Richmond City Nights: Part I of the 2012 Policy History Conference

What is a conference without a solid discussion of the future prospects of the robot rights movement?  Every two years, scholars gather in burgeoning metropolises like Richmond, VA and Columbus, OH to debate the sources, implications, and meanings of public policies and the movements and people who craft them at the Policy History Conference. At June’s 2012 four day event, attendees traversed a variety of topics and issues.  In Part I, ToM looks at the impact of the New Right on gun ownership, taxes and Richard Nixon and the results and conflicts of 1970s regional developmental efforts in Denver, Detroit, and the Bay area.

Guns, Taxes and the Rise of the Right

Jeffrey Marlin, Reassessing the Strength of the National Rifle Association

In this eye-opening paper, Georgia State doctoral student Jeffrey Marlin introduced listeners to the little-known prehistory of the National Rifle Association.  The organization has been closely associated with the “culture wars” of the 1990s, as well as the reaction to 1960s liberalism and social upheaval more broadly.  Its influence has been felt in the lobbying and activism that powered the rise of the New Right, which succeeded in installing enough activists on the bench that the Roberts Court could strike down years of gun regulation in its unprecedented McDonald v. Chicago decision of 2010–one that cheered conservatives who had long felt their constitutional rights were under attack by judges and lawmakers. Yet as Marlin shows, the NRA did not just grow to behemoth size overnight, emerging from the social revolution of the late twentieth century as a fully formed lobby of vast scope and power.  In fact, the NRA’s history stretches back to 1871—even further, in fact, to a nineteenth century culture of rifle clubs.  At the time of its founding, there were 10,000 rifle clubs in New York alone.  Despite the prevalence of gun ownership and shooting as a social pastime, the Civil War had revealed the limited skills of many draftees, and the NRA emerged out of an effort to encourage men to learn and practice marksmanship. In the 1870s and 1880s, a series of reformers sought to develop ways to train and prepare men for militia service, an effort that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the National Guard.  The NRA, however, was intimately involved with the creation of a number of government institutions, turning to federal and state governments for subsidy in its efforts to teach shooting, gun safety, and so forth.  Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, was a dues-paying member, and the famously rambunctious President signed measures providing the group with money for prizes, guns, and ammunition.  The NRA was also tied in with the federal government through its connection to the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, an obscure government agency founded in 1903 and “buried in the Pentagon until 1996,” as Marlin put it.  The NRA, thus, had a long history of its own as a tax-exempt non-profit organization, with political power, connections and support years before it took on its new role as an aggressive and influential lobby group in the late twentieth century.  Marlin’s paper did not say as much about how the NRA shifted from a fairly innocuous promoter of gun skills and safety to a powerhouse activist group, but his larger project will likely help scholars better understand how this transformation occurred.

Zack Smith, Founding the Conservative Opportunity Society

Anything involving Newt Gingrich is axiomatically interesting, and Zack Smith’s lively paper on the emergence of a new bare-knuckles style of politics among GOP backbenchers in the early 1980s is no exception.  According to Smith, Gingrich came to Congress in 1979 with the dream of building a GOP majority—the party had only momentarily held the House since the election of FDR in 1932—but he was not too concerned about legislating.  Ever the big thinker, Gingrich believed the Reagan revolution was already spent by 1982, with the establishment coopting the right-wing icon’s program of tax cuts and military spending.  In an image almost too delicious to be believed, Smith described a meeting Gingrich arranged with former President Richard Nixon at the Mayflower Hotel in New York.  Here were two of the most venal, anti-social and richly neurotic personalities in American political history, sitting across a table from each other.  Nixon was still persona non grata for many Republicans, his scandal and downfall having cost the party huge numbers of seats in the mid-1970s and tarnishing its image, but Gingrich admired two things about Tricky Dick: his unabashed willingness to use hardball tactics to crush his opponents, and his (related) ability to turn out massive political victories for the Right.  In Smith’s view, Gingrich cared much more about winning and maintaing political power for his party than any particular set of policies.  Yet he also suggested that the future Speaker’s ideal political formula would be a combination of Nixonian tactics and Reaganite ideology.  Gingrich hated the fact that his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate had gotten so cozy over the years, luxuriating the civility and comity of their respective chambers.  Long used to serving in the minority, GOPers tried to stay on good terms with Democratic committee chairs, who were willing to engage in good old-fashioned log-rolling to give Republican members many of the things they wanted in exchange for their cooperation.

