Conventional wisdom has it that progressives champion urbanity and conservatives disdain it. There’s some truth to that. Progressives are far more likely than conservatives to prefer walkable, high-density communities over auto-dependent, detached-dwelling neighborhoods. Urban areas tend to vote heavily Democratic and rural areas Republican. Even in the more-competitive suburbs, those closest to downtowns tilt blue while outer-ring suburbs and exurbs are red.
But in day-to-day life, the polarities aren’t so stark. For example, plenty of both conservatives and progressives work in downtown offices, dine or go to shows downtown, and then spend most nights and weekends elsewhere. We may disagree about transportation or zoning policy, but few wish anything other than vitality and success for our major urban centers.
For these reasons and more, I confess to being dismayed at how much damage progressive politicians are blithely wreaking on their downtowns, in North Carolina and beyond.
COVID-19 was going to be a challenge for the neo-urbanist movement regardless of how policymakers responded. A viral disease that spreads primarily by lengthy interactions in confined spaces — people sharing buses, trains, offices, or small apartments — was always going to hit downtowns particularly hard.
They aren’t the only places that fit the profile, of course. Immigrants working in rural processing plants and residing in tight quarters would be one example. Nursing and rest homes have proved to be a more tragic one, given the extreme disproportionality of COVID-19 death rates. For non-elderly persons, remember, the disease is no more lethal than other, more-familiar flu-like illnesses, according to the available evidence.
Still, fear of contagion would have depopulated transit vehicles, central business districts, and other familiar features of downtown life for a while, at least, even if governments had not responded with draconian, indiscriminate lockdowns.
But they did.
And then, contrary to common sense and their own interests, progressive politicians allowed the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death to devolve, in all too many cases, into rioting. They deployed city police officers poorly, or not at all, to protect downtown businesses. They made excuses for or sometimes even endorsed the actions of violent mobs that attacked public facilities and monuments.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone owning a downtown business, restaurant, bar, or condo. They enjoy urban living. They’ve invested substantial time and resources into it. They’ve watched as state and local governments, understandably concerned in the face of a novel coronavirus, shut down large swaths of that urban life — shopping districts, theaters and concert venues, restaurants, the nightclub scene. Weeks later, they watch as many of the same politicians either look the other way or, more appallingly, seem to cheer as angry activists gathered in already depopulated downtowns to engage in mischief or criminality.
Would you be enthusiastic about investing more time and resources there? Or would you start looking for someone else to live, work, and run a business?
Alas, the wherewithal to make such decisions is not equally distributed. Many of those with the means to relocate homes and enterprises to the suburbs will do so. Moreover, some jobs are better suited to telecommuting than others. They are also disproportionately held by higher-income individuals who enjoy significant social and political capital.
The guiding principles of modern American progressivism include egalitarianism and cosmopolitanism. I believe the consequences of COVID-19 and the 2020 riots will advance neither principle.
For modern American conservatives, whose guiding principles include defense of freedom and respect for tradition, the consequences of COVID-19 and the 2020 riots are also unwelcome. But we aren’t the ones who used a policy sledgehammer on a public-health threat best addressed with surgical tools. And we aren’t the ones who flailed around as the initial burst of righteous indignation at the death of George Floyd turned into looting, vandalism, and a new, more extreme and irrational form of cancel culture.
Our urban cores will struggle to recover from all this — as will the reputations of the urban politicians who form the core of today’s American Left.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.