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Urban Blues

The fashionable radicalism now popular in progressive cities will ultimately fail and, in the process, hurt working people and minorities the most

Joel Kotkin
July 06, 2020
 Scott Olson/Getty Images
The new urban feudalism? Scott Olson/Getty Images
 Scott Olson/Getty Images
The new urban feudalism? Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the surface, progressive “Blue America” has never appeared stronger. President Donald Trump’s leadership failures exposed by the pandemic and the recent disorders, is sinking him in the polls. His rival, Joe Biden, seems likely to concede his traditionally moderate stances to placate the Democrats’ youthful activist and identitarian wings. Radical “transformation” of the United States seems to some just months away.

Yet even as their political power waxes, the woke progressives are engaged in a process of blue-icide, undermining their own urban base of disadvantaged citizens and their own credibility. Such self-destructive tendencies existed even before COVID-19 and the George Floyd upheavals, in the form of crushingly high taxes, regulatory burdens, and dysfunctional schools. The failures of Trump may help progressives in 2020, but their emerging policy agenda seems destined to benefit the red states, conservatives, and, sadly, the far right, later in this decade.

Over the past several years New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have lost population and San Francisco seems likely soon to join them. Meanwhile the suburbs, exurbs, and sprawling cities of the interior have continued to grow. Politically, almost all the major blue states—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and even California—are expected to lose seats in the House in the next congressional elections, while the big Sunbelt states, notably Texas, Florida, and Arizona, will gain.

The departure of the urban middle class, with even millennials now joining the exodus, has left cities such as New York increasingly divided between a predominately white and Asian, overclass and a large, and often struggling, predominantly minority population. Without the restraints that traditionally come from a politically engaged middle-class constituency pushing for moderate and necessary reform, urban politics have evolved in directions unlikely to attract desperately needed investment and higher wage jobs in the inner city.

These demographic changes have left the fate of our bluest cities in the hands of radicals such as the increasingly potent Black Lives Matter movement. The blue state political and media establishment, and their allies in the corporate elite, have conceded enormous credibility to a group whose stance is explicitly radical.

Thoroughgoing police reform, the key reason for the Black Lives Matter movement’s growth, is clearly needed. But BLM’s politics go beyond even support for such widely unpopular measures as defunding, or even abolishing, the police and the prison system, and endorsing reparations. The group generally favors radical socialist economics to battle what its founders see as “racial capitalism.” Besides favoring federal favoritism for Black institutions, it embraces single payer health care, huge tax increases, and other leftist positions that might not appeal to blue state oligarchs. It also condemns Israel as “genocidal.”

Blue state leaders have been slow to recognize—or perhaps slow to acknowledge—that BLM politics are more akin to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s than the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Academic Melina Abdullah, a prominent BLM spokesperson and co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter, is an open admirer of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan. She describes the protests not as a cry for reform but an “uprising” or “rebellion.” In late May, Abdullah explained: “We’ve been very deliberate in saying that the violence and pain and hurt that’s experienced on a daily basis by Black folks at the hands of a repressive system should also be visited upon, to a degree, to those who think that they can just retreat to white affluence.” Among the areas where rioters visited pain was LA’s traditionally Jewish Fairfax district, where stores were destroyed and synagogues were vandalized and spray-painted with slogans like “Fuck Israel.” A BLM leader in New York has endorsed the armed takeover of neighborhoods, something that has already occurred, with deadly results, in painfully white and hip Seattle.

The outrage after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis grew not just out of generations of mistreatment by law enforcement, but also a worsening economic situation for working class minorities in big cities. The bluest, densest urban cores were already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation worsened both by both White House incompetence and that of top elected local officials. But the impact has, for the most part, been more intense in densely populated blue urban areas, particularly those dependent on public transit.

Density is both an inevitable fact of city life and an urban planning goal supported by blue state progressives, but it also increases the chances of pandemic spread, a pattern that has been clear since at least the Roman Empire. Historian Kyle Harper, in his brilliant The Fate of Rome, notes that the “precociously urbanized” empire created cities that were “victims of the urban graveyard effect.” The rise of global trade and mass immigration in Rome, as today in our great cities, boosted the capacity to transmit and incubate pathogens.

Even as the country has witnessed a resurgence in recent weeks of COVID-19 cases concentrated in red states like Texas and Arizona, the preponderance of infections and fatalities have taken place in dense, often heavily minority cities. The highest rates of fatalities have occurred in the New York area, locale for roughly one-third of all deaths. But other predominantly Black cities such as Washington, D.C., Trenton, New Orleans, and Detroit also account for a disproportionate share. Even with the recent surge, fatality rates in Sunbelt states like Texas, Arizona, and California are generally about one-eighth of those in New York and New Jersey.

