Anti-Urban Politics

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Americans looked proudly upon their great cities, but then, in the post-World War II decades, Americans started to see their cities as a problem. Small-town Americans and especially suburbanites increasingly took cities to have a different culture, one with troubling “urban” attitudes, styles, and ways of life.

In conjunction with seeing themselves as normal, decent, and law-abiding, self-styled “mainstream” Americans used the city as a negative reference point. The scholar Gerald Frug argues that mainstream Americans built and fortified their own collective identities by deploring the city. “In the resulting, socially polarized metropolitan setting representations of cities as ‘landscapes of fear’ and their residents as inherently threatening flourished.”

In Wisconsin’s current recall election, some of the political advertisements incorporate these anti-urban sentiments, especially with regard to Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city and most “urban” place. Milwaukee’s factory closings, unemployment figures, and high school graduation rates are underscored. And, as if he was responsible for deindustrialization and creation of a semi-permanent underclass, the Mayor is held responsible. Heaven forbid that the kind of people who live in and manage the city could take the reins of the state.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Nick Zales

    Slamming Milwaukee is popular among demagogues. Let’s not forget Tommy Thompson’s “stick it to Milwaukee” comment or that Scott Walker was Milwaukee County Executive. Slandering Milwaukee plays well in the sticks. However, if you look at the sticks, you will find rampant drug use, unemployment, crime, alcoholism and all the problems Milwaukee has in microcosm. We are all citizens of the same state. Slamming Milwaukee to achieve political ends is disgraceful. Even more disgraceful is how Madison folk live high on the hog off the taxpayers of Milwaukee while denouncing them at the same time.

  2. Terrence Berres

    One factor in that change of suburban attitudes locally might have been the city’s approach to annexation, for example under Arthur M. Werba, head of its annexation deparment in the 1920s. Looking back on that period in a February 4, 1940 article, Milwaukee Journal reporter Waller Wyrick wrote, “To Werba, Milwaukee had to expand or die. Hitler no more fervently sought ‘lebensraum’ for Germany than Werba more ‘living space’ for Milwaukee.”

  3. Nick Zales

    Terrence, thanks for the history lesson. Do you really believe what happened 72 years ago is relevant to the Milwaukee-bashing of the past decade? I don’t. I believe that scared people like to pick on other people. Milwaukee-bashing is an example of that. It is divisive and serves no purpose other than making rural folk, in a twisted way, feel better about themselves.

    I don’t see Milwaukee-bashing when people want something Milwaukee has — like our water, or the best art museum, lakefront and law school in the state. Conversely, we do have the worst county government in the state. If they want to bash something, that’s a better target.

    In the end, bashing the largest city in our state serves no useful purpose. It’s divisive and the product of small-minded people who would rather criticize than find solutions.

  4. Rick Esenberg

    The battle between the city and suburbs over annexation is not simply something that happened 72 years ago. It was a lengthy battle that, even after the extent of annexation was settled (circa the late 50s), morphed into battles over things like water, sewer service and costs, school desegregation and funding, etc.

    More recently, the battle has become over the approach to urban problems. Large cities like Milwaukee tend to be committed to traditional (and I would say failed) solutions that tend to involve subsidies from elsewhere, racial politics and a privileged position for government. Taken to their extreme, such policies end in Detroit. Much of what you regard as “city bashing” is opposition to such policies.

    To say that these battles were just about race or fear of the “other” is reductive. It reflects, I think, a refusal to listen and engage that is just as profound as that of “city-bashers.”

    As for the current campaign, the Mayor decided to de-emphasize the issues that lead to the recall in favor of a story (one that, in my view, was conceptually and empirically baseless) about jobs. It isn’t surprising that the economic picture in Milwaukee would be raised in response.

  5. Jessica Slavin

    I am no expert on the subject of the growth of suburbs in the second half of the twentieth century. But it seems to me that determining whether urban or suburban areas are more or less subsidized by one another is an extraordinarily complicated question, one that I couldn’t hope to answer. Googling just to read a bit about it led me here, to the econlog blog promoted by the Liberty Fund,, where a similar question led to an interesting range of comments.

    Still, it seems difficult to argue that the old debate about annexation has any influence, one way or another, on much of the audience for the current round of political advertisements. Certainly some of the same disagreements about facts and policy that gave foundation to those annexation conflicts continue, but the fight itself has been over in most people’s minds for a long time. To the extent annexation still seems relevant to, say, Rick, just confirms that the Wisconsinites reading and responding to this blog are quite a small and unrepresentative sample of the electorate.

