Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Republican War on Cities

Kevin R. McNamara

Voting laws recently passed or awaiting passage in Republican-controlled state legislatures along with the outrageous vote “audit” ongoing in Arizona have been widely covered in the press through a focus on the racial animus that underlies them. Rightly so, given the Republican Party’s increasingly explicit embrace of white-identity politics and the evidence from Georgia, where being a Republican has not been enough to preserve the appointments of some African Americans serving on county election boards [1]. Race manifestly is a key element in this story. What this focus misses, however, is the equally intentional, specific targeting of large urban areas, notably in the Texas bill and Georgia law.

Perhaps it is because the news media, which has begun to find its voice on race in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a year of antiracism protests, has no ready discourse on cities other than crisis – crime, homelessness, corruption – the latter of which Donald Trump revived in his attacks on vote-counting in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee to cheers from some offspring of the white-ethnic beneficiaries of urban political machines’ earlier largesse. Republican lawmakers also drew on this topos as they rechristened the For the People voting rights bill the “Corrupt Politicians Act [2].” Or perhaps the inattention reflects the extent to which the word urban has become synonymous with (euphemistic for) Black and Latino populations too often treated as monolithic voter blocks.

To fully understand what these bills seek to accomplish requires that we consider their outsized effects on urban voters and the motives for that targeting. One version of the Texas bill mandates the redistribution of polling places in the counties containing the state’s five largest cities; the resultant distribution would provide fewer polling sites and still longer lines in public transportation-dependent inner cities and more stations in typically Republican-leaning, auto-centered outer suburbs. The Georgia law’s provision to allow the State Election Board to suspend the authority of county election boards is widely understood as a threat aimed at Atlanta’s Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnet counties. Both states’ legislation banned uninterrupted 24-hour early voting periods that had been used in large cities to mitigate waiting times and to make voting more convenient for people doing shift work. The Texas bill bans drop-off boxes for absentee ballots (after Governor Abbott intervened in 2020 to limit Harris County to one such box across a county of 1,777 square miles and over 4.7 million people). Georgia’s law decreases the number drop boxes on the metro Atlanta area by 75 percent and mandates they be located inside government buildings that are closed at night and on weekends. A provision of gratuitous cruelty in Georgia makes it a crime to offer food or water to people waiting in line to vote [3].

The trigger for this antiurban animus likely is the difference in voting patterns and policy choices among metropolitan and rural constituencies. What distinguishes Atlanta and the five largest Texas cities from the rest of their states is not their majority-minority populations. Many of Texas’s counties with the largest minority populations lie along the Rio Grande, from Brownsville to El Paso, yet except for Texas’s Sixteenth Congressional District, which includes nearly all the City of El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley’s counties lie in swing districts. Texas’s Twenty-third District more frequently returns a Republican to Washington; the Fifteenth and Twenty-Eighth districts’ representative are members of the conservative Democrat Blue Dog Coalition. When it comes to state legislators, the Texas Tribune observes that the voting records of the senators representing Cameron and Hidalgo counties in South Texas “are significantly less liberal than those of every one of their […] Democratic colleagues,” while in the Texas House eleven of the twelve most conservative democrats hail from the Rio Grande Valley. The most liberal members of both parties represent Austin, Houston, or Dallas and its suburbs [4]. Similarly, while the demographics of Georgia’s majority-African American Second District, located in the more rural southwest corner of the state, are very similar to Atlanta’s, it, too, is represented by a Blue Dog.

Thus, at a time when many state legislatures carry water for ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and other neoliberal lobby shops, and as Blue Dogs growl about activist government, large cities have used their hard-won home-rule privileges to become the laboratories of democracy that Justice Brandeis once said the states were, and to address their ongoing economic, environmental, and social inequities. Cities have fought against state pushback with varying success in their attempts to institute living wage laws and universal basic income, to ban fracking and strictly enforce environmental and occupational safety laws, to protect the civil rights of racial and sexual minorities, to regulate firearms for public safety, and, more recently, to rethink policing, bail, and imprisonment, and, during COVID-19, to enact temporary laws to safeguard public health – including while voting.

The reason for this difference is, perhaps, the condition of life in the metropolis that is the overarching subject of The City in American Literature and Culture. To live in the city is to find footing in a world in which older American narratives of atomistic selves, self-reliant individualism, and the lore of nature’s nation have little purchase. The pace of life and change in the twentieth-century industrial city necessitated a new anthropology, while the world of strangers and their unfamiliar ways required a reimagination of social relations based on respect for difference. The web of relations arising from the pursuits of everyday life serves to lessen that distance among groups whose spatial and experiential boundaries are, in an interdependent environment, necessarily porous, at the same time that anonymity and anomie, those two conditions of urban life cast as negatives by the city’s critics, provide city dwellers room to imagine and to try to other selves.

Such is the city at its best, where citizens less tied to particular ways of life and more open to the claims of others are “capable of envisioning, formulating, and supporting more enlightened and more rational … collective decisions [5].” Yet urban residence is, of course, no more a foolproof proxy for political ideology than race is, and citizens’ diverse cultures, values, and historical experiences, and their dispersal across racial and economic hierarchies, ensures that even acting in good will, they will hold discordant understandings of what proposals are “more enlightened and more rational.” The negotiation of these differences does not slow the work of politics, however; it is the work of politics.

So while The City in American Literature and Culture is primarily concerned to document how literature, film, and other arts represent the experience of large and local forces that create urban space, the ways that intra-urban borders are transgressed and redrawn through street-level activity that bring the city’s myriad constituencies closer to realizing the city’s promise as a site for individual self-creation and collective self-determination, it is necessarily concerned with the ways these borders may also be fortified, and in the individual and social effects of persistent forms of inequality, disadvantage, and segregation. And to ensure that the volume not further entrench the red state/blue state and urban versus rural dichotomies that the Republicans exploit, it also includes “Why Hillbilly Elegy and Its Critics Matter to Writing about Cities,” in which Appalachian scholar Douglas Reichert Powell calls on urbanists to recognize the diversity of Appalachia, urban America’s many ways of exploiting the land and its people, the shared challenges (including combatting structurally similar stereotypes of disadvantaged populations) and mutual dependencies of rural and urban Americans, thereby lessening the distance between them.


[1] Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein, “How Republican States Are Expanding Their Power Over Elections,New York Times, June 19, 2021.
[2] See, e. g., Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) Instagram post, June 23, 2021, after Republicans filibustered the bill.
[3] See Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein, “What Georgia’s Voting Law Really Does,New York Times, April 2, 2021, and Alex Ura, “After Drastic Changes Made behind Closed Doors, and an Overnight Debate, Texas Senate Approves Voting Bill,” Texas Tribune, May 30, 2021.
[4] See Mark P. Jones, “Analysis: The 2021 Texas House, from Left to Right,” Texas Tribune, June 15, 2021, and “Analysis: The 2021 Texas Senate, from Left to Right,” Texas Tribune, June 16, 2021. Harold Dutton, a nineteen-term African-American state representative from Houston, is the twelfth member of the group.
[5] Kian Tajbakhsh, The Promise of the City: Space, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 176.

The City in American Literature and Culture edited by Kevin R. McNamara

About The Author

Kevin R. McNamara

Kevin R. McNamara, Professor of Literature at the University of Houston–Clear Lake, is editor of The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature (2014) and The Cambridge Compan...

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