The Battle for the Suburbs

President Trump waving to supporters after a reelection campaign rally, Montoursville, Pennsylvania, May 2019
Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Trump waving to supporters after a reelection campaign rally, Montoursville, Pennsylvania, May 2019

Cities dominate cultural life and the economy no less today than they have for centuries. They are still the principal centers of intellectual ferment, artistic creativity, and social innovation despite the decentralizing potential of the Internet. In fact, while rural areas and small towns have been stagnant and declining in recent decades, economic growth has become even more concentrated in large cities that can satisfy the demand for highly educated workers. If political power simply followed economic dynamism, the surging metropolises of the global economy—like cities at the heart of empires and nations in the past—would now be the dominant force in government.

But the reality in the United States is exactly the opposite. As Jonathan Rodden explains in Why Cities Lose, urban interests are systemically underrepresented in state legislatures and Congress. With Democrats clustered in cities, Republicans often win legislative majorities despite losing the overall popular vote. Conservative parties benefit from the same pattern in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, where the left’s vote is also concentrated in cities. There, too, conservatives tend to win a larger share of legislative seats than of votes, sometimes enough to form a government even though the main opposition party has won more votes. The reasons why cities lose are therefore often the reasons why the left loses too.

Democrats are painfully aware that they face institutional disadvantages in American politics. Republicans have won the presidency in the Electoral College twice in the past two decades despite losing the popular vote. Since the Senate overrepresents rural, relatively conservative states, it too now favors Republicans: “Democrats have won more votes than Republicans in elections for eleven of the fifteen Senates since 1990,” Rodden notes, “but they have only held a majority of seats on six occasions.”

What is less widely understood is that Democrats also face a structural disadvantage in the House of Representatives and many state legislatures. In 2012, despite receiving 1.4 million more votes in House races than Republicans, Democrats won only 45 percent of House seats; that same year, Democratic candidates in Michigan received 54 percent of the vote but only 46 percent of the seats in the Michigan house and 42 percent in the state senate. The conventional explanation for these and other disparities is partisan gerrymandering, which unquestionably has exacerbated the Democrats’ problems since 2010, when Republicans won control of many state legislatures and then redrew district lines in their own favor.

Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford, shows convincingly, however, that Democrats would be at a disadvantage even if partisan gerrymandering were abolished. Neutral computer simulations still tend to give Democrats a smaller share of seats than Republicans would receive with the same share of votes.…

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