How political parties decide to make an issue their own is a mystery to most of us. One day a party is peaceably protesting tax increases. The next, its guns are drawn, sometimes quite literally, in protest of abortion clinics.
The reasons why are many. Sometimes a powerful coalition within a party will adopt a new position, and the party will change along with it. Such was the case with Democrats and trade. Organized labor groups were strong supporters of free trade until the early 1970s, when they became disillusioned with how few trade adjustment assistance requests were approved. When they flipped, Democratic elected officials flipped as well.
Other times, a party will change positions, or adopt new ones, because a group outside the traditional party structure builds so much power around an issue — think abortion and gun rights — that the party sees an opportunity to gain net voters by taking it on.
It appears that urban policy is now one of those issues.
A report released last week by the Center for American Progress Action Fund comes as pretty solid evidence that the Democratic Party — not elected officials narrowly, but the whole universe of think tanks, interest groups, donors and activists — is intent on incorporating urbanists into the party coalition.
While officially independent and nonpartisan, CAP is an outgrowth of the American Majority Institute, created in 2003 by many of the same former Democratic staffers who still populate the top ranks of its organizational chart. In practice, the think tank exists to develop policy for Democratic politicians and assist them with messaging support, in much the same role that the Heritage Foundation plays for Republicans.
The report makes key urbanist arguments for greater population density: Dense cities are greener than sprawling suburbs, and clusters of people and jobs are more productive and generate more economic wealth at higher densities. This isn’t exactly new territory for CAP. There were mentions of pro-density land use reforms in a 2008 report, and writer Matt Yglesias (now at Slate) hammered on urban issues when he wrote for CAP’s ThinkProgress blog between 2008 and 2011.
Still, a look back through CAP’s housing reports has focused primarily on finance and lending issues, and its environmental work has focused mainly on federal issues like carbon pricing, renewable energy incentives, water and public land policy.
Where previous CAP publications had nodded in the direction of density, the new report spells a few reforms out in detail, recommending cities rewrite zoning codes to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian and transit-friendly development. Authors Joel Rogers and Satya Rhodes-Conway of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy even go so far as to recommend reducing or eliminating minimum parking requirements and closing streets to create more open public space for pedestrians and cyclists.
One personal favorite for me was their endorsement of a change in tax code that would put the taxable value of property on land and not buildings, to encourage owners to develop vacant land. Rogers and Rhodes-Conway also recommend inclusionary zoning and other policies intended to increase the production of affordable housing.
The report is a companion piece to another report released last year. Taken together, the two speak to the progressive movement’s devolution in interest from federal policy issues down to state and local issues.
This shift is both pragmatic and logical. Divided party control of the federal government makes it difficult to pass laws, so bored advocates are looking for action elsewhere. It’s also the case that key policy levers that bear on ascendant progressive priorities like economic inequality are located at the state and local level. The metro-level focus also allows advocates to reach more people. Urban areas are home to 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 Census, which defines “urban” to include suburban areas as well.
Whether these recommendations appeal to most Democrats is an open question. At a panel discussion last week, CAP invited two mayors, Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh and Mark Kleinschmidt of Chapel Hill, N.C., both of whom seem intent on heeding the think tank’s recommendations and working within a national coalition of urbanist Democrats.
“Democratic municipal leaders have learned that many of the problems we face are common whether you represent a large city or a small city,” Peduto said in an interview.
Yet bringing the urbanist platform under the Democratic Party tent represents a new turn for a movement that strives to be seen as nonpartisan and welcoming to conservative figures like Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, who has popularized a fiscal conservative argument against suburban zoning regulations.
Still, CAP’s platform seems broadly compatible with the center-right sect of urbanism politics, once you get past the rhetorical style and issue framing pitched at progressive Democrats. Whether Democratics will ultimately incorporate center-right urbanists into the party by adopting their issue positions remains to be seen, but it’s an interesting play for a growing voting bloc that has developed its political power largely outside traditional party structures.
Jonathan Geeting is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, where he writes about land use and public space politics. His work appears at Next City, This Old City and Keystone Politics.