Book Review:

American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality By Myron Orfield. The Brookings Institution Press, 210 pages, $29.95

Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century
By Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom. University of Kansas Press, 349 pages, $15.95

Who among us -- and I think you'll know who I mean by "us" -- has not grappled with some of the following thoughts in the last couple of years, probably more times than we even cared to? If it weren't for Missouri ... if just 21,000 had voted differently in West Virginia ... if not for that hapless Theresa LePore ... .

Maybe the desire to engage in that sort of Monday-morning quarterbacking has dissipated with the passage of time -- though in many cases I know of, time and even the events of September 11 have done little to douse the flames of outrage over the way things turned out. And more interesting than the frequency of such retrospection is its nature. That is to say, when we look back on the last presidential election and ponder the what-ifs, we tend to do so on the level of micropolitics: a few votes here, one more campaign stop there, just four more electoral-college votes. Far less time and energy have been devoted to the larger questions of message and vision, of what Al Gore and the Democratic Party actually stood for two years ago.

This is understandable: The manner in which the incumbent came to occupy the White House lends itself more readily to the inspection of small things than large ones. But the danger of keeping the analysis fixed on the small things is that it presumes that the large questions either don't need a systematic addressing or will somehow manage to take care of themselves. It should be obvious to Democrats and to liberals that, while party operatives certainly need to pay more attention to the details next time around -- aggressive absentee ballot operations, anyone? -- the bigger question of what and whom the party stands for needs a healthy injection of imagination.

Although the authors don't exactly put it this way, American Metropolitics and Place Matters are academic attempts to address both the small and the large problems by focusing on that shifting and enigmatic electoral battleground known as the suburbs. There is little doubt that the suburbs, by dint of numbers, are the battleground: In the 2000 presidential election, more than 50 percent of all votes were cast there. And there is little doubt that as suburban voters go, so go presidential elections. Mostly Democratic for generations, suburban voters went Republican in Richard Nixon's time and swung back to the Democrats under Bill Clinton. In 2000, they pulled for George W. Bush over Gore by 49 percent to 47 percent.

That narrow defeat for Gore became one of the most pondered what-ifs of the campaign. You might recall that after Bush was sworn in, the Democrats (and their pollsters in particular) had a spat over whether Gore lost because he spent the fall dancing away from the populist rhetoric that had given him his post-convention bounce (the liberal, Stan Greenberg school) or because he went too populist, failing to capture enough of the suburban swing voters whom centrist pollster Mark Penn has identified in clusters so discrete that he sometimes sounds as if he is describing genera of beetles (office-park dads, apparently, are the new soccer moms).

When I say that the authors don't exactly put it this way, I mean that Myron Orfield, a Minnesota Democratic (or Democrat-Farm-Labor) state senator and the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation, and Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom -- academics at, respectively, Occidental College, the City University of New York and Saint Louis University -- don't spend a great deal of time in these books discussing presidential politics per se. Rather, the authors chronicle shifting suburban demographics: growth and wealth patterns that defy the received ideas about suburbs, problems of regional competition and the need to forge regional alliances, and, of course, sprawl. Implicit in these themes, and of greatest interest to the average reader, is the suggestion that a suburban-urban coalition could transform first local politics and, ultimately, national politics. (By "transform" these authors mean liberalize, though they're shy about using the word.) Both books attempt to make that case on the micro level, by patching together numerical coalitions, and on the macro level, by arguing for visionary policies of regional cooperation that go beyond anything tried so far and that transcend the age-old urban-suburban chasms and resentments. As the authors of Place Matters put it:

Democrats can clearly construct a central city-suburban alliance around a program of actively promoting the middle-class (read suburban) quality of life. This is not to say, however, that the Clinton administration cemented such an electoral coalition any more effectively than previous Republican presidents had consolidated a rural-small town–suburban alliance. The Clinton administration's approach relied on an ad hoc collection of policies designed to appeal to specific urban and suburban constituencies, not on synthesizing the interests of urban and suburban voters through the sort of policy agenda recommended here.

Sounds good. On the other hand, said synthesis is more easily achieved on the printed page than in the actual world.

But before they get to the solutions, the authors lay out -- with a thoroughness that could be called exceeding -- the problem. Both books follow the same basic tripartite formula. The opening chapters are devoted to a discussion of what we might call the new suburban reality and its attendant challenges. A second section discusses policies that could address these problems. The concluding chapters of both books, with different degrees of credibility, take up the question of just how such policies might be pursued in the political realm.

Both books are on their firmest footing when they are telling us exactly what the suburbs are today, and why. Here the authors hack away at myths or misperceptions in a useful and historically thorough way. Orfield notes, for example, that the "prototypical suburb" of legend -- neat homes, adequate service-delivery, a stable tax base, self-supporting -- in fact accounts for only about one-third of the country's suburban population. Much of the other two-thirds suffer from disparate but nevertheless pressing problems. On the one extreme are older, "at-risk" suburbs, which have been built up for some time, have no room to grow and have now begun to experience some of the problems that inner cities know so well, such as crime, declining property values, job flight and so on. (If you live in or around New York City, you are familiar enough with this sort of suburb -- a fetid and unsightly warren that seems to have the worst of both worlds.) At the other end are the outer-ring, newer suburbs, which are so rich that they scarcely know how to deal with their good fortune. They have a tax base and their own central "city," as it were, and most of all they have room, room, room on which developers want to build, build, build.

