Despite their wealth, the political power of Boston and other cities is fading

“The economic and cultural power of cities is so overwhelming,” says Jonathan Rodden, professor of political science at Stanford, “that for people in rural areas, the resentment and oppression…is quite intense.”

Indeed, things have become so unequal that, although there are nearly 20,000 cities and towns in America, the top 25 cities are responsible for more than half of our GDP (Boston is number nine).

Venture capital – used to fund start-up businesses — is even more unbalanced. In 2018, more than 75% of venture capital investments went to just five places: San Francisco, New York, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles.

Sit with that for a minute. In this huge country, a handful of cities capture almost all the venture capital. But, it turns out that the financial power that cities like Boston have amassed can cause them to shed another kind of power: political power.

Why? At least two reasons.

First, the economic and cultural chasm has become so huge that urban Democrats have largely lost the ability to connect with people in rural areas. Second, city dwellers provide so much money and support to Democrats that they carry messages, making it harder for the party to compete in swing suburban neighborhoods.

Obviously, cities start with a built-in disadvantage. In America, winning elections is about winning the right votes in the right places, not winning the most votes. Rodden, the author of the book Why Cities Are Losingsays it’s hard to explain to people in other countries how big city-dominated states are crushed when it comes to representation.

Massachusetts, for example, has 12 times the population of Wyoming. But both states have two senators representing them. And if you think that’s bad, imagine how sorry Californians must be. Their state has 70 times the population of Wyoming.

But the problem of cities losing political power, even as they accumulate other kinds of power, goes beyond the Senate, and it’s getting worse — a terrifying thought for Democrats as they head towards the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.

To understand how far small towns and rural areas have drifted away from wealthy Democratic enclaves, consider the case of Ohio, where JD Vance — who rose to fame with the memoir Hillbilly Elegy – recently won the Republican Senate primary. Vance — like former President Trump, who warmly supported him — did particularly well in counties near Kentucky, like Scioto.

To Scioto, Vance crushed his closest opponent 2 to 1. Trump was a similar and notable favorite in 2020, when he won 71% of the vote (President Biden won 28%).

But let’s rewind just a decade, to 2012. President Obama was nearly tied with Mitt Romney in Scioto County: Obama lost less than 2 points.

Obama, Rodden says, has invested a lot of time in rusty small towns, winning Ohio twice and even Indiana in 2008. Now, in states where rural residents wield considerable influence, Democrats have no chance.

Which leads to the other reason why city dwellers are losing political power.

Rodden argues that the Democratic Party is really made up of two parties, locked into a “marriage of convenience.” Urban Democrats — like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens — are more likely to lean toward Democratic Socialism, while suburban Democrats tend to be much more moderate.

“If there’s a big ideological difference between the urban core – that is, the core of your constituency – and the exurban or mid-suburban place you have to go to…you have a real problem of messaging,” he said.

Witness Representative Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, who recently lost his Democratic Senate primary to John Fetterman, a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Lamb’s military service and moderate views on issues like gun control seemed perfectly suited for a swing state, but the center of gravity has unmistakably shifted.

Like Matthew Yglesias and Milan Singh recently RemarkD in the political bulletin “Slow Boring”, “Democrats have changed a lot since 2012”, and the party’s official platform adopted a number of more progressive positions.

Ideally, Rodden says, Democrats would offer completely different messages to their urban and suburban constituencies. But in an age when national media — from MSNBC to Fox News — dominates, it’s nearly impossible to do that.

In fact, partisan media often do everything they can to highlight polarizing politicians and present them as mainstream.

“Previously, a relatively new backbencher in the party like AOC…isn’t someone who would have been on TV all the time,” Rodden points out. But now, “she’s one of the most quoted people on Fox News — there’s just a consistent focus on AOC. And that’s partly by design.

Because the parties are internally divided, the only way for the partisan media – on either side – to build unity is to insist that their opponents are extremists.

Cities occupy a strange place in this internal division. They fund much of the party’s operations, but have very different tendencies than the country as a whole.

In the 2020 election, for example, 83% of Boston voters opted for Biden. That number is so high that many Bostonians (or inner suburban dwellers) may not know anyone who voted for Trump, even though 47% of American voters did.

“The geographic core of the party,” Rodden says, “is starting to dominate some of the party’s decision-making and thinking. And the things that seem perfectly reasonable to the majority of people in the party are not necessarily the things that will get the job done in the hub districts.

In 2022, the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade could change the landscape, forcing some Republican women to vote for Democrats. Or the anger over gun availability could last well into the fall. But given deep consumer concerns about inflation and the general tendency to blame the ruling party for economic turmoil, social issues may not seem the most pressing to voters on Election Day.

For those living in densely populated metropolitan areas, coping with declining political power is difficult, especially since their economic and cultural power is so considerable. And if it is true that the number of Americans who identify as liberal increased significantly over the past three decades (from 17% to 25%), it is also true that the number of Republican and Republican-leaning Americans has has increased over the past two yearsreaching 47% in 2021.

City dwellers are moving away from the rest of the country, both in their way of thinking and in their way of acting. And understanding this gap is key to closing it. Because it may be that, with the electoral package stacked against them, urban Democrats face a stark choice: half a loaf or nothing at all.


Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.

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