The sleeper issue of 2016 will be the right to live in bedroom communities, argues Joel Kotkin, a longtime opponent of “smart growth” policies. “The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live,” Kotkin recently wrote in Real Clear Politics. “In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future.”
Kotkin argues that the Democratic Party is “increasingly oriented towards dense cities” and is trying to steer development to its power base. (Democrats like Barack Obama do run strongest in major cities, but Obama wouldn’t have been elected president without also carrying dozens of suburban counties in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.) Democratic policymakers have declared war on “suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs,” he writes, using such tools as “incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl.”
None of these policies would stop suburban development completely. Instead, smart-growth practices encourage new housing in “walkable” neighborhoods, especially near public transit. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 49 percent of Americans would prefer to live where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance”—as opposed to 48 percent who prefer living where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.”
Because it’s cheaper and quicker to build on fields and farmland, most new housing caters to the preferences of the latter group; there is not enough housing in walkable communities to meet demand, which is why such neighborhoods are cost-prohibitive for many families. Besides the environmental benefits of putting new housing where roads and other infrastructure already exist, smart-growth policies are indeed a response to consumer preferences.
Kotkin is not wrong to see smart growth as a wedge issue. The Pew poll found that 75 percent of Americans with “consistently conservative” political views (based on 10 questions chosen by the Pew researchers, most having to do with the size and scope of government) prefer the “farther apart” housing pattern, while 77 percent with “consistently liberal” views opt for “closer to each other” houses. Republican candidates could rouse their core supporters by portraying smart-growth initiatives—spending more on public transit, providing tax incentives to rehab factories and warehouses as housing, etc.—as Big Government trying to force families into cities. (Local government may be viewed as a different animal, with many Republicans supporting bans on multi-unit housing, laws requiring housing lots to be at least one acre each, and other town-level restrictions on how suburban landowners can develop their own property.)
“Suburbanites should be able to deliver a counterpunch to those who seem determined to destroy their way of life,” writes Kotkin. “Irrespective of race or generation, those who live in the suburbs—or who long to do so—need to understand the mounting threat to their aspirations. Once they do, they could spark a political firestorm that could reshape American politics for decades to come.”
Agenda 21 and the conspiracy strain in American politics
That firestorm has already been ignited on the fringes of American politics. Anti-government groups have sounded the alarm on Agenda 21, a nonbinding United Nations resolution from 1992 also known as “Promoting Sustainable Human Settlement Development.” A website called The Daily Sheeple calls Agenda 21 “the UN plan to depopulate the rural areas of America, and move those people to the cities.” Glenn Beck wrote a cautionary novel called Agenda 21 (“the once-proud people of America have become obedient residents who live in barren, brutal Compounds and serve the autocratic, merciless Authorities”), and current Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz wrote in 2012 that Agenda 21 was “a dangerous United Nations plan that takes aim at the American economy—and American freedom—in the name of environmental reform.”
Cruz has since taken down his anti–Agenda 21 post, and Kotkin stays away from any mention of the United Nations in his Real Clear Politics post. When majorities of Americans support environmental protection and worry about the effects of climate change, it is politically risky to argue that any “green” policy is part of a sinister plot to enslave the earth. Kotkin is careful not to align himself with global-warming deniers, but he blithely asserts that there is “no need to change housing patterns to reduce greenhouse gases, particularly given improvements in both home and auto efficiency.” (Which raises the question: Why not do both? There’s not much incentive in pursuing efforts to make homes and autos more energy-efficient if any reduction in greenhouse gases will only be used to justify more sprawl.)
The current leader in the polls for the GOP nomination, real estate developer Donald Trump (!) has not made smart growth one of his targets, but he does have a history of scoffing at the idea of global warming. (According to ThinkProgress’s Ryan Koronowski, “the business magnate tweeted 44 times, mostly in the winter, about how mainstream climate science was a joke because it was cold and/or snowy.”) Trump is not shy about embracing conspiracy theories—he’s encouraged the wild and groundless speculation that President Obama was not born in the United States—so it wouldn’t be surprising if he takes up Kotkin’s sinister description of smart growth as a strategy to bolster the Democratic Party, if not One World Government. As the Economist’s anonymously written Lexington column recently put it, “The Trump technique involves confiding in unhappy Americans that they are the victims of a plot,” abetted by a “soft political elite in Washington.” The idea that the government is forcing people to live closer to each other (as opposed to the idea that it’s impractical to keep pushing houses farther and farther from where people work and shop) is in line with such imagined plots as gun confiscation and government-ordered “death panels.”
Kotkin does not mention an international leader who has recently had something to say about housing development and its effect on the world’s climate. In the encyclical “Laudato Si,” published in June, Pope Francis warned that “our common home is falling into serious disrepair” and “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” precisely because so many of us pursue bigger homes and more consumer goods without regard to their effects on the environment and on the equitable distribution of resources. Smart-growth advocates have cheered the pope, with the Washington Post’s Emily Badger citing “Laudato Si” in support of the argument that “Architects, designers and urban planners have a moral obligation to care about more than what their creations look like.”
Badger also quotes from the encyclical: “It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others.”
The idea that one has a moral obligation to live as part of a larger community, in space shared with others, is antithetical to Kotkin’s argument that nothing—not environmental considerations, not attempts to reverse increasing economic segregation—should interfere with the housing industry’s preference for bigger and bigger homes spaced farther and farther apart. He is correct that this is a clash with major implications for American politics.