Tea Partiers See a Global Conspiracy in Local Planning Efforts

A recent feature in Mother Jones tells the story of a Tea Party conspiracy theory surrounding Smart Growth. We examine what this might mean in the coming years.

The logo looks terrible in hindsight. United Nations

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With the 111th Congress wrapping up sloppily, and the Livable Communities Act still shelved, as William Myers reported on here last week, it will be interesting to see how the Tea Party-heavy 112th Congress will deal with urban issues, if at all. A recent story in Mother Jones suggests that they won’t deal well at all.

Stephanie Mencimer wrote a feature last month about Tea Party conspiracy theories surrounding Smart Growth policies. In her words:

In the tea partiers’ dystopian vision, the increased density favored by planners to allow for better mass transit become compulsory “human habitation zones.” They warn of Americans being forcibly moved from their suburban dream homes into urban “hobbit homes” and required to give up their cars and instead—gasp!—take the bus to work. The enemies in this fight are hidden behind bland trade-association names like the American Planning Association or ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability).

Mencimer explains that many Tea Partiers point to a 1992 UN Resolution called Agenda 21 — which she notes does have a sinister sound to it — that calls for member nations to consider human activity’s impact on the environment, and to create plans for sustainability. Sounds reasonable enough, and relatively ineffectual. Agenda 21 hasn’t done much to curtail the onward march of suburban development in the states, which still managed to invade barren deserts in Arizona and kudzu-infested backwaters of Florida over the last couple of decades. Construction has slowed down now, as this mode of development has proved it is economically unsustainable, even if it hasn’t had to stand the test of higher petroleum costs.

The Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, while certainly wacky, is also interesting to consider as a demographics issue. As we know from demographic studies on the Tea Party, it is a well-off, relatively mainstream, and as this story demonstrates, a suburban set. They don’t like government intervention in the economy, but they do like Medicare and Social Security. They want low taxes and a reduced deficit. Some might say that the Tea Party’s platform contains some contradictions. It seems that they’re — like most people, really — willing to ignore those spending programs from which they benefit directly. The subsidization of suburbia is one of these beneficial spending programs, too. But the nature of this subsidy is so diffuse that it’s hard to point at directly — cheap petroleum, tax incentives for homeowners, DOT money that goes straight to highway funds, etc — so that it is now taken for granted, a mere part of the “American way of life” that only really existed for maybe two and a half decades following World War II.

What we now have is an arcane set of budgetary entitlements and subsidies that have become central to the American experience, by being invisible to most people. So, when there’s an 18-year-old plan to at least consider the impact of human settlement on the environment, it looks like a conspiracy to those who benefit directly from the subsidies, and believe them to be inalienable rights instead of a diffuse set of polices, which, by the way, have an averse effect on the environment, society, and economy of our nation. This whole conceit is summed up all to nicely by Florida’s American Dream Coalition, mentioned by Mencimer, who swear to protect mobility — specifically auto-mobility — and affordable homeownership, and by proxy, freedom. The three are seen as inextricably linked, even though most Americans didn’t own cars or homes until around the middle of the last century, and I doubt many Tea Partiers would suggest that Americans — well, white Americans anyway — weren’t free before 1945. But still, we have this bizarre conspiracy theory.

The ability to see a conspiracy in anything is a powerful rhetorical tool, for it precludes any conversation on the matter at hand. In a conspiracy theorist’s mind, any evidence counter to their theory is only evidence of how widespread the conspiracy really is. As Mencimer reports, these activists are invading town hall meetings and derailing local planning efforts as banal — and useful — as getting rid of cul-de-sacs in a county-wide master plan, or reduce traffic on state roads. But the boring language of planning has become more sinister in the Tea Party mind, apparently. Smart Growth has become Orwellian doublespeak; master plans have become Master Plans.

Most good planning efforts in recent years have been local, and they have had immense local support. Now that we have a friend at the top — an administration in office doing their best to cultivate this bottom-up policy innovation — it seems we have created an enemy at the bottom, willing to subvert reasonable planning efforts under the banner of freedom, cars, and ranch homes. As we hurtle towards a world population of 7 billion, one hopes this fad doesn’t last.

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