As a person who has always considered the City of Milwaukee to be home, I find Craig Gilbert’s ongoing study of political polarization in the metropolitan area to be both thorough and illuminating. His research indicates that when it comes to Republican and Democratic voting patterns, the area has become more polarized than any area outside of the American South. What’s more, the political polarization very strikingly correlates with race, ethnicity, education, and population density. Republican voters reside largely in middle and upper-class suburbs in Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties, while the impoverished and working poor reside and vote in the City of Milwaukee’s Democratic inner-city.
When we reflect on what has come to be, it is important that we not take the polarization to be simply a naturally occurring phenomenon and thereby overlook the political agency involved, that is, the way some socio-economic groups attempt to contain and control other socio-economic groups. Polarization has taken place in part because local and state governments have used law and legal arrangements to push socio-economic groups apart, to assign poorer citizens to certain areas, and to reduce the clout of these citizens at the polls.
This effort dates back to the decades following World War II when local suburbs tolerated and sometimes encouraged the use of racially restrictive covenants. Researchers have found racially restrictive covenants in sixteen out of eighteen suburbs in Milwaukee County. In Wauwatosa, a suburb immediately to the west of the City of Milwaukee, 51 subdivisions comprising one-third of the suburb’s land prohibited African Americans from renting and buying property. The covenants in Milwaukee County remained important through the 1970s, and, as a result, the African American population moved and expanded primarily along a vector running northwest from the original inner-city to the County line, always within the City limits.
In the present, the enforcement of such racially restrictive covenants is unconstitutional, but suburbs can keep out people they take to be undesirable through exclusionary zoning. Such zoning cannot explicitly invoke race, but it can make it difficult for the urban poor to locate affordable housing in the suburbs. Exclusionary zoning is not common in older, fully developed suburbs such as West Milwaukee or Shorewood, but newer “second-ring” suburbs can and do use zoning designations related to lot size, number of bedrooms, and so forth to prevent the construction of inexpensive rental housing of the sort the poor might be able to afford. As a result, they have no choice but to remain in the inner-city.
Not to be outdone, the state government in recent years has taken steps to allow more affluent potential Republican voters to move to certain areas while in the process leaving poorer Democrats even more concentrated in other areas. One recent legal change, for example, eliminated the requirement that City of Milwaukee employees live within the municipality. This sprung middle-class employees from the City that issues their paychecks. Republican Governor Walker was the greatest champion of the change. He hails from the suburbs to the west of the City and of course relies on the huge turn-outs of white Republican suburbanites in Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee Counties at election time.
My general point is that what at first glance looks like polarization starts to look with further reflection like social control. For decades, white middle and upper-class suburbanites have been sealing off their communities and consigning the poor and working poor to the inner-city. To quote the Italian leftist and highly regarding political theorist Antonio Gramsci, “Bourgeois hegemony is not automatic but rather achieved through conscious political action and organization.”
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.