David Frum Doesn’t Understand Virginia or Boston

Conservative writer David Frum has an article in the NY Times magazine where he attempts to understand why wealthy areas like Fairfax County, Virginia, and Beacon Hill, MA are trending Democratic, or even becoming Democratic strongholds. The article would be informative, were it based in any way, shape, or form on what actually happened in Virginia (we’ll get to Boston later). Since Frum is describing a change that I lived through, I thought I would offer my reasons why Northern Virginia has changed.

First, Frum omits the most obvious change: the (slowly) decaying influence of racism. I realize that a member of the party which adopted the Southern Strategy will have a massive blind spot when it comes to this issue, but it can’t be ignored.

From the 70s until the last couple of years, there were two electoral choices: the segregationist who was the Republican, and the de facto Republican who didn’t hate black people and who was nominally pro-choice (this would be the Democrat). In the 80s, there was a Virginian congressman who described Chain Bridge (which connects VA to Washington, D.C.) as the “world’s longest bridge” because it spanned from Virginia to “dark Africa” (D.C. is majority black). His polling numbers went up. And let’s not forget Senator (and former governor) George “Macacawitz” Allen. Slowly, and not always surely, racism is becoming less prominent, and is not sufficient (by itself anyway) to win elections in Virginia.

The second thing Frum glosses over is the VA high-tech corridor. At one point, Northern Virginia employed more computer programmers than Silicon Valley. While this group might range all over the place economically, they are not cultural conservatives (i.e., pro-choice, gay tolerant). This has weakened another leg of the stool that Physioprof describes: the theopolitical conservatives.

The third thing that hurt the Republican Party in Northern Virginia is its inability to govern. Specifically, the GOP successfully pushed for legislation that required municipalities to gain approval from the state to pass local tax increases. Here’s the problem: over the last twenty five years, Fairfax County has grown from less 200,000 to slightly over one million people–and Fairfax County isn’t getting any bigger (obviously). Needless to say, the roads and schools are a little overburdened. Actually, they’re incredibly overburdened. If there are two things that matter in Northern Virginia, it is roads and schools. College-educated professionals want good schools and an easy, or at least non-obscene, commute. As I’ve mentioned before, every form of transit is subsidized–unless you can’t subsidize it, in which case your transit system, even the automobile, sucks. Northern Virginians began to realize that they needed to raise taxes to pay for basic infrastructure–tax increases that the Republicans opposed.

That brings me to Boston. Frum also notes that very wealthy neighborhoods in Boston, such as Beacon Hill and Back Bay, are also Democratic strongholds. This simply shows that Frum knows even less about Boston than he does Virginia. The Republican Party has cast itself as the anti-government party. Not the efficient government party, but anti. That simply doesn’t work in Boston.

Consider how a successful professional lives in Boston. She probably takes the government-funded T to work (all but the ludicrously wealthy or the physically disabled take the T). When he comes home, he will walk his dog on the Boston Common, the Public Garden, or Commonwealth Park. On the weekend, she might jog along the Esplanade, or visit the government subsidized (partially) Museum of Fine Arts. The local branch of the library, the Boston Public Library, is one of the great architectural treasures of the U.S. (seriously, gold filigree and Sargent murals covering two 30 high floors. And it has books too!). Even conservatives like this stuff.

And let’s not forget the Big Dig. While Bostonians don’t like the cost overruns any more than anybody else (particularly since Massachusetts is picking up 75% of the bill), the fact is that I-93 was a hideous scar that isolated the North End and the Waterfront from the rest of the city.

Need I mention biomedicine and biotech, both of which receive large federal infusions of funding? Republicanism (the big R variety), as currently construed, just isn’t relevant to Beacon Hill or Back Bay. That’s before we consider the social issues in a very tolerant (although actually quite conservative) city. Between the Catholic influence (that is, not Christian fundamentalist), the biotech influence, and the high percentage of post-graduate degrees, creationism, along with other anti-science attitudes, and the party that not only tolerates them, but whose leading lights support them, are viewed as utterly deranged.

