A key axiom of Millman Thought is that, the existence of elites being unavoidable, and the legitimacy of an elite depending on the (at least) tacit consent of the non-elite, the essential political question is the relationship between the elites and everyone else. Different political parties, movements and individuals use different strategies – rhetorical and material – to legitimize the position of a given elite, and to bridge the inevitable gap between that elite and the rest.
The hollowing-out of so many American cities in the 1970s and 1980s – as manufacturing jobs moved out of Detroit and Pittsburgh, and to Tokyo, Seoul and Guangzhou (or, when they remained domestic, to Tennessee and Kentucky), crime rose, and the middle-class and their jobs moved out to the suburbs – transformed urban life into something profoundly alien for the median American voter. And, naturally enough, much of the rhetorical populism of the GOP since the 1970s consists of exploiting the stark difference of experience between urban elites that are overwhelmingly Democratic and the mass of the voting population that is suburban, exurban or rural – and the most successful national Democrats during this period have been those who were not identified in any meaningful way with cities (e.g., Carter, Clinton, Gore).
Well, it’s not exactly news, but the cities are changing. Crime has gone down in the center and up in the periphery. Housing values are holding up better in downtown New York, Chicago and San Francisco than they are in suburban and exurban areas. The biggest drug epidemic of the past decade is predominantly non-urban. We’re not going back to the America of a century ago, where the cities were growing by leaps and bounds, absorbing emigrants from abroad and from the farms of the hinterland. But our major cities are being transformed from “problem areas” with a decaying residual elite to the natural home of a confident elite of the future. And, lo and behold, the Democratic Party – still the overwhelmingly dominant party in our cities, even though Republican mayors can take some part of the credit for the urban transformation – is now led by two people who hail from urban areas.
Inasmuch as most people won’t be able to afford to live in the swanky new downtown areas, and inasmuch as the social structure of our new cities will still be very different from the social structure of (particularly) exurban and rural America, there will be plenty of scope for a populist anti-urbanism in American politics. But it will be a very different populism than in the past. It is one thing to bash a dying, rear-guard elite in the name of ordinary people who still have confidence and the will to succeed (that’s basically Reaganite populism in a rhetorical nutshell), or to try to dethrone an elite that has fouled their own nest and now wants to come and foul yours (that’s basically Nixonian populism in a rhetorical nutshell). A populism rooted in the frustrations of those left behind by a newly confident and successful urban elite would look like something else entirely – more like the populism of the 19th century party that coined the term than like anything we’ve seen lately, certainly from the GOP.
I guess what I’m ultimately asking is: does Reihan’s template for the GOP represent an adequate response to the changing nature – and urbanization – of the American elite, assuming that such a change is taking place?