Friday, February 8, 2008

The thankless lot of the urban conservative

It is a curious thing to live in a city -- any city -- and to veer to the back roads of conservatism from the main strip of leftist thinking one finds in an urban center. Conservative city dwellers are akin to the early Christians in that, while we can expect disagreement or outright scorn for voicing our views in the public square, we cherish those rare kindred spirits we find, and we bond together for warmth.

Not all those on the left are hostile, of course, and their attempts at converting conservatives can be almost endearing. "Oh, you must read the latest piece by [insert, say, Erica Jong, Robert Reich, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, or any other mainstream liberal thinker]," they will gently insist. If you have presented a business card or contact details to the progressive proselytizer, the column in question may helpfully appear in your email. The assumption, of course, is that in your pitiful benightedness, you simply have not been exposed to received liberal wisdom. This misunderstands the reality that if a person lives in a city -- and especially if he or she was brought up in one -- that individual is already surrounded by liberal voices and has, at some point, had to make a decision to look at the world differently.

For this reason, we happy few who live with conservative views and within driving distance of an international airport prove infuriatingly difficult for our liberal friends to turn. It is not that we are unfamiliar with your ideas; rather, we have heard them through and through and we respectfully disagree. The urban conservative prioritizes the rule of law, limited government, and low taxation, and does so without anticipation of Amens from next door. Being faced with such an individual can be a gobsmacking experience for the average city dweller.

At times, an ailing metropolis will turn its lowly eyes to one of these strange characters in their midst. When a dilapidated and crime-ridden New York City elected Rudy Giuliani in 1993, for example, it was a choice made out of necessity and against type. Filthy streets, spiralling homicide rates and the scorn of the rest of America forced Gotham to turn from its path of least resistance and vote for a no-nonsense prosecutor from the Reagan Justice Department who promised to revamp welfare, curb spending, and punish lawbreakers. It is worth noting that Giuliani had offered his services to the city four years before, in 1989, and was rebuffed. New Yorkers needed four years of the disastrous David Dinkins to decide, at long last, that it was time to turn to one of the confident minority of the citys conservatives.

Despite his demonstrable success, Giulianis overarching philosophy was never accepted by the locals. Times Square and the theatre district came back to life under Rudys watch, but Broadway stars spoke out vigorously against his erstwhile campaign for the United States Senate in 2000. There was no more adamant opponent of Giulianis campaign for the presidency in 2008 than the New York Times even though Rudy arranged for them to come and go from their 43rd Street offices without fear of being hit with a bicycle chain. Such is the thankless lot of the big city conservative.

Some cities never learn. Washington, D.C., for example, would be a punch-line, were the squalor and homicides on its streets not so tragic. And yet, Americas capital has never elected a conservative or even a liberal Republican to be its mayor since the District was first given home rule. Elsewhere, as in Toronto or Boston, severe budget shortfalls brought about by profligate spending are obscured when higher levels of government swoop in with cash. Service shortages and garbage pileups are shrugged off as the cost of being cosmopolitan.

But the urban conservative is the eternal optimist, and so presses on against the crowd.