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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 09:34 pm

Crowdsourcing presidential choice

Why did America’s densest places vote Obama?


Remember Election Night? All those colored maps on TV, intended to make clear what a jumble of numbers could not. But the maps, unlike the numbers, did not add up. Such massive swaths of red on the map, such a massive pile of blue electoral votes in the graphs. How could the Democrat have won, when so little of the country voted for him?

If we gave the vote to gophers and coyotes – and I’m sure there’s someone sitting in Dick Durbin’s office as I write, waiting to present a petition to do just that – those red states would indeed carry a candidate to the White House. However, gophers and coyotes do not vote, people do. The real America may live in the sparsely populated countryside, but Americans themselves increasingly live in cities, and cities don’t take up much space on a map.

This is the real demographic problem facing what we must call the New Republican Party. Self-identified members of this faction have problems with cities. New Republicans don’t know cities, they don’t like cities and they don’t live any closer to one than they have to. They think the wrong kinds of people live in them, doing things that don’t bear thinking about. If they are obliged to visit one they skedaddle back home as quick as they can.

As we learned on Election Night, cities don’t much care for Republicans either. Let’s look at an Illinois city I know well – the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Originally a farming village, it was engulfed by waves of development decades ago. That left this town of 53,000 landlocked on all sides. While its acreage has remained the same, its population zoomed as its dominant housing form changed from the farmhouse to the bungalow to the four-flat to the apartment building to, lately, the condo tower.

As a result, Oak Park’s population is quite dense, not only by Illinois standards, but by U.S. standards. More than 11,000 people live on every square mile of the city, while only 2,064 Springfieldians occupy each square mile. On Nov. 6, President Obama got 83 percent of the vote in Oak Park, and Mr. Romney 16 percent.

Why should this be so? As usual, most of the post-election analysis – cities went for Obama because cities are where an awful lot of Obama supporters live – only repeated the obvious. Dig a little deeper and it is plain that tribal loyalties played a part; Obama, unusually among recent presidents, is a city guy. His house is in Kenwood, which is not a suburb whatever the names suggests, but a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

Some on the left insisted that only an ignoramus would vote for a Romney. That’s true, but not because Romney is Romney. The platform of the postwar Republican Party used to be suburban in its preoccupations, but the policies of the New Republicans are so perfectly anti-urban that only a city dweller who was an ignoramus would vote for a Romney.

Culture plays a part too. Cities are where the best-educated, best-read, most informed citizens tend to cluster. (City people live in not-quite-cities like Springfield too – a great many of them are regular readers of this paper – but they are not numerous enough to define the local culture the way their counterparts do in our Oak Parks.) They are comfortable in the world and because they embrace difference as more stimulating than threatening they tend to reject the xenophobic and the simplistic.

That explanation too describes more than it explains. Many on the right have their own explanation. Crowding people into cities is like putting a large number of rats into a small cage. Density itself causes mental derangement that leads otherwise sane people to vote for the moderate left.

They’re wrong about the derangement of course, but they are right in thinking that the politics of city dwellers is rooted somehow in the experience of living in cities. Interdependence – of people, organizations and systems – is the very essence of cities and the more time one spends in them the plainer it becomes that every class is dependent on the others. City life schools a person in tolerance. If city people tend to reject confrontational politics it’s because they see every day its costs; every outing is a lesson in the virtues of compromise.

Yes, city life can cause anger, anxiety, aggression as it does in caged rats – if the city is built and run like a cage. Running them like cities that are fit for people requires a functioning, inclusive government as service provider and adjudicator. Our Romneys might reply that if people didn’t live in cities they wouldn’t need government. But the need for government in less dense places like Springfield is no less real, it is just less obviously real. In a city, there is no Us and Them when people talk about government. Only Us.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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