by Craig Ruff and Barry Dehlin

America and Michigan are on the move. We live in a nation and in a state increasingly dominated by suburbs. Commerce flocks to suburban malls, office complexes, and Industrial parks. Our cultural, entertainment, and religious institutions move, too, and so do out civic and service organizations. The consequences on politics at every level of government are momentous. This Advisor discusses those consequences.

Politics is Numbers

Suburbia houses more Michiganians than do the state’s large central cities, rural areas, or small towns. Almost two of every five people live in a suburb. Suburban growth has exploded since 1950, when only 16.2 percent of the state claimed suburban residence. In that year Michigan’s 11 largest and oldest nonsuburban, or traditional, cities1 claimed 33.6 percent of the state’s people; they now contain barely 20 percent.

At least since the one man, one vote criterion for apportionment of legislative bodies, the power of politics is number of people. That power has shifted dramatically from the established cities to the newly developed suburbs.

Today the urban agenda is being represented in the 110-member state House of Representatives by 17 fewer members than in the late 1960s. The cities’ share of legislative power has declined from 42 percent to 26 percent in one generation.

In statewide campaigns, too, the urban voice is quieter. In 1960 the 11 largest cities in Michigan cast 34.6 percent of the gubernatorial vote; in 1990 they cast 15.9 percent. It is conceivable that by the end of the decade people in Oakland County will cast more votes than all the residents of our largest 11 traditional cities.

The Melting of Detroit’s Power

Over the span of 35 years, close to one million people have left Detroit: They constitute one of the largest voluntary exoduses in the world’s history. From 1950 to 1990 the net population decline in Detroit (821,000) was greater than the entire population of Montana or the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, or Indianapolis. In 1960 the population of the metropolitan area was roughly split between Detroit and the suburbs. Now, suburbanites outnumber Detroiters by almost three to one.

Detroit is a striking case study of the cities’ decline in voting capital. In 1952 Detroiters cast 29 percent of the gubernatorial vote, almost one of every three votes cast in the entire state. In 1990 Detroit’s share had shrunk to 7 percent. Detroiters now cast about the same number of votes as people living in Kent and Ottawa counties. On Proposal A (to reform school financing) on the June 1993 and March 1994 ballots, Kent County cast very nearly the same number of votes as Detroit. Although many in the Grand Rapids area traditionally have viewed the City of Detroit as the 800-pound gorilla of Michigan politics, in reality each area has about 7 percent of the state’s political capital. Kent County has reached political parity with the giant.

As mentioned, Detroit’s legislative clout also has waned. In the late 1960s Detroit held 9 Senate and 25 House districts: 24 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the House. Today, Detroiters hold 5 Senate and 13 House districts (13 percent and 11 percent, respectively). In words that vote counters understand, for a special appropriation to Detroit in 1969, the favorable votes of 10 non-Detroit senators and 31 non-Detroit representatives were needed; today the support of 14 senators and 43 representatives from outside Detroit is needed.

..and Other Cities’, Too

For drama, nothing beats the statistics of Detroit’s eroding political power. But suburban power is growing all over, from the statehouse to the courthouse.

The first word to jump to mind when one thinks of Genesee County is Flint. Until the 1970 census, Flint was the state’s second-largest city (today Grand Rapids and Warren already are larger, and Lansing and Sterling Heights likely will be by the 2000 census). In 1960 Flint cast 54.6 percent of Genesee County’s total vote, but by 1990 the city’s share had fallen to 26.6 percent. No longer is Flint the titan of Genesee County, let alone a major player in statewide political arithmetic. Other cities, too, have lost political clout—even at the county level.

In some cases, the suburban power shift has been nothing short of explosive. Once the 100th largest city in the nation, Saginaw now casts just about the same number of votes as its neighboring Saginaw Township. Even Traverse City, for all its magnetic natural beauty, has become, vote-wise, a weak sister to its suburbs.

Suburanites

Who Are They?

The popular perception of American suburbs—”ticky-tacky,” three-bedroom homes bordered by seedlings and sod lawns—originated during the 1950s. (Probably the most visually satirical depiction of the suburbs is found in the movie Edward Scissorhands.) We picture suburbs as residential neighborhoods of people who are white, middle- to upper-class, and employed. Statistically, this stereotype holds true. In Michigan, 91.7 percent of suburban residents are white. The median suburban household income is $37,884 (compared to $22,064 in central cities). In 1990 the unemployment rate among Michigan suburbanites was 5.9 percent (compared to 14.1 percent in inner cities and 8.2 percent statewide).

Statistics, however, mask broad diversity among suburbs. Any one might be quite homogeneous, but each is different from others in shape, size, and type. The stereotypical rich, conservative, and residential suburb does exist—the Grosse Pointes are several examples; in Macomb County, however, the largely working-class suburbs are far less affluent. Moreover, African-American- and Hispanic-dominated suburbs have appeared on the map in the last couple decades. While the phenomenon is not widespread in Michigan, 62.6 percent of Inkster’s population is black and so is 28.9 percent of Southfield’s population.