On the plus side of the ledger, these striations prove that the suburbs are much more diverse, racially and otherwise, than most urbanites assume them to be. The downside, as one might imagine, consists of diversity's common companions -- division, competition, resentment and the like. "The gap," note the authors of Place Matters, "between rich and poor suburbs is widening." Some suburbs, inner-ring ones that have de-industrialized and lost their commercial tax base over the years, actually declined faster than their central cities, according to one study the Place Matters authors cite. The wealthier suburbs fear the poorer ones, the poorer ones have no political power to speak of, and the ones in the middle are just fighting to stay above water. And despite the fact that these suburbs share certain services (highways, transit) and depend, to some extent, on the collective health of all for a region to thrive, not much energy goes into developing the kind of coordinated, regional policies and planning that might stand a chance of benefiting all.

And so both books move to part two, laying out the case for regionalism -- for governmental frameworks, public authorities, even new legislative bodies that operate from a regional perspective in which the viewpoints and interests of many different communities are represented at one table. The Place Matters authors argue that regionalism can bring economic, environmental and fiscal advantages to all communities. They do feel compelled to note, however, in a quick survey of regional experimentation in New York, Los Angeles and St. Louis, that "regional cooperation is restricted to a few specific functions," and that "these regions have difficulty coordinating even simple functions" such as train schedules. Orfield tries to strike a more upbeat note. American Metropolitics is his second book on the topic and, for a textbook, it waxes rather messianic. Citing a Minneapolis–St. Paul program that redistributes a portion of various area municipalities' revenue, earmarking the money for inclusion in a regional pool, Orfeld posits that it's possible for diverse communities to recognize their common interest and band together.

Who can argue with the goal? These and virtually all the other suggestions in the books, from land-use reform to greater equity in social services, sound wonderful. The question is one of viability. The Twin Cities program that Orfield cites was passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1971. That was the era of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, of revenue sharing, of legislation pushed by Nixon (lest we forget!) that would have guaranteed a minimum family income. And, we might add, that was Minnesota.

Things are obviously much different now. It's true that voters in many municipalities support referenda aiming to contain sprawl, but that vote is chiefly a self-interested one: People hope that by reining in sprawl they'll have to deal with less traffic. There's not much evidence to suggest that voters anywhere are ready to look beyond their immediate needs and vote, on the basis of a longer-term, communal need, for measures that can easily be smeared by opponents as just one more layer of government or as aggressively redistributionist. A greater commitment to localities from state governments also seems a reach. State governments everywhere are squeezed, partly as a result of the Bush tax cut, partly because of their own tax cuts, which have only exacerbated the problem of disparities in local property tax rates. County governments are often feeling the pinch as well.

These circumstances make for an extremely complicated set of real-world politics in regions that don't easily accommodate broad regionalist solutions. In New York, for example, historically wealthy Nassau County is broke. It's being run now by a Democratic county legislature, for only the second time in a century. You might think that such a Democratic body would be more inclined than a Republican one to seek some of the regional solutions these books call for. But the reality is much messier: Democrats have only a one-seat majority on the county board, so they have to proceed cautiously; and the bailout plan they have put together will ultimately need the approval of Gov. George Pataki, a Republican who is likely to win re-election this year. Even in his current centrist incarnation, Pataki is unlikely to agree to zap voters in one of the state's most Republican large counties with any new regulatory schemes or tax increases.

Finally, if anything, it seems that there is at least as much momentum today for atomization as there is for regionalization. There was, or still is, depending on whom you speak to, a secession movement in Washington, D.C., where the wealthier wards want to abandon the poorer ones. A secession movement in Los Angeles operates along similar lines. In New York, Staten Islanders voted in 1993 to secede from New York City, and only the congenial presence of Republicans in City Hall has kept the island from pursuing its independence in any serious way. Neither book takes these movements much into account.

Of the two, Orfield's is somewhat more realistic about such dynamics. He argues that a coalition of urban voters and suburban voters from the "low-capacity," at-risk suburbs is the Democrats' best hope. One might argue that such a coalition exists, de facto, already; after all, Al Gore got that 47 percent of the suburban vote from somewhere. But one is at least impressed by the proposal's modesty, and therefore its possibility.

Which brings us back to where we started. The enthusiasm in these books for the small changes is sound enough. Dreier, Mollenkopf and Swanstrom may be right to assert that "the development of new metropolitan approaches to old urban problems has never been more squarely on the agenda of the nation's policy intellectuals," and that "smart growth" ideas have certainly taken root with both Democrats and Republicans in certain locales. Lots of small things are happening around the country, as documented in both these books, that are improving local quality of life and shifting electoral coalitions at the margins. But none of this amounts to a movement that is visionary, feasible or capable of changing the face of national politics.

One suspects that the advances these authors seek will someday occur, but they will do so very slowly over time, not as a result of ideology but as a result of a sort of anthropobiological, Darwinian necessity: Someday, somewhere, some moment of crisis will demonstrate to the various communities of a particular region that they need to speak to Albany, N.Y., or Sacramento, Calif., or Harrisburg, Pa., or Washington, D.C., with one voice. And that necessity strikes me as likely to be driven by self-interest. There is a way in which both these books reflect a larger problem of contemporary liberalism, in that they implicitly regard self-interest as a bad thing that communities must somehow simply see the light and discard in favor of common interest. Selfishness is bad; self-interest is perfectly all right and to be expected. Both books would have made a stronger case for change with a clearer recognition that this is so, and with a strategy for convincing communities that the common interest actually is in their self-interest.

Place Matters and American Metropolitics succeed nicely in laying the academic groundwork for that moment, and they will take their place, along with Orfield's first book (called just Metropolitics), as useful bricks in the wall of reform. As exhortations to a plan for action, however, they are of far less use.