The pandemic risks represented by density, concentrated poverty, and transit use, can explain the generally harsher blue state lockdown policies. But, whatever their motives, the economic consequences could be profound. No one seems to know how or whether high-rise offices, subways and elevators can work efficiently when people have to be 6 feet apart.

Even before the coronavirus, most new jobs were being created in suburbia; the urban core accounted for only 9.9% of all job growth between 2010 and 2017. This percentage is likely to shrink as information and finance firms shift to online work. Many workers are adapting to the shift from the 60th floor to the kitchen table and a large proportion seem to prefer it to commuting to the office.

The trend is likely to encourage migration to less expensive regions or, for the better paid, a search for houses in the bucolic surrounding suburbs of cities like New York or San Francisco. The real estate firm Redfin has found that up to half of all new post-pandemic telecommuters want to continue to work from home, and, after interviewing potential and present homeowners, predicts a steady movement of skilled workers to smaller cities and outer suburbs. Overall, less dense areas are now growing much faster than denser ones.

Big city diehards insist that “talent” will return in large numbers to the metropolitan cores. But in reality, even in fields like professional business services and technology, employment had already been drifting away from places like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to less crowded, more dispersed regions like Raleigh-Durham, Nashville, Austin, Charlotte, and Orlando. This is now likely to break down the concentrations of knowledge workers even in marquee locations like Silicon Valley. As many as 2 in 3 tech workers in the Bay Area tell surveyors they plan to leave in the near future.

Tech company employees and white-collar urban professionals may be able to pick up and leave big cities, but what about the service workers, many of them immigrants and minorities, who keep the cities running? They are more vulnerable in every sense: more vulnerable to infection, and to the bad economy—roughly half of all job losses in April were in such low-paying fields as restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks. Almost 40% of those Americans making under $40,000 a year have lost their jobs as the wage gains made during the first two years of the Trump administration have largely evaporated.

In the longer run, the progressive policy agenda is likely to accelerate urban feudalism, driving out middle-class families and businesses from the big cities and coasts to the country’s interior and periphery and leaving behind only the lords and peasants.

Most blue city politicians profess fealty to “social justice” but inequality has become much more pronounced in bigger cities than smaller ones or suburban areas. As the middle class has largely departed, the gap between the affluent urban elites and the marginalized masses has grown. Tensions between the two have been boiling over for decades, sometimes erupting in violent protests against gentrification, precursors to the current unrest.

Caught between their poor constituents and a declining middle class, progressive politicians like Minneapolis’ Jacob Frey, Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, and New York’s Bill de Blasio, have looked the other way as their cities are trashed, sometimes refusing to arrest or jail vandals. Massachusetts District Attorney Maura Healey went so far as to excuse looting as a legitimate, even revered form of protest. Elite journalists compare the ransacking of Target and Apple stores to the protests to the Boston Tea Party.

This rapid reprise of what Fred Siegel labeled “the riot ideology”—unleashing violence and disorder as an intimidation tactic to achieve progressive policy goals and extract economic concessions from government agencies who just want a way to make the violence stop—has no chance of actually improving conditions in the lives of people on whose behalf, supposedly, it is carried out. The rioting of the late 1960s weakened urban economies and led to devastating losses for minority property owners and businesses. Years of protests, including several riots—most of which were also spun as “uprisings” by prominent defenders—didn’t redress the causes of the protests or slow the spread of poverty: High-poverty urban areas doubled in population between 1980 and 2018.

The return of the riot ideology in Los Angeles is unlikely to improve the lives of the inner city residents who will have to live through its aftermath—on the other hand, it could help some activists’ bankrolls to get a bit fatter. Overall Black-owned business and property owners have tended to be hit most profoundly in the wake of these disturbances. South Central Los Angeles, site of two of the worst riots in American history, has experienced a growing gap with the surrounding area in terms of homeownership, income and educational attainment.

Politically, “the riot ideology” today will likely again also prove a loser. As is the case with peaceful protests now, there was strong support among most Americans for the early Civil Rights Movement. But as the protests became more violent, particularly in the late ’60s and early ’70s, public support receded. This helped secure victories for right-wing candidates like Ronald Reagan, elected the year after the 1965 Watts riots and, three years later, contributed to Richard Nixon winning the presidency.

