacking charter schools, compromising public safety, and mismanaging the city’s fiscal affairs.
A national liberal-conservative faction should make ticket-splitting more palatable to big-city voters—especially when their city’s Democrats have been taken over by the DSA faction. Governors Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker, both Republicans who have personally distanced themselves from the national party, already earn favorable marks from urban and suburban voters. Such brand differentiation would become even more potent if Republican candidates could identify themselves with a notable, clearly defined faction that voters could use as a shorthand for political identity.
A strong Republican faction competing in big cities would have potent consequences for national politics. Republican mayors could experiment with new policies that could trickle up to the national stage, clearing a path for ambitious, liberal-conservative candidates to campaign on effective governance rather than culture-war signalling. Republicans could recruit stronger candidates, including ethnic minorities and aspiring politicians who may not currently wish to be associated with Trumpian populism, to the party. Successful liberal-conservative mayors could fill the national political pipeline and, having established a reputation distinct from that of the national party, operate with more independence from party leadership.
Liberal-conservative Republicans in America’s cities would also influence urban governance. They would have to work with more moderate Democrats to govern effectively. They would give Democratic moderates more leverage inside their own party, since these moderates could plausibly threaten defection if the party veered too far left. And they would grease the wheels of municipal policymaking by spurring the formation of cross-partisan, strange-bedfellows coalitions on issues like education, criminal justice, and economic development.
The above is merely a plausible scenario, not a prediction. Making it a reality will depend upon considerable, sustained political investment at both the national and local levels. If Republicans don’t develop a national party faction that can be viable with the median urban voter, they will face continued disappointment at the municipal level. And if they don’t drop an organizing anchor in a big city and capitalize on the opportunity to demonstrate what a serious, multiracial Republican Party can do in government, party entrepreneurs at the national level will face constraints in Washington in building such a faction.
But the GOP ought to prioritize becoming competitive in cities, and not only for its own sake. While I am a lifelong Democrat, I firmly believe that our democratic institutions can be preserved only if there is healthy two-party competition everywhere in the country. Republicans aren’t competitive in cities right now. Building a strong liberal-conservative faction in the GOP would change that.