The Democratic take over of the State Senate in Virginia and Tim Kaine's victory in 2005 were due largely to Democratic gains in rapidly growing exurban counties in Northern Virginia. Some see this merely as the result of population growth, as more traditionally urban-based liberals have moved into formerly rural and conservative areas. Another popular attribution is that this is apart of the backlash against George Bush. There is certainly something to both of these points, but they fail to completely explain the turnaround.
What we are seeing isn't just some psychological shift - but a backlash. At the local level, where the rubber literally meets the road, Republicans have been in charge and have pursued conservative free market policies that have created increasing sprawl and increasing traffic that are directly impacting quality of life.
Most of the people in the exurbs moved there to get the post card
version of the "American Dream" - a large house, white picket fence,
and a three-car garage. These conservatives elected conservatives, not
just to national office, but to local office as well. As a result,
local conservative politicians supported uncontrolled growth policies,
and have resisted efforts to manage such growth.
But as these exurbans communities grow, tranquility ceases. More and
more sprawling communities are built and the existing transportation
infrastructure simply cannot cope. Traffic becomes a plague, commutes
into the city dramatically increase, and simple errands like driving to
the grocery store become a major hassle.
Now, many of these conservative exurban voters, formerly supportive of
local leaders favoring uncontrolled growth policies, are now desperate
for a more pro-active government to control growth. A large par of the
reason Tim Kaine, a man from Richmond, won conservative Loudoun county
in Northern Virginia, when Mark Warner from Alexandria in Northern
Virginia, did not, was due in large part to his focus on transportation
An LA Times story yesterday on the falling housing market
concluded that there was frustration in the exurbs as more and more
Republicans are claiming to be independents. One notable quote, "Every
house that's built out there raises my taxes," Schroeder fumed. "I
don't appreciate getting my assessment telling me that my house is
worth $500,000 and I'm paying taxes on that."
So how do progressives capitalize on these issues at the national level?
The difficulty is that uncontrolled growth is often a byproduct of a
lack of local coordination. Localities suffer from a kind of "race to
the bottom," where different counties or localities are unable to
institute growth control policies as a result of fear of losing
businesses and developers (and therefore revenue) to neighboring
localities that have more lax policies.
Basically, addressing traffic and sprawl is difficult to do on a
national level. However, creative ideas such as a national "smart
growth fund" - that would provide grants and assistance to localities
pursuing "smart growth" policies - could provide an important
incentive. One could even imagine seeing a bizarre coalition forming in
favor of smart growth policies, similar to environmentalists and gun
toting ranchers joining to support environmental policies out west. At
the very least, progressives on a national level should start talking
about these issues and tap into the seething discontent that is
starting to bubble to the surface.