Frum claims that the Republicans are losing support as a result of their success: the rich are now able to concentrate on social issues, since the Republicans dealt with the economic issues. But, as I laid out above, the dislike of the GOP stems from a dislike of their rabid anti-governmentalism in conjunction with their increasing inability to play the race card (which has much to do with demography).

I sure am glad the NY Times gave Frum all that space. At least with the Mad Biologist, it’s free, and not quite as pretentious (and hopefully a little more accurate).

Update: Brad DeLong and Andrew Gelman have more.

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8 Responses to David Frum Doesn’t Understand Virginia or Boston

  1. Brian X says:

    I think this is evidence that Frum — and many conservatives — just doesn’t understand urban life in general. The GOP is safer in exurbia because there’s no there there — it’s a cocoon of people living in a dull simulacrum of prosperity — and in small towns. In the city it’s different — someone living in Beacon Hill might go to an art gallery in the grungier side of the South End and, within only a couple of miles, go from old-money prosperity to the edge of grinding poverty. In the city, you can’t escape inequalities, and I think that causes people to move to the left politically, either out of a sense of duty or sheer necessity.
    The fact that people are tired of the corruption of the Bush White House (and, in 2006, the GOP congress) seems to go over Frum’s head too. But hey, stay on message, right?

  2. Rob Jase says:

    I realize this is a bit off topic but is David any relation to John Frum who’s worshipped by cargo cultists in Papua New Guinea? It could explain his opinions.

  3. Kevin says:

    At one time the Republican party promoted itself as the paragon of fiscal conservativism. Under GWB the Repubs have embraced big Government, plundered the Federal treasury, run rampant over the Constitution, and allowed investment bankers and mortgage moguls to take in obscene pre-collapse profits and then socialize the losses on the backs of the taxpayer.
    They have lost any claim to the high ground as stewards of the public purse and as defenders of constitutional liberties. If elections were solely about issues they would lose in a landslide. Political loyalists are like Cleveland browns fans–they remember every past slight their team has suffered and cheer for their dawgs no matter how bad they are playing.

  4. QrazyQat says:

    Kevin, at least since Nixon, and greatly accelerated under Reagan and since, the Republicans have been doing what you seem to think was only done once GW Bush got into office. They’ve claimed to be for fiscal conservatism and claimed to be good at promoting growth and economic performance, but those are not accurate claims — they’re lies. You might be interested in an upcoming book, Presidential Performance, which will give the facts, with the numbers, about who did what well. It covers the ground from Ike to now, and having read many of the blog posts that were its genesis, I think it’s gonna be interesting. For instance, did you know who did best in economic growth, in terms of the annual percentage change in real GDP per capita among those presidents? There’s lots more than that too, and all the usual excuses (generally from rightwingers) are dealt with.
    BTW, the answer to the above, in order of best to worst, is:
    JFK/LBJ, a fairly big drop to Clinton, Reagan, a small drop to Carter, then bigger steps down to Nixon/Ford, GW Bush, Ike, then GHW Bush. The average for Democrats is over 50% higher than the average for Republicans (just under 3% for Dems and a bit over 1.5% for GOPers). All figures are official government numbers.

  5. Kevin says:

    “what you seem to think was only done once GW Bush got into office”
    I was writing a blog comment, not a treatise. It is not news to say that politicians lie. The issue is why are former Republican strongholds now trending Democrat. I suggest that GWB’s failures have been so extreme that it is no longer possible for moderates Republicans to see their party as the lesser of two evils.

  6. QrazyQat says:

    Even a blog comment should be accurate; I just corrected it. Then I offered additional info to support the correction so you wouldn’t think the correction was wrong. It’s called being helpful. One impediment to “former Republican strongholds now trending Democrat” is that some folks see the GOP problem as just GW Bush, and that’s the narrative that McCain and his helpful press are pushing — the idea that “conservatism cannot fail, only be failed”. It’s important, IMO, to be sure to point out that conservatism is what Bush did, and that it has been tried before and has failed each time. And I think that book will be very helpful in pointing out the numbers that show this in modern times.

  7. PhysioProf says:

    Thanks for the fucking link, dude!

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