SUBURBIA DEFENDED. Yesterday, TAPPED contributor Ben Adler ended a post on the minutemen with a bizarrely digressive shot at suburbanites. "That kind of selfish mentality -- our public schools are only for rich, healthy students -- is lamentably common in suburbia." Is it truly? Ben has not, to my knowledge, ever lived in a suburban community, so his anecdotal evidence cannot claim a wide sample. More to the point, Ben is a close friend of mine, and I well know the raging contempt the proud Brooklynite holds for the landscaped tracts that I grew up in. We've all got our quirks, I guess. But his assumption of suburban selfishness is not a rare strain in progressive thought, and so it deserves to be questioned a bit.
The simplest test would be to compare the percentage of total education funds devoted to special ed in urban and suburban districts. My hunch, having lived in Orange County as well as D.C. and L.A., is that the conservative crazies in Fountain Valley's fallout shelters are nevertheless more generous to those with special needs. But my opinion is not a relevant data point and, since I rarely wonk out over education, I'm not entirely sure how to track down the relevant numbers. Those with more expertise are invited to help out.
What we can do is dive into some opinion data to see if the selfishness Ben ascribes to suburbanites actually finds genuine expression in their ranks. Here I'll rely on Ruy Teixeira's report, "The Next Frontier: A New Study of Exurbia." As Teixeira convincingly argues, Democrats can't sacrifice the suburbs for the cities. Cities haven't grown at a faster rate than suburban areas since the 1940s, and in 2000, suburban residents had reached a full 50 percent of the nation, while urban dwellers were under a third. So on a purely calculating level, assuming churlish self-interest against 50 percent of the country may not prove the wisest course.
Happily, it's also wrong. Tim Kaine's 2005 victory largely came from increased performance in the Virginia suburbs and exurbs. Indeed, all over the country, mature and emerging suburbs (most political scientists break suburbs into five distinct classes) are trending Democratic, and doing so with such uniformity that the current has even reached my archconservative neighbors in Orange County (remember when Loretta Sanchez ousted Bob Dornan?). For a longer rundown of this trend, see this Virginia tech report on The New Metro Politics (PDF). It's simply no longer true that these rings are conservative entrenchments.
Political outcomes aside, the suburbs aren't as ideologically conservative as is often assumed. There is, to be sure, a skepticism around taxes. But polling data doesn't reveal anything particularly out of line with average attitudes. Recent polls in the Minnesota suburbs showed that "they overwhelmingly agreed that paying taxes was worth doing 'to make sure we have public schools, clean streets, public safety and a clean environment' rather than that those taxes were wasted due to government inefficiency and handouts. And they expressed particular support for the use of tax money for the public schools (the top choice), controlling health care costs and transportation infrastructure." Indeed, "emerging suburbanites strongly agreed that recent declines in the quality of life in Minnesota were 'because we don�t invest resources in our schools, the health care system or transportation infrastructure the way we used to' and strongly disagreed that life in Minnesota had improved because 'we don�t spend so much government money on programs that don�t work.'"
They don't sound so selfish to me. Indeed, they seem rather ready to pump up education spending, much of which goes to special programs (my own suburban high school had both a massive and well-run special ed division, and a sizeable deaf population, complete with publicly provided translators for classes