Why Cities Lose

Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide

By Carly Berke

On Friday, December 6th, the Initiative on Cities hosted a book talk with Jonathan Rodden to discuss his book, Why Cities Lose, which explores how the Democratic Party’s electoral challenges have deeper roots in economic and political geography.

Jonathan Rodden is a professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and founder and director of the Stanford Spatial Science Social Lab. He is also the author of the award-winning book, Hamilton’s Paradox: The Promise and Peril of Fiscal Federalism. He has been researching the correlation between voting behavior and population density and compiling this book for over 10 years.

With the title Why Cities Lose, he does not mean to imply that cities are losing in an economic sense; in fact, cities are taking on a larger share of U.S. GDP, similar to cities in Europe and Australia. Rather, his book is about electoral representation.

“It’s about how party systems have come to be lined up with the urban-rural ‘density’ divide,” said Rodden.

Rodden studied the correlation between population density and voting behavior within the context of “majoritarian democracies”, places that were historically colonized by Great Britain and later implemented a winner-take-all electoral system. This system contrasts the electoral procedures of most countries in continental Europe, where representation is better distributed.

He pulled from a few key reference points, including the UK and Boris Johnson, who was hoping to form a majority party in the British legislature (and as of last week’s election, was successful). He also looked at Pennsylvania, where a party that captures 47-48% of the vote can gain majority control of the state legislature.

“The winner isn’t necessarily party with the most votes, but the party with the most efficient distribution of votes across districts,” said Rodden.

In his book, he explores where this pattern came from, how density and leftist parties become so correlated, and what the implications are for representation in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The answers to this skewed representation go deeper than gerrymandering, according to Rodden. Voting districts in Great Britain are drawn independently, while in Pennsylvania they’re drawn by a bipartisan commission. Rather, the left struggles to win seats because of geographical distribution of voters that emerged in the wake of industrialization and urbanization. Rodden argues that Democrats became concentrated in cities as labor unions emerged and mobilized for workers’ rights. As they did so, they became affiliated with the Democratic Party, which would slowly absorb other social and economic issues throughout the 20th century.

Why Cities Lose begins in the early 20th century, looking at socialist democratic parties in Europe that also functioned within majoritarian systems. Factory workers in cities began mobilizing to form labor unions, which is where leftist parties first emerged. As the working class congregated around dense urban housing projects, the left vote began to emerge across a certain geographic distribution. 

At the same time period in the United States, population density was not correlated with the Democratic vote share. Rodden drew from case studies in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where Democrats performed better in rural areas and the two cities were heavily run by Republicans.

In 1928, however, New York Governor Al Smith developed a relationship with the working class on his path to becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. The urban support base he found in New York City began to expand; later, in the ‘30s, the New Deal accelerated the process as Democrats started to mobilize workers and labor unions. The relationship between density and Democratic voting grew stronger in the ‘40s, starting in the industrial northeast and spreading throughout the country.

While the Democratic Party was initially comprised of industrial workers in the Northeast, labor unions and industrial workers became increasingly influenced by the influx of African Americans, and they started to pressure party leadership to take up issues like anti-lynching legislation and civil rights abuses. As their urban African American voter base expanded, the party was slowly pushed into becoming the civil rights party. Democratic incumbents in major urban cities like Detroit realized that African Americans comprised a significant percentage of their voting base and it was important to listen to them.

While race was the first issue where the party’s position became clear, Democrats slowly absorbed other issues from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. Abortion, for instance, wasn’t a single party issue until the early ‘80s, before which anti-abortion voters were actually more likely to vote for Democrats. What ensued was the divergence of the two parties on specific issues, meaning voters started to sort into parties based on their stance on certain social or cultural concerns. Moral values become an indicator of voting behavior. The urban-rural polarization began to really increase, however, after the Reagan era.

“Over time [Democrats] have transitioned from being the workers’ party to essentially being urban parties,” said Rodden. “They’re like a constellation of urban interest groups.”

Initially there wasn’t much of a correlation between voting behavior and density in the South, but the transformation of the during the southern party realignment era led to a dramatic increase in correlation. The pattern that emerged in the Northeast now extends across the country, even to states like Idaho and Kansas. 

Today, Democrats are concentrated in almost every American city. As a result, when Democrats are unable to secure a majority in state and national government, it is likely due to the geography of the voting base, rather than electoral fraud. The urban demographic is overwhelmingly Democratic, which slowly turns into Republican vote shares as you move further into rural areas.

“In all these small post-industrial cities, Hillary Clinton won the majority. The media portrayed that Trump won those places, but it’s not really true,” said Rodden. “It’s the outskirts of those cities that Trump won.”

These voting patterns still exist today, although the demographics of these spaces have shifted. City centers are still populated with working class, minorities, and immigrants, but they’re increasingly filled with high-paid, well-educated professionals, especially in cities invested in a “knowledge economy.” In fact, some of the most desired real estate in the world can be found in urban housing. Cities have linked it all together, bringing together a coalition of poor service workers, minorities, students, and well trained professionals.

Rodden also discussed how cities have become these hubs for the emerging knowledge economy, exemplified in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Highly educated, well compensated professionals now account for large percentages of the urban voting population. The relationship in these cities is different, and the correlation between geographic density and voting behavior is much less steep; you have to travel much farther from the city center to find Republican vote shares. Now, Rodden claims the Democratic Party has become the party of the ‘knowledge economy coalition.”

“By virtue of having been the party of the urban working class and being dominant in cities like Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco, the Democrats start to become the party of educated knowledge economy workers,” said Rodden. “These parties, the left parties, the old working class parties, the parties that emerged around a conglomeration of manufacturing, are now the same parties that are really kind of concentrated in cities because of knowledge economies.”

He also acknowledged that this pattern isn’t universal to every city in the U.S., and that it only exists in certain times and places. But he strongly advocated that industrialization heavily correlates to Democratic voting today, and voting patterns can be stressed along geographic lines of industrialization, like train lines or coal mines. Ironically, counties with strong manufacturing sectors in the 1920s are good predictors of Democratic voting today. But counties with strong manufacturing sectors today are actually good predictors of Republican voting.

“There’s a strong residue of urban industrialization in contemporary voting,” said Rodden. “The long shadow of early industrialization shows up in the bricks and mortar of the built environment.”

Rodden predicts there’s more to voting patterns and density correlation than simply labor unions and concentrated working class housing developments, because it doesn’t explain the concentration of voters in places like Santa Barbara. And while city centers have historically tended to be more liberal than suburbs, the two have started to converge on social issues, obscuring the geographic line between Democrat and Republican voters.

The implications of these patterns is that it is difficult to translate votes into seats for the Democratic Party, because Democrats are so heavily concentrated. Moreover, politics within the party have become increasingly polarized, leading to internal divisions. Thus when it runs in a single voter winner-take-all-districts election, they tend to lose. Even if the opposing Republican party loses the popular vote, it is still capable of maintaining control of the legislative body.

He stressed that this pattern isn’t 100% universal across all cities and states, nor did he claim to have a simple solution. There is definitely more to learn about the relationship between voting behavior and population density. But he argues that this issue arose well before gerrymandering was utilized to fracture partisan politics.

“What’s the optimal type of reform if you care about partisan fairness?” Rodden asked to close his lecture.