It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of social democracy. People give any number of reasons for it, some suggesting it can be reversed in some ways, but some more skeptical. Branko Milanovic brings up the change in the nature of work from manufacturing with interchangeable workers within one plant to services with fractionalized workers often working remotely as an economic cause of the decline of unions.
Public transportation is sufficiently close to social democracy that it’s important to ask where it’s going politically, if SPD is slipping to third in the polls, PS is irrelevant, the most exciting Democrats are left-populists, etc. YIMBYism can go anywhere politically, but in practice it’s an anti-populist neoliberal policy, affected by the same trends that hollow out social democracy. Fortunately, both issues have a strong likelihood of surviving the decline of the traditional party system with its bosses vs. workers divisions. My goal is to explain why I believe so, and where support for urbanism and public transit will end up politically in the remainder of the century in developed countries.
Patterns of Democracy
In college I read Patterns of Democracy, a study by comparativist Arend Lijphart classifying the world’s stable democracies (including some third-world ones like India and Botswana) along two dimensions: majoritarian (i.e. two-party) vs. consensus-based (i.e. multiparty), and federal vs. unitary. It’s a book-length overview of the elements that go into each dimension, culminating in some regressions showing that majoritarian democracies are not more politically stable and do not economically overperform multiparty ones.
For the purposes of this post, the interesting part of the book is how it treats the various dimensions of partisan political debate within each country. The most popular analysis is one-dimensional left vs. right, followed by two-dimensional schemes separating economic and liberal vs. authoritarian issues (on the Internet, this is Political Compass). But Lijphart uses a seven-dimensional analysis (pp. 76-78), with each country only having at most three or four active at a time:
- Socioeconomic issues, by far the most common point of controversy within each democracy, including the usual left-right issues like tax rates, health, education, etc.
- Religious vs. secular issues, such as the role of religion in education, abortion rights in the US, or sectarian conflict in multisectarian states like Israel, India, and the Netherlands.
- Cultural-ethnic issues, which in most countries pit majority-group hegemony against multiculturalism, but can also include Belgian language politics or Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions in Israel.
- Urban vs. rural issues, such as farm aid.
- Regime support, historically the main cleave between social democratic and communist parties, and today the cleave between extreme right parties like the National Front and AfD (or individuals like Donald Trump) and hard right mainstream parties like Sarkozy and Wauquiez’s Republicans and CSU (or individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker).
- Foreign policy, for examples decolonization in postwar France and Britain and the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel.
- Post-materialist issues, including the environmental issues that underlie the New Left, representing the cleave between social democratic and green parties.
The decline of class-based politics
The crisis of social democracy that Milanovic and others observe is about the decline of class-based politics, pitting workers versus bosses, or the working class versus the middle class. Economic differences between mainstream parties are decreasing, to the point that grand coalitions (as in Germany) or de facto grand coalitions (such as the cordon sanitaire agreement in Sweden excluding the far right) are normalized, joined by an elite consensus that’s for the most part neoliberal. In their stead, the growing issue in salience in Lijphart’s classification is cultural-ethnic, incorporating the sectarian aspects of the religious-secular dimension, including immigration, multiculturalism, and various forms of racism.
However, it’s better to divide socioeconomic issues into issues that are class-based and issues that are not. The most familiar issues across the developed world today pit the rich against the poor: tax rates, health care, education, welfare, unions, labor regulations.
But a large number of issues divide people in different industries, with a fair degree of agreement between labor and capital within each industry. One such issue is the environment, on which oil executives and oil rig workers tend to vote the same way while executives at green tech or low-energy intensity companies and their workers tend to vote the other way. Another issue is free trade, where the battle lines today separate import-competing industries from exporters and industries that rely on a global supply chain (including finance). Historically, the Populist movement in turn-of-the-century America was rooted in farmers’ grievances, demanding free silver, which had little appeal to either the bourgeoisie or the urban working class, which channeled its disaffection into socialism instead. Thus the set of non-class-based economic issues should take over Lijphart’s urban-rural and postmodern dimensions.
Transportation as a politically contentious issue has always had one leg in rich vs. poor politics and one leg outside it. On the one hand, the poor generally use public transit more than the rich, and historically suburbanization in the US as well as the UK was fueled by middle-class flight from the city. On the other hand, the issue intersects with environmentalism and with urban-rural politics. Within cities, the differences often revolve around one’s job descriptions: people who need to drive for a living, such as plumbers and generally people who work outside the CBD, are more hostile to road diets than people who do not, who include both professional downtown workers and downtown service workers.
Non-class-based economic issues are not in any decline. On the contrary, the parties designed around them, including green parties and left-liberal parties (such as D66 or the Danish Social Liberal Party), are for the most part doing fine, taking refugees from declining social democratic parties. In the Schröder cabinet, it was the Greens who pushed for an increase in fuel taxes; support for transit over cars will survive whatever happens to the center-left.