The ascendance of suburbia involves far more than just a population shift, however. Some suburbs are known less for their neighborhoods than for their significant commercial development—malls, office buildings, and industrial parks. Such suburbs sometimes are called “edge cities” and are largely independent of the central cities.

As the people have vacated the inner cities, so have many businesses, factories, and the jobs that go along with them. Of the 40 largest job centers in the United States, barely half are in the downtown area of a central city. The rest are in suburbia. Nationwide, merely 25 percent of suburbanites actually commute to their metropolitan area’s central city. In the Detroit area, only 16.6 percent of suburban residents work in the city. Finally, many older suburbs are developing some of the same difficulties that plague our nation’s large cities: decaying buildings and infrastructure, crime, and poverty. Indeed, more than 9.5 million suburbanites nationally live below the poverty line, although few people lie awake nights worrying about suburban unrest.

How strikingly different the development of America from that of Europe. In Europe, the most affluent choose to live—and hence the priciest housing is found—in the area nearest the commercial and cultural center of great cities. The older the property, the more prestigious the address. It is in the suburbs of Europe, farthest removed from cities’ hubs, that the poorest nationals and most recent immigrants reside. Hence, when France’s president Mitterand warned the country of the consequences of electing a conservative majority to its assembly, he would say, “When the suburbs go up in flames you will see riot police hitting young people.”

In America, such a political warning would cause a riot . . . a riot of laughter.

What Are Their Political Characteristics?

Diversity makes suburbs difficult to predict politically. Politicians cannot simply consider suburbanites as a monolithic mass to be wooed with one common approach. They must pay attention to the subtle differences and to the varied attributes and biases among the suburbs. Despite differences, however, the people of suburbia share several common traits and political characteristics.

A label befitting suburbanites is taxpayers. Household income in the suburbs is more than 50 percent above that of central city households and 25 percent above that of rural households. More than three-quarters of suburbanites live in a home they own, compared to 55 percent of central city residents. Suburbanites thus feel that they are nicked more heavily than others by income and property taxes, which translates into extreme tax sensitivity in contemporary suburbia. (In point of fact, no suburbanite in Michigan paid anywhere near the 92 mills of property tax paid by a Detroit homeowner before the recent rollback of school operating property taxes.) A November 1992 Public Sector Reports poll found that compared to central city residents, nearly twice as many suburbanites identified taxation as “the most important problem facing the federal government.” When asked how the federal budget deficit should be reduced, suburban respondents overwhelmingly favored spending cuts to raising taxes, while people who live in big cities were about equally divided on the two approaches. Distinctive about suburbanites—and this statement is more than just tautology—is that they deliberately have chosen to live outside the city. Though somewhat blurred, it is the reasons underlying this choice and the preferences and biases thus revealed that distinguish suburbs politically. The motives for choosing a suburban residence over one in a central city are a complex mix of social, economic, and psychological factors that, of course, vary from family to family. Some choose suburbia for positive reasons: open or green space, good schools, a newer home, proximity to workplace, quiet neighborhoods. But the perceived assets of suburbia vary as much as do suburban families and the suburbs themselves. We know that not all suburbanites chose their home because of superior schools, because not all suburban schools are superior. And we know that not all suburbanites moved for fresh, open space, because some suburbs are nearly as or more cramped than central cities.

Some who choose to live in suburbs are actively choosing against the life-style or life conditions they see in their metropolitan area’s central city. Politically, it is the residents’ desire to avoid what they find distasteful about the central cities that makes suburbia unique. Among the difficulties suburbanites are trying to avoid are high crime rates, burdensome taxation, distressed neighborhoods, and economic stagnation. Suburbanites, many as refugees—and all as neighbors—of our biggest cities, have front row seats to see momentous social failure. This continual reminder of what they are hoping to escape (watch any local television newscast) keeps them diligent in trying to fence out these problems. Solving the problems of the central city is far less important to most suburbanites than fending off politicians who want to redistribute back to the cities the wealth that has moved out. “Regional services,” “tax-base sharing,” and “state tax increase” are code for subsidizing the scene of the evacuation. Most suburbanites like their pleasant life-style, and they want to maintain it. Their desire to elude the high crime rate of our largest cities leads to their support for ever-tougher anticrime measures. A nervous glance at the economic stagnation of central cities leads to their emphasis on “the economy, stupid.” In short, the leading crises in inner cities evoke a short list of hot-button topics among today’s suburbanites: They want toughness on crime, economic growth through lower taxes, and welfare reform. Suburbanites thus can be characterized politically by their desire to avoid what they see as the negative aspects in big-city life.

