Joel Kotkin is the geographer and writer who first raised the alarm about the Obama administration’s “war against suburbia,” which is the subject of a new and extensive analysis by Stanley Kurtz in a book to be released next week. Kotkin also noted that suburbia has begun to fight back, seeing in Republican Scott Brown’s surprise win in the special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in January 2010 the seeds of “open revolt against an urban-centric regime that many perceive threatens their way of life, values, and economic future.”
President Barack Obama’s response to that revolt, Kotkin says, has been to double down on his policies–and campaign for re-election on a strategy that Kotkin has described as “tribalism,” a Karl Rove-type strategy that is the opposite of what Obama claimed to stand for in his 2008 campaign.
Kotkin spoke to Breitbart News today.
Breitbart News: You’ve compared the Obama campaign’s strategy of division–99 percent versus 1 percent, et cetera–to the Rove “microtargeting” of 2004. Is that fair?
Kotkin: There are similarities. Rove engineered the teardown of John Kerry, and now Obama is running on a teardown of Romney. If you have a basically mediocre record, you don’t want to run purely on your record. You tear down the other guy in order to provide a reason to vote for you. I know Karl somewhat, and he looked at 2004 situation and realized that George W. Bush was not going to get a lot of Democrats to switch over, so he had to mobilize his base. This is also a base mobilization election for Obama–almost the opposite base. Obama’s base is basically public sector people, ethnic minorities, single women, and obviously a certain number of professionals in the higher ranks of academia, some lawyers and some doctors. Obama says: I’m not going to get to 54 or 55 percent, I’m not going to sweep all the demographics, so I’m going to go with the base that I have. The question then becomes will you be able to hold and motivate that base enough for it to come out. In 2004, Rove and the Republicans were able to get enough of the evangelical voters and core Republican voters to come out to win the election.
Breitbart News: But is targeting different groups the same as setting them against one another?
Kotkin: Obama’s strategy is a twist on the Republican attack on “cultural elites.” If I were to compare the two, one thing about cultural and defense conservatives is that they cut across some of these ethnic lines. Obama’s strategy is somewhat more divisive, but we have also become a somewhat more divided country, so you can’t blame all of it on Obama. Another huge difference today–one where you guys are in the forefront–is that the media is much more polarized than it was in 2004. And the good news for the GOP is that the mainstream media simply cannot dictate the news the way it did even a decade ago. What I find is that if somebody is watching FOX News all the time, they’re going to have one view of the world, and if they watch MSNBC–my mother watches MSNBC all day, and I can’t have a conversation with her. It’s the deadly combination of NYT and MSNBC (laughs).
Breitbart News: To combine two of your themes: would you say that suburban Americans are an “endangered tribe”?
Kotkin: The Obama administration is the first anti-suburban administration in American history. I think that the whole ethos of saving your money to buy a house in which to raise your kids is not something Obama relates to. As someone who voted for Bill Clinton twice, I certainly don’t think that was Clinton’s approach. It’s not the way he operated–he understood the aspirations of the vast majority of Americans. This administration is not willing or able to appeal to those aspirations. Instead it appeals to an idea that is sort of more like “why I’m being cheated.” It’s a different dynamic. What saddens me as an old Democrat is that the very goal of social democracy was to help people become more self-sufficient and spread the owernship of property. I don’t think that’s what Obama is about. Harry Truman, for one, would be turning over in his grave.
Breitbart News: Is Obama’s approach just rhetoric, or is it about policy?
Kotkin: It’s about policy. It’s also about mindset. You have an administration that is really not in tune with the middle class. The GOP, in its infinite stupidity, managed to nominate a candidate who is not particularly good at delivering the message. There is an opportunity for a kind of conservative populism, if you can get away from the social issues, which are the great problem with that populism. The banks should have been allowed to go into bankruptcy like the savings and loans did; these insider deals are bad for everyone; I want to have a flat tax so capital gains get the same treatment as income, et cetera. But no GOP candidate can do that without devolving into Neanderthal social positions. So we have two nauseating choices.
Breitbart News: Which way will the suburbs go in this election?
Some of the white middle class suburbs will go Republican. Some of the upper class suburbs, revealingly, will go Democrat–and some of the more minority suburbs will go Democrat as well. Romney will take the suburbs overall. He will run better in the high-tone suburbs than Rick Santorum would have–if he had been the nominee, Obama could have mailed it in. Republicans will do better than in 2008–the question is how much better. And remember that we are talking about suburbs in no more than in ten states. The suburbs in California can be taken for granted.
Breitbart News: Why has California gone so far off the rails, and why is there no political feedback mechanism to bring it back?
Kotkin: Some of it is demographics: the constituency for a two-party system has eroded. There simply aren’t enough people who would be a base of the GOP or even conservative democrats–those people are living in Arizona, Texas, Idaho, eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. The feedback loop here in California is that, you have a smaller and smaller role for the tangible economy because you’ve regulated it, so the only part of the economy that does relatively well is the information and media side. Silicon Valley has become more about media than technology, so what’s very strange is you continue to attract those people most likely to vote liberal Democratic and repelling those most likely to vote Republican or conservative. The economy that we have in California has become much more amenable to the liberal Democratic dream constituency. And the particularly great question is whether Latinos, who have been clobbered in this political transition, ever achieve the consciousness to demand a pro-business, pro-growth policy. Why Latinos want to vote with old white liberals in Marin County is beyond me, but they do. There is an alliance of the public sector class, the government-dependent classes, and the wealthy, older white coastal class.
Breitbart News: Why does that wealthy, older white coastal class vote the way it does?
Kotkin: Those people are doing fine. If there is a regime that makes it impossible to build single-family houses in the interior, all it does is make houses near the coast more valuable. I told my wife, for example, that Gov. Jerry brown’s going to make us rich. If, ultimately, the Middle Easterners and Armenians and young families moving in don’t have the option of living somewhere else, that will just increase value of our house. Most Americans life want single-family homes once they have children, and they want a back yard. Those who have such homes in desirable areas are going to come off great. So it’s not necessarily a surprise that those who are wealthy and live near the coast would support the Brown kind of policies, because in some way they do benefit. On the weekend, they can drive to Lake Tahoe and not have to worry about traffic in the outer suburbs that they hope will die and blow away.
I still look more to Karl Marx than Adam Smith for insight into all this – Marx was a brilliant analyst of how capitalism works, his solutions were not very good, his ideas about human nature were not good, but his analysis of class dynamics was excellent. What we’re seeing are conflicts between different factions of the capitalist class, which is what this election is really all about.