Gingrich, instead, wanted confrontation.  He imagined a politics that was both optimistic and pugnacious, recruiting conservative allies like Florida’s Connie Mack and Minnesota’s Vin Weber to found the Conservative Opportunity Society in 1983.  As Smith points out, the COS was the negative of the enemy Gingrich loathed: the liberal welfare state.  It was conservative instead of liberal, emphasized opportunity instead of government handouts, and shifted the focus from the state to society—the constellation of forces, perhaps, like business, the market, and the church that conservatives favor.  The new group insisted that conservatives must focus on the future, advancing a positive social vision at the same time that they adopted a much harsher tack toward their opponents—both outside and inside the GOP.  This was the same Newton Leroy Gingrich who accused Republican stalwart Bob Dole (R-KS) of being the “tax collector of the welfare state.”  It was also the beginning of a political bloc within the GOP that would insist on ideological demands like pledging never to raise taxes, long before Grover Norquist captured the Republican Party as a whole in his viselike grip.  Overall, Smith’s paper helps fill in the story of how a hardline, nonnegotiating, purist strategy took over Republican politics in the ashes of Watergate and the early days of the Reagan Era—ironically, by an opportunistic pol who seemed to care little about ideology apart from winning the big game.

Richard Meagher, Death and Taxes: Tax Policy and the Conservative Coalition

Political scientist Richard Meagher (pronounced “Marr”) of Randolph-Macon College works on the split between social and economic conservatives.  His thought-provoking talk on the way evangelicals have come to embrace an anti-tax, anti-regulatory business agenda examined the imbalanced power dynamics between the GOP’s well-recognized business or “country club” and traditionalist wings.  Meagher began with the curious example of the Family Research Council’s 2009 recommendation that President Obama’s stimulus program should involve cutting corporate tax rates.  Why should people concerned chiefly with the family, homosexuality, indecency in the media and other issues advocate for lower taxes on business?  The answer is not self-evident.  The now much-maligned Thomas Frank thesis of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which earnest evangelicals of the working class are bamboozled into supporting economic policies that are “against their interests,” does not seem like a satisfying solution.  On the other hand, as Meagher points out, Republicans from Reagan to Dubya have mastered the art of placating the base with symbolic gestures (like an impossible constitutional amendment banning gay marriage) while assiduously pursuing policies designed to enrich the rich.  Meagher defines the relationship between economic and social conservatives (an admittedly imperfect dichotomy) as a distinctly unequal partnership, in which the evangelical grassroots provide the passion and the GOTV operation, but big business calls the tune for the GOP’s tangible policy agenda.  “Economic conservatives are the driver’s seat,” he says, “and social conservatives are the junior partner in this conservative coalition.”

How can business conservatives pull off this cunning ruse?  Meagher employs an analysis of issue frames, reminiscent of George Lakoff, to explain how social traditionalists have imbibed the free market, deregulatory message of big business over the long years of building the New Right since the 1970s.  Specifically, he uses the example of the estate tax on inheritances—ingeniously dubbed the “death tax”—to show conservative elites have been able to reframe an issue that only affects a tiny subset of the very rich as a gross instance of unfairness, which resonates with deep chords of family and morality.  He explains how a group of outsiders, including an estate tax lawyer from Florida, a Seattle newspaper editor and others, managed to push the “death tax” frame into the mainstream of conservative thought (and, indeed, political discourse in general), particularly through channels such as the Heritage Foundation.  The estate tax was, of course, designed to prevent the wealthy from passing on their privilege en masse to their descendants, curbing the unequal and distorting effects of inherited wealth.  In the hands of the New Right, though, the issue became about highly sympathetic “family farms and small businesses,” implying that the tax would devastate modest enterprises and taxes prevent the families from carrying on the legacy of their labor.  Few if any examples have ever been given of a small business or farm failing because of the estate tax, which only affected large estates, but the frame resonated with a wider sense of government unfairly persecuting hard-working, successful people and symbolically breaking up the family by appropriating the value of patriarchal succession.  The father—the farmer, the small business owner—is the central figure of this allegory, in which his passing deprives his children of their hard-earned birthright—yet another assault, in other words, on the integrity and sanctity of the nuclear family, the key unit in the otherwise individualist imaginary of New Right politics.


Contesting the Metropolitan Future: Political Discourses and Regional Development in the 1970s

Rachel Guberman, Race, Metropolitan Expansion and ‘Quality of Life’ Politics in Greater Denver

If only Tim Tebow had been a Denver elected official circa 1970, perhaps the tensions of metropolitan growth might not have been so pitched.  Then again maybe not. Diving into waters occupied by Matthew Lassiter, Lisa McGirr, and Kevin Kruse, Rachel Guberman explores metropolitan tensions over regional planning, school integration, and annexation in 1970s Denver. Guberman captures the competing visions held by suburbanites and Denver public officials regarding the relationship between city and suburb.

