Last of the urban conservatives

Feeling overdressed in the bar of the Versace mansion (which is to say that I am dressed) I repair to the dowdier innards of Miami Beach. These include a Herzog & de Meuron car park in the shape of a house of cards whose entire seventh floor is a private residence. I reach the Basel firm’s creation via a café with the unSwiss name of Bacon Bitch and an Erotic Art Museum that is tamer than everything outside it.

Across the bay, the W Hotel sits on dozens of Easter Island heads crafted by Philippe Starck. An Uber driver gives me a book about Vedic scripture as breezily as another might a complimentary Evian. Outside a friend’s house in the southern suburbs, I savour the precious interlude of normality. I then see a peacock crossing the road.

The raw jumble of Miami, a place that should not hang together but mostly does, is made for the liberal or even nihilist soul. And yet few cities contain more members of that endangered species: the urban conservative. The geographic sorting of the left into cities, and the right into the heartland, is quantifiably rampant. But it is bucked here. Donald Trump vastly increased his vote in Miami-Dade county last month, losing it by just seven points. It was not the Gulf coast alone that delivered Florida to the Republicans.

Accounting for Miami’s exceptionalism is simple enough. Some of it is the old people: if the south of France is where the English go to die, Americans have Florida. Some of it is mistrust of the left among escapees from Latin America’s red republics (not just Cuba). Then there is the city’s homing beacon to libertarians of all races: like Texas, Florida has no personal income tax. The blend of frail infrastructure and awesomely militarised police suggests the Nightwatchman State of Nozickian doctrine.

It should be impossible for somewhere so unpreachy to have “lessons” for us. And still one stands out: there is nothing inherently leftwing about cities. And the cause of urbanism will suffer if it becomes too entwined with progressive politics.

If the metropolis is drained of conservatives, that is a huge stock of voters who thereafter have little stake in its vitality. And without their diluting presence, the liberalism they leave behind grows ever purer, riling the heartlands yet further in a Möbius loop of cultural estrangement.

At that point, cities are reliant on a tacit bargain to stave off provincial anger. We subsidise the unproductive regions in return for their consent to our funny ways and outsize influence. No one kills the goose that lays the golden eggs, after all, however provocative its strut, however showy its feathers.

It is just that 2016 and its populist shocks exposed the limits of even this contract. Voters who knew they had much to lose from a weaker London (or Bay Area) willed it anyway. Cultural animus got in the way of prudence. As the sorting becomes more absolute with time, these raids on the metropolis are liable to recur. To secure their futures, cities cannot just buy off conservative-minded people from a distance. They will have to encompass more of them.

If that sounds fanciful, it is our recency bias at work. Cities that are now liberal fortresses were competitive within my lifetime. Before that, LA’s surrounding counties threw up the New Right. Between Robert Moses and Rudy Giuliani, much of New York is the fruit of Republicanism. Samuel Johnson was a Tory. There is no conceptual oddity here. The prime force in a city is commerce: immigration is a byproduct of it, culture often subsidised by it. This is why urbanism can be such an ambiguous creed, for free markets but protected spaces, for loose borders, public transit and vigilance to crime. It is not just in the boondocks that defunding police polls direly.

Pointing at Arquitectonica’s Atlantis condominium, my friend tells me with the weariness of a local that Miami goes through periodic bursts of city-of-the-future hype. Its built environment suggests a changing world loudly enough. Its demography, also. Only the heterodoxy of its politics marks it out as the last of an urban model, and not the next one.

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