Consequences of Suburban Political Power

On Public Policy

One indictor of having power is that politicians talk about things about which you are concerned, and suburbanites definitely are the targets of contemporary political rhetoric.

Issues important to suburbanites have been elevated to center stage their own counties, in Washington, D.C., and in the state capital. With respect to the economy, politicians seldom talk about antipoverty programs in the inner cities, emphasizing instead lower interest rates that reduce mortgage costs; economic growth, along with keeping a lid on income tax rates, is important to suburbanites in maintaining job security and the income level needed to support their mortgages. Because many people fled to suburbs to avoid crime, tough anticrime rhetoric also appeals to them. To suburbanites who saw the weaknesses in the welfare system at work in the cities, reform of welfare rings true as well. Finally, treasuring their larger lots, sodded lawns, and less-congested roads, suburban residents are converts to environmental protection; indeed, PSC polling data indicates that suburbanites are just as likely as central city residents to favor government regulation to protect the environment.

In Michigan, the political influence of our suburbs helps explain Governor Engler’s ability to end the general assistance welfare program in 1991. It also explains why the Democrats aspiring to Engler’s job are criticizing his toughness on welfare less than his school finance plan’s potential for eroding local control of schools. Suburban growth and suburbanites’ frustration help explain the 20-year debate over high property taxes and their obliteration by the legislature in the heat of last summer.

A suburban policy agenda includes

  • keeping a lid on state and federal taxes,
  • resisting regionalization of services and tax-base sharing,
  • promoting economic growth (but not at the expense of low interest rates),
  • protecting the environment (constraining new development and preserving green space),
  • increasing funds spent to maintain local roads (transportation funds disproportionately help growing areas),
  • preserving local control (over schools, first and foremost), and
  • imposing tough crime prevention and punishment measures.

On Political Parties

The farm vote goes Republican; the city vote goes Democratic. So where does the suburban vote go? Suburbanites are as restless in the partisan loyalties as they were in moving households from the city.

The 1960s’ premise of an emerging Republican majority (a concept posed by political analyst Kevin Phillips) lay in the exploding growth of suburbs. Democrats fleeing the cities would metamorphose into Republicans, assuming through their move the conservative instincts of their affluent neighbors and shedding their generations-old affinity to the Democratic Party. In some areas, most particularly Macomb County, that prediction came true. But overall, what emerged was not a Republican majority but an independent plurality—40 percent or so of all voters who express no strong allegiance to either major party.

The suburbs, which three decades ago were considered GOP strongholds, are now at the center of political battle that can be won by either side. Democrats can do well in suburbia, particularly in near-in suburbs beginning to show some of the same distress suffered by the “real” cities. Working-class suburbs tend to vote their pocketbooks, sometimes to the benefit and sometimes at the expense of the GOP. Even in affluent suburbs, Democrats succeed by basing their appeal on certain social issues (abortion rights, for one) and the anti-growth and environmental protection predilections of residents.

In the suburbs there is increased competitiveness among the political parties. Most suburban voters do not have a strong party preference, and there are not many strong party organizations in suburbia. Ticket splitting is common. Suburbanites have in fact proven quite fickle in the recent past. In 1980 many of the “Reagan Democrats” who defected to the GOP were suburbanites. In 1992 many of these same voters reverted to Democrat Bill Clinton or supported Ross Perot.

Democrats wooing suburban voters sing tunes starkly dissonant from those of Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. In the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries, Tom Harkin was the sole voice of traditional liberalism in debate with Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, and Bob Kerrey. “New Democrats” try to resound with middle-class and suburban voters, because without them the party cannot forge majorities. Not even to urban voters does the refrain of “bigger government” ring as true as it once did.

The cities, upon which the Democrats traditionally relied heavily, can no longer supply enough votes or margins big enough to give Democrats statewide or national majorities. Governor James Blanchard won 86.8 percent of Detroit’s vote in 1990 but lost the statewide race to John Engler. In 1952 about 50 percent of the statewide Democratic vote came from Michigan’s 11 largest nonsuburban cities; 37.5 percent came from Detroit alone. By 1990 barely 23 percent of the Democratic vote came from the same cities; Detroit contributed just 12.7 percent.

Over the same period the percent of the statewide Democratic vote coming from the suburbs rose from 36 percent to 46.8 percent. Even within the tri-country region (Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties), Detroit contributes only 28.6 percent of the Democratic vote.

To Republicans, the urban vote barely merits an asterisk. In 1990 John Engler received about the same number of votes in rural Livingston County (21,102) as he did in Detroit (24,256). In total, John Engler’s urban support from the 11 largest, nonsuburban cites represented only 8.7 percent of his statewide total. From Oakland County alone, Engler’s 172,462 votes exceeded by 61,338 his statewide big-city vote of 111,124.