By the 1960s, Denver’s economy shifted from extractive industries like mining and forestry to tourism (“Ski Country USA”) and government largesse (military/federal  investment).  This economic change brought more white collar government workers and armed service personnel, active duty and retired, to Denver’s suburbs. When annexation laws changed in the early 1960s, many surrounding municipalities sought inclusion into the growing Rocky Mountain city’s boundaries. Annexation petitions (which had to come from the communities to be annexed and not Denver) soared.  City officials justified annexation by promoting the city’s cultural amenities, infrastructure (water systems, housing, and so forth) and job creation (federal employment) thus, positioning Denver as “the little Washington” of the state. Still, boosters made sure to emphasize the interdependency of Denver and its suburbs; Denver’s health and growth depended on its outlying communities and vice versa.  In some ways turning traditional anti-city arguments on their head, Denver’s Mayor McNichols frequently reminded metropolitan residents that the city’s share of a the area’s lower income populations and affordable housing benefitted the suburbs.  Lauding its history of providing services to region’s poorer residents, elected leaders pointed out that Denver’s public services and housing, which spared outlying municipalities such costs, helped to balance the area economy.  In housing alone, Denver accounted for 525,000 units of affordable housing while the outlying area provided only 9603.  For these leaders, the region existed as an organic interconnected whole.

Not everyone agreed.   Fearing their own communities might buy into the logic of city officials and petition for inclusion, many of Denver’s suburban residents rejected the city’s metropolitan vision, forming organizations with acronyms like FAIR (For Annexation Inequality Repeal) to stave off what many saw as a threat to their community.   FAIR fought for changes in annexation laws throughout the 1960s, placing increasing limits on its application until the 1974 Poundstone amendment to the state constitution ended annexation all together.   Annexation opponents utilized color blind arguments that masked underlying racial tensions stoked by school integration busing schemes.  Constructing an image of Denver’s suburbs as distinct – culturally, politically, and socially – from the tyrannical bullying city. In places like Greenwood Village, opponents argued Denver would rob communities of school tax bases and their “way of life.” Anti-annexation forces issued pamphlets highlighting whiteness, masculinity, and the nuclear family.  For these residents, Denver represented an “existential” threat to white families.  Annexation might lead to busing, which many suburbanites refused to accept.   The 1974 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley provided annexation opponents with a legal argument that shielded them from urban busing efforts.

Reminiscent of the kind of class politics on display in the aforementioned Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the making of Modern Conservatism, Guberman notes that working class whites in Denver looked askance at the resistance of their middle class counterparts.  The Poundstone Amendment enabled suburbanites to wall themselves off from the struggles of integration and present themselves as only concerned about economic impacts of urban annexation.  This allowed Denver’s suburban residents to advertise themselves as colorblind, more or less absolving them from racial intent.   Ultimately, Guberman argues Denver serves as a microcosm of metropolitan struggle in other Sunbelt cities and elsewhere as “neoliberal projects” naturalized boundaries making them “pre-political” and free from debate. Real integration would have to wait.

David Schlitt, Brother Can You Spare a Dome: The Pontiac Silverdome from Suburban Playground to Urban Charity Case

Few bedfellows appear as unlikely as Detroit and New Orleans.   Yet, through 1970s construction of two iconic indoor domed stadiums – the Superdome (N.O.) and the Silverdome (Detroit) respectively –  the two cities provide a valuable juxtaposition regarding the politics of economic development via sport.

When the Houston Astrodome opened in 1965, a new “domed mystique” emerged among city planners across the nation, as many argued stadium construction would serve as a catalyst for economic development.  Domes drew special attention for their alleged practicality and flexibility regarding use and as possible tourist attractions. Shrinking tax bases and municipal revenues along with the introduction of new systems of federal funding, notably revenue sharing, encouraged officials to promote stadium construction as an answer to economic growth and racial conflict.  Detroit’s 1967 race riots convinced the mayor and business community the need for such development.  Though officials preferred an 80 acre waterfront site they failed to complete their vision. Instead, the city of Pontiac, anxious over a declining car industry and broader deindustrialization, set its sights on the future Silverdome.  Pontiac Mayor Robert Jackson argued the stadium would help solve the city’s economic woes through events, tourism, and an enlarged tax base.  Detroit Mayor Coleman Young concurred providing a regional vision to the domed complex’s impact: what was good for Detroit was good the for metropolitan area and what was good for Silverdome was good for Detroit.

New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu had been elected in 1970 in part on a platform that advocated stadium construction.  Wanting new membership in the “New South” and hoping to move out of Houston’s shadow, Landrieu pushed for the building of the Superdome. In picking sites, the suburbs never really entered the discussion since the Crescent’s City lacked any sort of radial layout limiting access to suburban locations.