    By the same token, while I haven’t seen or heard any of this season’s political ads myself (for which I am thankful), denying that an ad that highlights Milwaukee factory closings, unemployment rates, and graduation rates is designed to evoke anti-“urban” bias is like…denying that an ad that highlights Walker hugging a billionaire as he talks about dividing and conquering political opponents is designed to evoke anti-billionaire bias. That’s politics.

  6. Tom Kamenick

    Except that if Barrett was mayor of a small or medium sized city, the fact that the city’s jobs were bleeding, education was worsening, and poverty was increasing, would be just as relevant.

    “The town/village/city/county/school/state/agency led by Candidate X has measurably worsened under Candidate X’s leadership” is a perfectly valid and substantive argument to make and relies not at all on any bias. I wish more criticism of political opponents would focus on such issues, on both sides.

    Back on the OP and the earlier comments, reading those reminded me a lot of a somewhat recent National Geographic article extolling the virtues of big, dense cities. Both have this not-so-subtle undercurrent that if only the rural and suburban neanderthals were just as enlightened as the authors, they would realize how wonderful big cities are. Both downplay the idea that there can be legitimate criticisms of cities, instead feeding on and encouraging the attitude – itself bigoted – that such feelings are born of jealousy, racism, and ignorance.

  7. Tom Kamenick

    I’m sure that if Barrett had been the mayor of Janesville, for example (which like Milwaukee has seen unemployment numbers significantly worse than the state and national averages since 2008), we’d be seeing the exact same kind of ads.

  8. Jessica Slavin

    Hmm, not sure I agree about the Janesville hypothetical. I truly think that in many of the audiences I can think of (family, friends, etc., in suburban and rural and “urban”-ish (what’s Green Bay, e.g.?)), associating the other side with Milwaukee has special, awful negative impact. Sort of like associating someone with Russia during the Cold War.

    Have you lived (or perhaps you do?) in rural or suburban Wisconsin, Tom? I live in Shorewood now, which as a first-ring suburb falls somewhere between the urban/suburban divide, I guess. But I spent the early years of my life on dairy farms, first in northern Illinois (Hebron) and then outside Mosinee. I have also lived in a suburb of Seattle and on off-base housing near military bases in Tennessee (NAS Millington) and San Diego (Camp Pendleton).

    Anyway, even as kid I noticed this weird urban/suburban/rural divide, in the way people like to think of themselves in contrast to other people. I remember once in grade school in Mosinee, we were talking about which jobs required more or less education, and I was outraged to realize that the majority of the class seemed to think that farmers were stupid and uneducated. It hadn’t occurred to me before that someone would make such a gross generalization.

    But it should have, because my grandpa at about the same time would rail about how those “r. b.”s from Chicago were “all the way up here” building over perfectly good farm land with their big houses.

    Funny that for him, in his particular historical circumstance and outlook, the “other” seemed to be mostly the suburbanites. (The true urbanites, Chicagoans, were sort of beyond the other–they were practically foreigners.)

    Anyway. It’s surely true that an executive’s ability to lead to the growth of business and jobs and other indicators of well being is relevant in a political election, whether the executive leads a big “urban” city or a smaller city that we don’t deem “urban”, like Janesville or Green Bay or whatever. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. It’s also true that, as David’s original approach intimated, one might argue that it’s inaccurate to suggest that the statistics being cited are fairly attributable to the executive’s leadership, or instead to a much more complicated set of factors.

    It’s likewise politically relevant if an executive, of whatever level, approves of a billionaire’s help with trying to achieve a “right to work state.” It’s also true that one might argue that the video to which I’m referring does not fairly imply the executive’s approval of that policy goal, of barring “closed shops.”

    Still, I think it remains the case that in either of the two examples I gave–the commercial that David was referring to (which, again, I haven’t seen, perhaps destroying all of my credibility here), or my imagined commercial about Walker hugging the billionaire–the commercial’s creator undeniably seeks not purely to emphasize the genuine policy dispute, but also to trade on…people’s baser instincts and biases. Seems to be how things are done, in politics.

  9. Hannah Jahn

    I thank all of the posters above for their enlightening comments. I second Mr. Zales’ May 21 statement and. Prof. Slavin’s May 24 statement. I will agree that from personal experience as well, political strategy aside, there seems to be both a very real “Us v. Them” mentality as well as the accompanying “fear of the unknown” of people who have not themselves lived in all categories (rural, suburban, urban.) For example, as a first year Marquette student, I was told that the House of Peace was in a really dangerous neighborhood, so I better go there by car (in the early afternoon).
    As a separate note, I believe that the context for attorneys may be different in some instances. As attorneys, we must be able to understand where our clients are coming from (geographically as well as figuratively) to best represent them, regardless of our own neighborhood or class identity.

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