The nation’s largest cities and metropolitan areas — home to a majority of Democratic voters — are at the forefront of the party’s most vexing racial, ethnic and class conflicts.
In an essay for CityLab, Richard Florida, a professor of urban planning at the University of Toronto, described how housing costs are driving the growing division between upwardly and downwardly mobile populations within Democratic ranks:
“The rise in housing inequality brings us face to face with a central paradox of today’s increasingly urbanized form of capitalism. The clustering of talent, industry, investment, and other economic assets in small parts of cities and metropolitan areas is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers.”
Allies on Election Day, the two wings of the Democratic Party are growing further estranged in other aspects of their lives, driven apart by the movement of advantaged and disadvantaged populations within and between cities. These demographic patterns exacerbate intraparty tensions.
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The competition for housing between rich and poor has become a critically important and divisive issue in urban America. “The state of housing affordability in the expensive coastal metros is driving a wedge between two factions of the American left,” Issi Romem, a fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email to me.
In a paper published earlier this month, “Characteristics of Domestic Cross-Metropolitan Migrants,” Romem looked at the income and education levels of families moving in and out of 441 metropolitan areas. He found that Domestic migration across U.S. metropolitan areas is selective: in-migrants to expensive metros tend to have higher incomes and educational attainment than out-migrants, while the opposite is true in the least expensive metros. This pattern contributes to the process of polarization across U.S. metros.
“Gentrification in the Bay Area, Portland and Seattle,” Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, told me in an email, “is definitely pushing disadvantaged populations out of old neighborhoods and into far-flung exurbs.”
Upscale liberal whites “who consider themselves committed to racial justice” tend to be “NIMBYists when it comes to their neighborhoods,” Cain wrote, “not living up to their affordable housing commitments and resisting apartment density around mass transportation stops.”
“One of the key problems of the information/digital economy,” according to Cain, “is that it thrives under conditions of amassing large concentrations of human and financial capital, which results in these homogeneous bubbles. It doesn’t help that many of the tech workers are not as inclined to be good neighbors.”
The trends Cain cites are part of a nationwide shift. From the 1960s and 1970s to 2000, Florida pointed out by email, the basic pattern was “blacks were moving into and staying in cities, and whites were moving out. But in the period since 2000, and earlier than that for very successful cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., and Seattle, affluent white highly educated people begin to move in, and less educated whites and particularly less educated and less affluent blacks begin moving out.”
A heated conflict has erupted within Democratic ranks in California over pending legislation (SB 827) that would override local zoning laws to allow developers to exceed height and density limits in return for an agreement to include more affordable housing units near transit hubs.
In very liberal Marin County (Clinton 77.3 percent, Trump 15.5 percent, median household income $100,310), elected officials of at least seven local municipalities have voted to oppose the legislation. After overwhelmingly Democratic City Councils along the California coast voted to oppose the legislation, the Democratic State Senate killed the bill.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, predicted the potential political developments of this situation in an article in March 2016:
Over the next decade or so, the Republicans will split between their growing nationalist-populist wing and their business establishment wing, a split that the nationalist-populist wing will eventually win. The Democrats will face a similar split between the increasingly pro-corporate but socially liberal Clinton wing and a more economically progressive Sanders wing, a split that the Clinton wing will eventually win.
The outcome? The Democrats will become the party of urban cosmopolitan business liberalism, and the Republicans will become the party of suburban and rural nationalist populism.