At the end of last week, a fascinating mini-meme broke out in the political blogosphere’s brainier precincts: a left-right convergence on the subject of urban sprawl.
The proximate cause was a typically deep-thinking broadside from ABC News’ resident libertarian goofball, John Stossel, in which this living tribute to ‘80s porn fashion blasted “smart growth” and extolled endless suburbia. I can’t find the appropriate Stosselian link, but I think we can summarize: Free market…elitism…social engineering…free market…live how I choose…American dream…did we mention the free market?…et cetera.
Anyone who follows this delightful issue has seen the like about a million times, from sources ranging from John Tierney’s ponderous NYT Mag encomium to the expressway to Portland’s own professional property-rights talking shop, the Cascade Policy Institute. The “libertarian” conception of sprawl as an organic manifestation of America’s free-living mercantile zest (rather than a byproduct of massive Big Gub’mint regulations and subsidies) dies hard.
In this case, bloggish reactions came swiftly. Of course, everyone would expect a geeky liberal like Matthew Yglesias to rush to high-density zoning’s defense. And so he did. The more intriguing responses came from a few clicks to the right. My True/Slant colleague E.D. Kain brought the hammer down with particular force:
…zoning and central planning is the culprit when if comes to urban sprawl. I think this issue rests at the heart of what went wrong with conservativism…I believe that the death of Burkean conservativism and the rise of this hyper-ideological movement conservativism has many roots, but one important and oft-overlooked one is this modern American landscape of sprawl and steel, of suburbs and hour-long commutes, of strip-malls and vast concrete scissures.
Over at The American Conservative, Austin Bramwell echoed Yglesias, in his own way, in a link-heavy salvo well worth clicking through:
For the 101st time: sprawl—an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States—is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations…If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.
This analysis—in which, if I may make my own extrapolation from what I think Kain and Bramwell are getting at, sprawl is just another symptom of community-destroying, tradition-eroding liberal materialism, and a root cause of right-wing distemper—seems most at home among what you might call the blogosphere’s introspective conservatives. Within this loose constellation of writers, the word “Burkean,” as per Kain, looms large; philosophy matters; and a sort of tweedy wistfulness about modernity’s discontents tends to prevail. I would put ur-crunchy con Rod Dreher in this camp, as well as the Times’ charming (if often super-weird) Ross Douthat and just about everyone who writes for The American Conservative. David Brooks flirts with this kind of stuff in his more soulful mode, as does Andrew Sullivan—though Sullivan, of course, contains multitudes.
True, these writers hardly find themselves at the white-hot center of the current “conservative” resurgence—but that’s a good thing. As a bike-riding, organic-egg-loving Portland nerd, I can find some common ground with these dudes. I wish the American electoral system provided an opening for a radical-localist, anti-corporate small government party composed of neck-bearded Tolkein fans—hell, I might even vote for such a party from time to time. (I wrote about the rough British equivalent to this alternative tendency, the Red Tory tradition, for Good last year.) In the absence of such an opportunity, these thoughtful characters must revert to their habit of staring into the middle distance and talking about Michael Oakeshott every time the Republican Party suffers one of its frequent hormonal imbalances.
Or—maybe not? Could last week’s minor alignment over shared hatred of stripmalls point the way to a practical, issue-oriented rapprochement, to use a French term, between some segments of our nominal left and right?
At the moment, sprawl is not a top-tier national political concern, sharing its obscurity with urban policy in general. (I’ve been disappointed that Obama’s campaign-trail talk about a new vision for “metropolitan policy,” and his early establishment of a White House office on urban affairs, have not so far yielded much.) But you never know. A major transportation reauthorization is due from Congress soon, and some creative ideas are percolating in that area, inviting bipartisan support. As far as the issue’s broader potential goes, some current Oregon affairs are at least suggestive.
Oregon adopted the nation’s most comprehensive land-use and anti-sprawl (or, as I suggested in another recent article for Good, “slow sprawl”) laws back in the 1970s. The original, landmark legislation resulted from a collaboration between a renegade Republican governor and a Democrat-heavy legislature. Even today, as this Oregonian article reports, the entwined issues of urban growth and agricultural preservation can forge alliances between “conservative” farmers and “liberal” environmentalists.
I don’t know if this adds up to much. But perhaps the old saying that all ideology is false is especially true when one is standing in a Chili’s parking lot.