Only 9 of the 55 GOP members of the state House of Representatives represent urban residents. The Republicans who represent constituents living in the state’s 20 largest, incorporated cities (in which reside 30.5 percent of the population of Michigan) are Richard Bandstra (Grand Rapids), Harold Voorhees, Sr. (Grand Rapids and Wyoming), Sal Rocca (Sterling Heights), Lyn Bankes and Jerry Vorva (Livonia), Jan Dolan (Farmington Hills), Shirley Johnson (Royal Oak), and Penny Crissman and Greg Kaza (Rochester Hills). All except Bandstra and Voorhees represent “cities” that really are suburbs

Contrast that number (9 GOP state representatives) with the 32 Democrats representing those same cities. Thirty-two of the 55-member Democratic caucus in the state House of Representatives (about 60 percent) represent city dwellers. In vesting their political fortunes largely in one political party, urban voters are taking a substantial risk, the consequences of which are felt whenever that party fails to control the legislature and/or governorship.

If numbers alone could carry the day, accomplishing the urban agenda in Lansing would depend only on the Democratic Party winning a majority of seats in the legislature. But 40 percent of Democratic state representatives come from nonurban areas, and it cannot be assumed that their vote always or ever will be cast in favor of urban-specific legislation. If urban depopulation continues, with each future census and reapportionment of legislative districts, the cities’ influence in the legislature and the Democratic caucuses will decline further.

Suburbanization’s Effect on Future Politics and Public Policy

The telling statistics of suburban growth since World War II may exaggerate inferences about the suburbs’ role in the future. From 1980 to 1990 the proportion of state residents identified by the U.S. Census as living in suburbs actually declined slightly—from 39.1 percent to 38.8 percent. Nationally, while the number of suburbanites increased during the 1980s by more than 7,000,000, the suburban share of the population increased only by a tenth of a percent. It is impossible to tell whether this lull simply is a momentary interruption in suburban sprawl or if it portends the beginning of the end of suburban growth. More likely, it portends the onset of exurban growth—expansion that leapfrogs today’s suburbs into rural and undeveloped areas even farther from hub cities.

Be it manifest itself in suburban or exurban growth, the exodus from the city likely will continue. The American frontier mentality and unquenchable thirst for newness and openness augurs poorly for the repopulation of cities. These very forces will condemn today’s developed suburbs to the cities’ fate; today’s dense suburbs will be vacated as well. In the next decade or two, the crumbling streets, housing stock, and cultural, entertainment, and public buildings in depopulated cities increasingly will need subsidization and remedial efforts by federal and state governments. The political clout of the cities, however, will continue to decline, and pleas for such help will fall on ears attuned to nonurban voters and taxpayers.

In the best of economic times to come, the cities must rely on a certain noblesse oblige of rural and suburban legislators. In the flat-out competition for scarce resources in the worst of economic times, the deck is stacked against the cities.

Just as immigrants to America homogenized themselves into their new homeland and surrendered their fealty to the nation of their birth, suburbanites discard their historical ties to the cities. They rechannel their civic responsibility and pride toward their new neighborhoods and communities. Politics, voting, and political behavior are not about the past and the places in which we once lived but about the present and where we nowlive. They are not about the public interest but the self-interest. They are not about declining fortunes but about majorities of people. The clarion call to the taxpayers’ agenda comes from suburbia. It moderates Democrats and emboldens conservative Republicans. The suburban voice speaks of law and order, local control of schools, lean government, personal responsibility, family values, and protection of natural resources. This voice now dominates our politics and will for decades to come. It is not shrill in its partisanship, but punishment quickly is meted out to federal and state officeholders of either party who turn a deaf ear to it. The singers care far less about federal and state matters deliberated in Washington, D.C. and Lansing than they do about local matters deliberated in the township hall in their own backyard.

Where you stand depends on where you reside. Where we reside increasingly is our suburbs. Our national and state agendas are being set there, and it is strikingly different from the urban focus of the middle half of our century.

Barry Dehlin, a Lansing resident, is a graduate of Princeton University, majoring in politics. At Princeton, he was a senior writer for the Daily Princetonian. Dehlin served as a summer intern in 1991 for U.S. Senator Carl Levin, in his Lansing office. He is considering various public policy graduate programs.

Dehlin and Ruff extend their gratitude to Aimee Santimore, a Kalamazoo College senior, for her extensive research as a PSC intern in 1993. Thanks also to Jeff Williams, a recent graduate of Michigan State University (and headed to the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota) and part-time employee of PSC, for his special skill with graphics.

1Ann Arbor, Bay City, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Muskegon, Pontiac, and Saginaw are the 11 largest nonsuburban cities. Among the state’s urban cities, some considerably more populous than the traditional cities, are Warren, Sterling Heights, Livonia, Dearborn, Westland, Southfield, and Farmington Hills.

Copyright © 1994

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