The new class divide
While labor vs. capital is increasingly not a big political cleave in the developed world, other class cleaves are rising to take its place. Non-class-based economic issues pit different industries against one another, and often there’s no consistent pattern to who is on what side, and the same is true on non-economic issues. However, in a large number of cases, there is a consistent pattern, which can be approximated as liberal versus conservative, in the 19th century British sense.
In the case of YIMBYism, the debate over housing is really a fight between two elite classes. The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners. Moreover, the professional middle class tends to specifically come from globalized industries, drawing workers from all over, most famously tech in the Bay Area. This class has high labor income and low capital income as well as local social capital, which explains both YIMBYs’ indifference to preserving property values and preference for preemption laws disempowering local notables. Homeowners are the exact opposite: they tend to have high local property values and local social capital relative to their labor income, which means they favor restrictions on housing construction economically and a hyperlocal process in which they’re privileged participants politically.
For the most part, other non-economic issues correlate with the same cleave between the two elites. Middle-class newcomers are overwhelmingly attracted to production amenities of specific global industries (again, Bay Area tech, but also New York and London finance, Paris conglomerates, etc.), which benefit from free trade and have such diverse worker bases that they fall on the liberal side of most debates over immigration. They also tend to cluster in specific job centers, which are at least in principle serviceable by public transportation, leading to high transit ridership relative to income. The urban jobs that are most likely to require driving are local services, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who either were born in the city or immigrated so long ago that they are politically and socially equivalent to natives.
I bring up 19th-century Britain and not the US because Britain had an alignment between free trade, urban over rural interests, and internationalism in the Liberal Party, whereas in the US the Democrats were also the white supremacist party and (outside the Northeast) the agrarian party. But 19th century Europe fits the situation in the first world today between than the 19th century United States, which had free land (courtesy of the Indian Wars) and no real landed gentry apart from the antebellum Southern planter class.
So where are the poor?
If both sides of the debate over zoning and urban housing production are middle-class elites, then where is the working class? The answer is, nowhere. There are working-class organizations on the NIMBY side, such as tenant unions and community groups that try to extract maximum value from developers. There are also poor people on the YIMBY side: in the Houston zoning referendum the poor voted against zoning and the middle class voted for, with poor blacks voting the most strongly against zoning, and at a recent hearing in Brooklyn for a mixed high-rise project most whites spoke against the project and most nonwhites spoke in favor.
To the extent there’s a pattern, organized local groups of poor people and/or minorities are NIMBY and generally unreliable about public transit, but when it goes to ballot there is not much difference between how the poor and middle class vote. Organized local groups of the middle class aren’t any less NIMBY than organized low-income groups, but the middle class more readily dismisses local activists as crackpots and nincompoops. It matters that political activists with more talent and ambition than the typical king of a hill can advance to higher levels of government if they come from favored socioeconomic strata.
The situation with public transit remains profoundly different, because it really does maintain some class-based content. But in general transit cities, even flawed ones like New York, tend to have alignment between working- and middle-class organizations in favor of more investment, and then questions like congestion pricing, bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas cut across class lines and cleave people based on where they work and how they get there. In my Brooklyn bus redesign project, I expect allies to include the bus drivers’ union (the drivers are strong supporters of reforms speeding up buses, since they’d make their work safer and more comfortable) and middle-class reformers and opponents to include working- as well as middle-class drivers (since we’re going to propose stronger bus lane enforcement and street redesigns that prioritize buses). Overall drivers outearn transit riders, but the difference tends to be smaller in cities with even semi-decent public transportation than in places like Los Angeles, where transit is so bad that most riders are people too poor to afford a car.
The result is that it’s very easy on both sides to dismiss the other side as an elite fighting the working class, even in public transit (since a substantial segment of the working class really does drive, even though it’s a smaller segment than in the middle class). In reality, on non-class-based issues it’s hard for the poor to truly be relevant as political actors. In the bus redesign project the union has a voice, but the premise of this post is that the political power of unions is in decline; public transit just happens to be an industry that, owing to its Fordist layout, is unusually friendly to unionization, at least until driverless buses are deployed at scale.
In this context, people should avoid dismissing their opponents as rich. Both sides have vanguards that are mostly middle-class, with some rich people sprinkled around. It’s a fight between two elites, and the YIMBY elite has grounds to portray itself as superior to the NIMBY elite, as it’s defined by skilled professions rather than passive property income, but it’s still a privileged elite and not the poor.
Whither transit and urbanism?
I already see some evidence that support for mass transit and urban growth (which mostly, but not exclusively, means YIMBY) is concentrated in the segments that are underlying where left-liberalism is going. New Left parties, including center-left ones (i.e. D66 and the Danish Social Liberals), are fans of transit. Greens tend to have a small-is-beautiful mentality toward cities, but I believe that this will change soon as green parties become vehicles for more internationalist voters, just as these parties flipped last decade from euroskeptical to europhilic.
What this means is that transit and urbanism as politics are likely to remain important political issues and if anything grow in salience, as they play well to growing cleaves between urban and rural, or between international and local. Whatever happens to specific political parties, these issues will survive.