Looting is not widely popular even today. In Minneapolis, we may just be seeing the first fruits of police withdrawals and a new hands-off policy toward violence and disorder. Already one factory owner, whose facility was torched, has announced plans to leave. A friend, whose medical equipment company warehouse was also burned down, also plans to shift the facility, and over 100 jobs, to another state. And that is not to mention all the ordinary people whose ability to go about their lives in peace depends on government officials and law enforcement being willing to actually enforce the law.

The emergence of chaotic, radical-controlled police-free zones in Seattle demanding the abolition of prisons, free college, rent control and funding for arts certainly won’t encourage serious business investment. This week a major investment firm that handles billions of dollars, announced its departure from Seattle and plans to move into a new office in Phoenix. Even more tragically, On June 29, two teenagers were shot inside the lawless zone—the fourth shooting in a span of 10 days. One of the victims, who was 16 years old, later died in the hospital.

Not surprisingly, businesses in the Seattle occupied zone have already been forced to hire private security. Nationally, truck drivers have announced their intention not to deliver to cities without organized police protection. Local police outside Seattle also claim that their cities are being targeted by organized criminal gangs who use the protests as cover for their activities.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot worries about large retailers not rebuilding their looted stores, saying it will take a “herculean effort” to keep them in the city. Major corporations like Target can close down their Minneapolis stores but still function in thousands of other locales, notably in the suburbs and exurbs. But it’s the locally owned stores that were already more vulnerable to the pandemic and often lack the resources to cope with long lockdowns or street violence, that may be hardest to keep.

Minority owned and small businesses had already absorbed the biggest hits from the pandemic. Even before the protests and rioting, the coronavirus lockdowns were hitting Black-owned business far harder than any other large ethnic group. As many as 20% or 30% of California’s restaurants, suggests the California Restaurant Association, may never reopen. Some 60%, according to the organization, are owned by people of color.

The current triumph of woke ideology on campuses, in the mainstream media, Hollywood, and in the corporate suite may smell like sweet success to progressives. But in the longer run, the progressive policy agenda—draconian climate change laws, strict rent control, reductions in public safety, banning single family zoning, and the like—is likely to accelerate urban feudalism, driving out middle-class families and businesses from the big cities and coasts to the country’s interior and periphery and leaving behind only the lords and peasants.

Defunding police will not improve life on the ground in big cities. At a time when cities like Los Angeles and even crime-ridden Baltimore and Chicago adopt “tough” policies about enforcing lockdowns and arresting violators, they have also returned a generation of criminals to the streets sometimes by suspending bail. Crime is up in many cities, including, San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis, all cities that have emptied jails and reduced enforcement.

The biggest impact of the assault on the legitimacy of law enforcement is felt in minority communities. Diverting funds away from the police may have been seen as politically expedient,but it has not helped Baltimore—a city with a long history of police abuse—curb its astronomic murder rate. Nor is there any reason to expect that fashionable “defunding” efforts would bring down Chicago’s persistently high homicide rate, curb the rising crime rate tied to the growing homeless population in Los Angeles, or slow San Francisco’s slide toward a lawless dystopia.

The return to “riot ideology” may appeal to partisan journalists, academics, athletes, and entertainers, but it will not restore the viability of blue cities, particularly their minority neighborhoods. What’s truly needed in America’s big cities is not just a return to order, but a government determined to foster the cultivation of employable skills and the better paying jobs that go with them.

Certainly it is not promising that in California, post-coronavirus recovery efforts are being led by woke tech oligarchs like Apple’s Tim Cook, who has placed most of his manufacturing in China, and extreme climate activists like billionaire Tom Steyer, who will seek to double down on the draconian climate agenda helping turn the Golden State into an increasingly neofeudal society. Nor do efforts in New York to have powerful oligarchs like Bill Gates and former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt steer their future, bode well for grassroots organizations and communities already pummeled by COVID-19, the digital assault on small business and now by rioting.

To succeed, cities need to be aspirational, safe and healthy. No city thrives under contagion or the constant threat of violence or infectious disease; what humbled late Imperial Rome can also be visited on New York. Against such threats, the nonstop righteous anger, and ever-expanding demands, and the relentless “virtue signaling” by the urban elites will serve only to further alienate the middle class and the political center necessary to achieve compromise and reform.

Of course, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles will continue to appeal to a subset of our vast population, including highly educated young, mostly childless people. The bright lights and charmed districts will survive and even thrive. But most Americans, particularly as they age and seek to start families, may no longer look at these disordered places with admiration or even envy. Blue America may not be quite as doomed as late Imperial Rome, but unless its policy agenda moderates and starts to prioritize measures that will materially improve the lives of ordinary people, it will be following a similar path, albeit one paved with the most self-righteous intentions.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.