TCS Daily

Urban Elephants

By Stephen W. Stanton - May 21, 2003 12:00 AM

What the heck is a Republican, anyway? Many would answer that it is the party that represents half of the mainstream voters, ranging from conservative to centrist in their ideology.

Of course that begs the question, what the heck does "conservative" mean? They come in many varieties: neocons, paleocons, and now even metrocons. All of these subcategories are confusing. National Review's Jonah Goldberg believes that "conservatives are getting too bogged-down in labels and prefixes." He recently took it upon himself to write a series of articles intended to "destroy, or at least pare back, the increasingly ludicrous use of the word 'neoconservative' and maybe even a few other silly labels."

Perhaps the silliest of them is John Derbyshire's Metropolitan Conservatives. He asserts that the "issues that define American conservatism" include Second Amendment activism, deeply-held religious beliefs, and criminalization of abortion and homosexual acts. He believes he and other metrocons lack authenticity for not holding these radical views while still calling themselves conservative. However, Derbyshire is grateful for the "legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces." [emphasis his]

Nowhere in Derbyshire's column did he mention anything about personal responsibility, accountability, tax cuts, fiscal discipline, federalism, families, limited government, national defense, safe streets, free markets, capitalism, school choice, privatization, or free trade. Nope, to Derbyshire's sensibilities, those are not the hallmarks of true conservative philosophy.

Compare the Derb's Fallwell-lite metrocons to an actual movement gaining traction in New York City. The Urban Republican Platform was developed precisely because many New Yorkers fear Derbyshire's "authentic conservatives". The prospect of locking up homosexuals and teen mothers scares most city folks, especially when the plan involves flooding the streets with guns and bibles. Democrats win lots of elections because they are seen as the best defense against gun-toting homophobic jingoists.

As a result, Republicans hold less than 8% of the seats on NY City Council. With no effective check on their power, Democrats have run amok. Megan McCardle provides an overview of their more egregious abuses. As City Journal's Steven Malanga argued, "without a credible two-party system, providing genuine political competition and the clash of ideas it entails, special interests almost inevitably will prevail against the common good." Urban Republicans may be able to block the political left's most harmful policy prescriptions.

The Urban Republican movement was begun to remove the stigma of the word "Republican" in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 5.25 to 1. The UrbanGOP platform includes none of the radical, controversial, or religious tenants of Derbyshire's brand of conservatism. (In fact, that is the very stigma being removed.) The platform consists of five common sense principles that most New Yorkers can embrace regardless of party affiliation:

  • 1. Place Parents Before Bureaucrats
    Empower individual schools to make decisions and establish priorities that enable it to create an effective, competitive teaching environment. Empower parents, within this new competitive environment, to be able to choose the school best suited to their child's needs, giving each student the best possible chance of receiving a high-quality education.

  • 2. Place People Before Government
    Fundamentally change how government views the taxpayers - rejecting the concept that each person who lives, works or conducts business in NYC exists to support a bloated government bureaucracy. Implement both tax and spending cuts to bring our tax code, at the very least, on par with the second-highest taxed city in America, and our spending down to a manageable level that does not unfairly burden future generations.

  • 3. Remain Vigilant in the Fight Against Crime
    Ensure that our neighborhoods remain the safe havens to which we have grown accustomed in recent years, and that we have the best-trained and equipped Police force in America. We will strive to keep the NYPD to the highest standards of conduct and professionalism.

  • 4. Abolish Barriers to the Creation of New, Affordable Housing
    Streamline the process of, and eliminate the barriers to, building new housing, and encourage new construction with a guarantee that rents on these buildings will not be regulated by government bureaucrats, but rather be set by contract between owners and renters.

  • 5. Fight for Good, Responsible and Responsive Government
    Reform the way that city government is run. Adopt methods of doing the city's business that create competitive forces and efficiencies in delivering taxpayer-funded services. Create more competition in municipal elections by modernizing the election process itself - reducing the power of incumbency thereby ensuring that New York has the best, most dedicated public servants possible.

Secular voters do not have to worry about Derbyshire's religious brand of conservatism taking root in City Hall. Candidates who support the platform "unapologetically stand for the core Republican ideas of limited government, low, pro-growth tax policy, and market driven solutions to social and economic problems." Unlike the metrocons, the urbancons do not have any uniform stance on religion, sodomy, abortion, and guns. More importantly, there is more than enough work to do on the five above principles to keep elected officials busy for two entire city council terms.

The official NYC Republican Party apparatus has mixed feelings about the Urban Republican movement. On the one hand, they cannot hide some obvious failures over the past few election cycles. Only 4 out of 51 NYC Council seats are held by Republicans. The remaining 47 seats generally vote as a democratic block. The Mayor who bears a Republican label has been voting as a liberal, advocating tax hikes and smoking bans. The city's campaign finance program provides four-to-one matching funds to political candidates. Of course, this public subsidy has disproportionately gone to Democrats by an order of magnitude. The Republican Party does not have much to lose from the Urban Republican movement. If it gets a few candidates elected, that would be a huge gain.

On the other hand, a party struggling for relevance now finds itself potentially further marginalized by a splinter group attracting a lot of press. The Urban GOP platform was drafted by individuals with no formal affiliation with Republican Party leadership. Therefore, some GOP apparatchiks are concerned that the Urban Republican platform threatens the coherence, unity, and financial support of the official GOP organization.

However, there is no permanent barrier separating the Urban Republican movement from the Republican Party as a whole. One of the movement's founders, Robert Hornak, personally assured me that the purpose has been to strengthen the party and work with the official Party organization. Urban Republicans have simply chosen to concentrate on a specific set of goals that can be achieved in the bluest city in a blue state. In the process, they hope to allay widespread fear of the GOP and get city folks used to voting in the Republican column.

Jonah Goldberg is right. Labels are silly. Yet, like the Log Cabin Republicans, the Club for Growth and some other groups, Urban Republicans have adopted a silly label to make a difference. And so far, the label has worked. Keep an eye out for Urban Republican candidates this fall.

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