We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Decline of Suburbia and Democratic Party Dominance

Since economically inefficient and socially stagnant nature of suburbia makes educated people flock to urban areas, Democratic party may become monolithic and dictatorial since elites are not as split anymore

United States is a huge country. That and favorable conditions led to an early and advanced car culture (Canada, Russia, China, Brazil had various restrictions stifling that, ranging from permafrost to outright ban on private property). The love for cars and the infrastructure that makes it possible has been a source of national pride for decades and brought envious glances from around the world. As much as smaller vehicles make sense in urban areas, anybody who has been to rural U.S. would immediately appreciate the benefits of increased horsepower and vehicles whose size would be considered military grade elsewhere in the Western world. When you take into account that most Americans lost their virginity inside cars, the psychological obsession with motor vehicles begins to make sense. It's no wonder that road trips hold a special place in the national consciousness and that advertisements for cars overly utilize freedom and sex appeal compared to how cars are marketed elsewhere (for more on this, check out advertising guru Clotaire Rapaille's Culture Code).

However, the unfortunate side effect of Eisenhower administration's emulation of Germany's Autobahn (rather than large scale development of high speed public transit as in France or Japan) also allowed the whites to not live together with non-whites. Non-whites (and the poor in general) were subsequently never fully integrated into the national fabric since those better off could now move away from the poor into suburbia. Unlike the Soviets ( who attempted national integration with their colonial subjects through mass education) or the British/French (who were geographically separated from non-white subjects), white Americans found a way to solve their disinterest of getting along through mass movements into the suburbs for which there was plenty of space for.

It has been common knowledge for decades now among social policy experts that a mixing of different classes is good for society as a whole. For instance, over a third of Holland's people live in affordable public housing since once you qualify to move in, they don't kick you out if your income greatly increases. Many professionals of course remain to take advantage of the savings. Class polarization along geographic lines is thus greatly reduced. In United States, the subsidies to highways (and the resulting creation of suburbia) have done more than just rot inner cities, deteriorate food quality, and create fertile ground for South Africa-esque gated communities. They have set the ground for inevitable reversal of suburbias becoming slums due to the sheer economic and logistical inefficiencies of suburban construction in general.

Interestingly enough, the two party system was preserved as rural whites and the remaining urban whites (often cynically using racial politics to bolster electoral numbers and influence) were balanced numerically. However, in the last 20 years a number of the following factors began to create an imbalance:

1) More than half of people now living in urban areas than rural ones
2) More people deciding to remain single and not having children (diminishing appeal of creating a suburban nest
3) Increase in the amount of people renting rather than trying to buy a home (the "American dream" so far has been achieved by only 1/3 of the population with a third flat out rejecting it for urban living and a third either desperately trying or slowly converting to the urban dream. The recent housing bubble and collapse is by far the best evidence of this. It will hopefully create a proper national attitude readjustment concerning what dream to pursue and what mode of living to support and encourage with laws, regulations, and incentives. People who rent are increasingly seen as at least co-equal to home owners by politicians)
4) Increase in secularization of United States that leads to a view of small town residents as backward religionists
5) Globalization and de-industrialization of United States leading to reduction of opportunities for rural areas and increase in opportunities in Urban hubs
6) Rapid increase in college access (for at least majority of the whites) creating a stronger educated class that abhors small towns and where educated individuals try to move out.

Considering that the population of this country doubled over half a century, the suburbs had to expand or at least rise in price. The demand from educated whites could not be readily satisfied due to sheer physical and financial logistics.This of course resulted in white migrations into the Urban areas once again resulting in gradual change in urban political leadership (notice NYC under republican mayors), increase in infrastructure improvements for new migrants due to wealthier tax base, and corresponding millitarization of police. The drop in crime in major urban areas in last 15 years is not due to some role model efforts of a mean spirited former mayor and cracking down on squeegee men but by outright displacement of the poor from the urban areas.

Colonization of Brooklyn in areas such as Williamsburg is a fascinating example. Colonization as a term is not used lightly in this piece. First came the brave poor urban whites wanting to rent cheap space (much like the displacement of blacks from another further part of brooklyn, Brighton Beach, by Soviet immigrants for whom money was an issue). These individuals who would have otherwise preferred lower Manhattan:

1) could tolerate living next to minorities more than their more timid white counterparts from suburbia due to greater familiarity of the landscape
2) many were physiologically (ENFP, ESTP, ENTP psychological types most likely predominate the party scene at the edges of white settlements in Brooklyn) understimulated and were more free of the bonds of religion/tradition/ignorance

They used their newly acquired cheap habitats to throw wild parties and engage in large scale hedonism that would not be allowed in lower Manhattan. The contrast of educated hedonistic college graduates amidst populations of blacks with whom they had little in common slowly displacing previous residents through economics makes the term of colonization resonate. Of course once they settled the area, infrastructure improved from increase in tax revenue. This allowed other whites, older and more suburban to follow on their heels in increasing numbers. The L train connecting predominantly white lower Manhattan with Manhattan's expansion across the river is of course shiny and new.

The trend has interesting political implications. The political center rather than being split like before will move to the cities. It is unlikely that rural racist/religious will flip to being democrat again as in the 50s. The increase in  financial power of the cities and the influx of educated whites into the Democratic party creates a Democratic party that keeps growing stronger with time as the wealthiest 20-30% of population (who haven't fled abroad in search of employment) occupy what was once "inner cities". In effect, around some major cities the suburbia has moved into them. Long Island suburbia is thus creeping westward. Some cities perceived as unsalvagable like Detroit will be allowed to die and become decrepid shells like many Soviet cities now rotting in Siberia. Suburbia will not disappear of course and those too far away from cities will transform it into a more militarized gated community structure. Rise in gated communities in last 20 years illustrates this.

