Joel Kotkin’s attack on Santorum for his politics rural resentment drew a puzzled response from Cap’n Transit. Although both Kotkin and Santorum are opposed to the kind of urbanism the Cap’n and I promote, their approaches are the exact opposites of each other. Kotkin represents America the growing; Santorum represents America the forgotten. The same distinction applies to people who are not so conservative, and people on the same side of it (for example, Kotkin, Richard Florida, and Thomas Friedman) have more in common with one another than they’d probably like to admit.
America the growing is an America that is working just fine as it is. It needs more growth because capitalism always does, but it has no huge problems that can’t be solved with just more ingenuity. Kotkin’s perfect America looks like Texas. It’s rich, it thrives on bigness, and it’s doing better economically than the national average. It’s also diverse and forward-looking: its best days are ahead of it. Perhaps it looks like the growing parts of the Great Plains, but there, too, his post critiquing Santorum emphasizes diversity. This is the same as Richard Florida’s vision, except that Florida prefers the growth of gentrified, liberal inner-urban neighborhoods; the only difference between Florida and Kotkin is that Kotkin’s preferred regions lag Florida’s in gentrification, and still have fast suburban growth.
America the forgotten is the exact opposite. Its best days were behind it, and it feels bypassed by recent trends, with resulting economic decline. When there’s nothing else to do, one can keep one’s own cultural traditions. Some politicians channel this to an anti-immigrant politic. Santorum has not, his Puerto Rico language gaffe aside, but instead chose to talk about religion, gay rights, and contraception, staking positions that are often far to the right of what is mainstream in most of the US.
The same forgotten appears in cities, only it takes different forms. The Wire and the books that went into it are about forgotten urban areas; David Simon says, “The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse.” Urban NIMBYism is essentially the same viewpoint, only it’s more middle-class or at least working-class: we have a functioning community, we’re under constant assault by the powerful and by outsiders, and we need to not change.
The booster mentality of the growing does not lend itself into that kind of analysis. It has not to my knowledge produced anything as scathing as The Wire, because it tells people that they are fine as they are, and do not need to change. It’s understandable when done to boost the self-esteem of people who have too little of it; but there’s a big difference between telling a woman with a BMI of 22 that she’s not fat, and telling the global upper middle class that everything is great. It’s the death of social analysis.
As a result, this view ignores social problems until after they’ve been solved – for example, the environmental problems of today, as opposed to those that have been improving over the lat few decades. It’s unmistakable in Thomas Friedman: for example, in The World is Flat, writing about some social problems caused by the entry of Wal-Mart into regions, he says he was pleasantly surprised by the Wal-Mart executives for taking those problems very seriously and planning to address them. Of course Wal-Mart is still swatting down discrimination lawsuits and still plays towns against each other. Or, again with Friedman, consider his use of the language, “Win, win, win, win, win” about gas taxes. The point is not that he supports high gas taxes; it’s that to him such policies are obvious solutions, which nobody but special interests opposes. The fact that those special interests are fighting for their political survival does not concern him; he does not think he needs to be persuasive to people who buy gas, to explain to them why they’d be better off in a society where everyone thought of themselves as part of a common general interest rather than in one where everyone thought of themselves as part of a special interest.
Friedman is more stereotypical than Kotkin and Florida, but the difference between them is one of degree rather than kind. Florida ignores the very real economic tradeoffs a city must make when staking development strategy. No worries, he tells the business class: just be hip and trendy and don’t worry and you’ll succeed. Kotkin believes in a very different strategy, but sells it the same way, grasping at straws to convince people that they should just avoid megacities and density for every possible reason.
Of course, the knockers and the forgotten have their own set of problems, coming from xenophobia and fear of change. They, too, sometimes think things are fine as they are, or even more so as they used to be, and this leads to romanticism, which ironically can then set the stage for boosterism of another sort. The best antidote to some of the social philosophy behind The Wire is Mad Men: in the era David Simon admires, things were still bad, setting the stage for the destruction of today. But at least it can be done right, even if not by Santorum and other reactionaries.