Progressives and Urbanists- A Difficult Relationship
Much has been written about the difficult relationship between conservatives and urbanism. However, leftist progressives (that is, Americans who perceive themselves as more “progressive” or leftish than the average national Democrat)* also come into conflict with the smart growth movement (that is, people who wish to limit sprawl and make it easier for people to live in pedestrian and transit-friendly environments).
To be sure, progressives generally are not hostile to cities in principle, nor do they consistently oppose public transit or pedestrians. Nevertheless, left-wing values are sometimes in tension with those of smart growth supporters.
Leftists value equality, diversity, and (more broadly) preventing oppression in all its forms- especially oppression of the poor and of ethnic minorities. In addition, leftists tend to be suspicious of all large-scale private enterprise, because they worry that such businesses are likely to oppress laborers, consumers or the environment. By contrast, conservatives and libertarians may share these values to some extent, but are generally more interested in protecting individuals and corporations from government coercion and in the protection of social order.
In addition, leftists are more likely to see the world as a zero-sum game: that is, they worry that policies that help large businesses or the well-off may harm the poor. By contrast, conservatives and libertarians believe that policies that help the middle and upper classes are often likely to help society as a whole (including the poor).
As a result of these values, leftists place a high value on cities being accessible to the poor. Smart growth supporters, by contrast, believe that the late 20th-century policy of turning cities into holding pens for the poor has been disastrous, and wish to make cities places where most Americans can live- not just the poor, but also the middle and upper classes.
But in the non-alternative-universe United States, many suburban public school districts tend to have very few poor people, and thus to have non-diverse public schools. As a result, these schools have become much more popular with middle- class parents than urban schools. Leftists are more likely to believe that urban classrooms must nevertheless be “diverse” (i.e. reflect a city’s class and/or racial balance) as possible, while more moderate urbanists are willing to relax the left-wing insistence on diversity in order to attract middle- and upper-class parents.
For example, in the 1970s, federal judges required every urban school to be equally diverse (and thus unattractive to middle-class parents), while a more moderate Supreme Court prevented the expansion of such “school busing”**** to the suburbs. Leftists nevertheless continued to favor busing, while moderate urbanists did not. Today, a moderate or conservative urbanist would be more likely to favor public support of selective urban schools that, because of their selectivity, might be attractive to parents seeking to place their children in academically demanding environments. By contrast, leftists are more likely to worry that such schools would reduce diversity and drain resources from more diverse schools.
In sum, neither left-wing nor right-wing priorities consistently line up with those of the smart growth movement. It follows that smart growth supporters have neither consistent friends nor consistent enemies- only consistent interests.
*As opposed to moderates and moderate liberals, whose views tend to be a not-so-coherent mix of conservative and leftist sentiments. If you think of yourself as ideologically closer to Dennis Kucinich than to President Obama or the Clintons, you are probably a progressive leftist. If you are closer to the latter than to either Kucinich or to Republicans you are a moderate or moderate liberal.
**Although I am generally skeptical of this view, its merits are best left for another post.
***My suspicion is based on this: when I see attacks on high-rises and large-scale retail, they are often accompanied by anti-business rhetoric about "greedy developers", etc. Having said that, I can't prove my suspicion with more concrete data.
****So named because to facilitate racial balance, school systems bused students from black parts of town to white parts of town and vice versa.