American cities will become more like France's, with immigrants and minorities being on the outskirts rather than the whites. This dynamic of the most powerful individuals dominating the political sphere from the urban areas will not escape the attention of non-white Americans for long. The tension within the newly powerful Democratic party and the imbalance of one party always setting the national agenda can be resolved in 2 scenarios.

A) Although we've seen rather pathetic recent attempts by the Republican party to re-assess their relationship with minorities, it is not impossible that they will transform themselves into a multi-ethnic political party years in the future and structure themselves more along economic populism. This would allow them to dominate numerically as white population declines below 50% in the 2020s and so on. If they do not do so then they will continue losing national election after election.

B) The uneducated/rural/religious and more blatantly racist core of the Republican party might not tolerate being part of a multiethnic construct and thus would not take into consideration a platform that attracts and integrates the minorities being driven from the cities. This will result in Republican party turning increasingly militant and radical and their continued failure at the national polls will shrink them into almost a third party status. At that point, non-whites disillusioned with situation in many urban areas (surely there will be some urban areas that integrate better with influx of education and resource redistribution) and the increasing radicalism of the Republicans can lead for a creation of a third party.
This is an open ended scenario that sees partial disintegration of Republican rural/suburban political power through loss of voters to Democrats, Libertarians, crypto-Fascist conservatives and conceivably some Hispanic-black coalition that tries hard to attract some poor rural whites with populism. Many midwestern states will continue Republican dominance unchanged and would resort to rabid state's rights calls to insulate themselves from the influence of the Democratic center. However, without significant numbers in Congress, the efforts of Republican state governments will not go as far as hoped. No longer would they be able to rally rural whites against the cities as the cities will become increasingly white and wealthy. It is possible that libertarian ideology would prevail by default in large swaths of rural areas due to its non-redistributive nature, dog eat dog survivalist ethic, and thus potential to reduce public conflict (even while further alienating ethnic groups from one another). Private money from cities would then have unhindered influence.
(Sidenote: the above scenarios assume there is no national break up, constitutional reorganization, or civil violence. This article was originally written in May 2009 and things have deteriorated dramatically since then. As mentioned above, although rural Republicans are not likely to switch to Democratic party, it is possible that psychological association of executive branch with steep downward economic spiral will lead urban whites to GOP in 2010 elections. Although I continue to believe that democratic majority will be strengthened through election of more progressives, even if urban voters flock to GOP in the next congressional round, the Palin crypto-fascist faction should still split the GOP allowing continuation of Democratic national center.)

As of today, many Americans are distracted by the many troubles and pressures of international commitments and economic crisis to pay attention to United States taking many of the trappings of South American countries. Although the country is too big to have all of the elites concentrated in the cities, their increase in globalized urban hubs will, for the first time, create a concentration of corporate power behind one party. Urban areas are also easier to defend and logistics of food transport become streamlined. The Democratic party could very well resort to empty promises of equality, progress, social responsibility, and every man woman and child needing an education to preserve an image of a multi-ethnic construct. Reality on the ground however will make it easy for it to not fulfill any of the promises. The great educational gaps between the races, lack of national ethnic integration, the backwardness and biases of southern evangelicals will make it hard for people to hold Democrats accountable. After a while it could very well be that the Democratic party will stop pretending about whose interests it defends and having shed American international commitments abroad (and promises to spread freedom and equality), United States would transform into a Brazil-esque entity. Decadent hedonistic urban individualism with vast swaths of the rural population left behind (even more so than before if that can be imagined). White flight is a radical concept and a symptom of a rotting nation without national unity (last time we saw white flight was in post-colonial spaces such as Africa and Central Asia where Russians found it intolerable to live with one formerly dominated group but found it easier to remain within the Baltic space where they are hated perhaps even more).

Solutions to this are few and they have to be relatively radical:

1) Rapid shedding of our imperial ambitions and commitments abroad to save money to dump into infrastructure rather than acceleration of Soviet type decline and rot due to the executive being browbeat by military leadership
2) Utilizing the Internet to augment education ( and thus bypass some of the gridlock for education reform) to provide Hispanic and black children a nationally standardized pre-K to High School materials that can be taught at home 
3) Voting restructuring to allow a more proportional representation in congress. Our government is too weak and divided to make major changes even under a committed intellectual like Obama. Hopefully, he isn't our version of Tony Blair. His stand on Afghanistan tomorrow will reveal a lot about the nature of his character. Major surge in Afghanistan will demonstrate a fundamentally weak character and the specifics of the possible surge will show the current strength and ideological orientation [nationalist/internationalist] of military leadership

Internet as it stands now is not enough to create a common culture for Americans. However if nothing radical is done and south-American style impudent corporate power begins to finally rule with the backing of a relatively homogeneous cultural/political group of elites and their white educated supporters (undivided as they were last few decades) then social tension will continue to increase. Then we will have education provided more forcefully years from now by an American version of Hugo Chavez. The experience of Brazil has shown that a large multi-ethnic country becomes dictatorial once their oligarchs and the educated begin to cluster in urban cosmopolitan hubs. It may sound silly now with Obama's troubles to think that Democratic party can become so monolithic but in the absence of a national split up into smaller federal unions, this scenario is not out of the question. Many countries in the Western hemisphere (notably Cuba and Brazil) provide valuable information as to what can occur.

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