Finished within months of each other in 1975, the Superdome enjoyed arguably more notoriety in the subsequent years as many observers viewed its 1981 hosting of the Super Bowl as a success.   With its own Super Bowl commitment rapidly approaching, Detroit attempted to emulate New Orleans’ success.  After sending delegates to the New Orleans Super Bowl, Detroit enacted several measures that reflected this influence. In 1982, Michigan spent 10 million dollars on add campaigns that sold Detroit in the language of New Orleans and the broader non-union South. For example, a Wall Street Journal advertisement celebrated Michigan’s success in rolling back union excess such as a noted decline in workman’s compensation. Since Saginaw Street had become a symbol of the city’s decline – heavy layoffs and shuttered businesses — leaders handed out temporary liquor licenses and renamed it North Bourbon Street for visitors.  Unfortunately, though the Super Bowl unfolded successfully, the only attention that Detroit garnered vascillated between pity and ridicule.  Sports Illustrated depicted the area around the Silverdome as the equivalent of late Cold War era Moscow — all dirty snow and barbed wire. Other writers directed barbs at struggling autoworkers.

Media reports depicted the Superdome as an economic success sparking a construction boom and diminishing poverty rates, but in reality, the economic fortunes of the broader Gulf Coast and an oil boom probably had more to do with these results.  In contrast, no one portrayed the Silverdome as a successful stab at economic development.  The same oil spike that enriched the Gulf Coast damaged Detroit. The auto industry stagnated.  However each was depicted, both New Orleans and Detroit continued to be afflicted by some of the highest poverty rates among cities larger than 200,000.  In New Orleans, events only hastened the growth of low wage service employment.  Tourism expanded as conventions quadrupled in the period from the Superdome’s construction and the end of the 1980s. The city’s social geography soon transformed as the  uptick in  onvention goers led to hotel construction that increased five fold.   The deleterious effects of hotel expansion produced greater concentrations of poverty. The number of neighborhoods in extreme poverty rose to 60%. If New Orleans had the second highest rate of poverty concentration nationally, Detroit’s ranked 18th.

Considering debates in the early aughts over New York’s proposed West Side stadium, the recent construction of the Nets new home in Brooklyn and Minnesota’s recent approval of state funds for the Vikings new stadium, a proper accounting for the effects of these projects or others like it (think casinos) needs to be conducted. Schlitt suggests that these kind of sliver bullet big box solutions may not be the panacea that so many have promised.

Louise Nelson Dyble, The Triumph of Home Rule Regionalism: The Conservatism of Environmental Politics in the San Francisco Bay Area

In his controversial but provocative book, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Mike Davis asserted that land use politics of Southern California often focused on a “homestead exclusivism” which promoted “slow growth” while employing the language of environmentalism as means to construct larger more diverse coalitions of supporters.  For Davis, this really meant middle and upper class homeowners wished to protect their communities from “undesirable” populations. Louise Nelson Dybie provides a road map to one of the sources of the phenomena Davis describes.

To Bay area environmentalists, few figures protected their interests better than TJ Kent.  Best known as the founder of the UC Berkeley planning department, Kent demonstrated repeatedly over several decades of engagement a commitment to the protection of the physical environment.  Kent’s ideas and methods, though controversial among some academics, remained highly influential as his work frequently found its way onto syllabi in planning departments across the nation. Republished in 1991, his book The Urban General Plan found a new audience even as it induced others to doubt its conclusions.

What made Kent a figure of both praise and ambivalence?  Kent fiercely defended local democracy arguing that democratically elected council members should be fully in charge. Home rule remained sacrosanct.  Predictably, as planners developed a belief in regional planning Kent resisted organizing protests in the 1960s and 70s to “fight the tyranny of regional planning.” In general, Kent questioned the wisdom of other experts in his field and thought little of San Francisco elites. Instead of regional planning, Kent believed these efforts should not be dictated but negotiated; planning existed as a process not an end.  For Kent, technical limited planning provided better development.  Active in local politics, Kent helped to organized the Association of Bay Area Government (ABAG) in 1962.  ABAG served as a forum for discussion but had no power to implement policies. Still, ABAG proved influential.  When Kent later organized voluntary citizen groups such as “People for Open Space”, the organization embraced ABAG’s 1970 regional plan emphasizing Mumfordesque greenbelts, open space, and a general low density dispersed regional ideal.

Critically, Kent cared little for social scientists engaged in planning issues and felt little compunction to address the problematic racial and class issues that arose of out the kind of home rule structures he promoted. If his ideas worked well in San Mateo/Marin county they performed poorly in San Francisco.  The kind of policies Kent supported left minority groups with little recourse especially as housing transportation policies exacerbated inequalities.  Kent never addressed these sorts of implications and ignored numerous voices who believed unchecked local power and a focus on strictly physical planning created as many problems as it solved.  Kent’s legacy continues to reverberate most notably among some white homeowners who used such arguments to maintain de facto segregation.