X Marks the Flop: The Real Problem for Cultural Conservatives Going Forward

Whether you’re an anti-gay evangelical activist or a Muslim dreaming of a new caliphate, here’s the really big picture: liberal attitudes are well adapted to urban life and culturally conservative ones are less so. And the world’s demographics are moving toward greater numbers of urban dwellers.

That’s pretty much checkmate. To have a growing “medieval values coalition” in the world, you need lots of people living in small towns and rural areas. But that’s not where things are going.

Think of a state like New York in the United States. Two-thirds of the state’s voters reside in the city of New York proper. Two-thirds. How does a cultural conservative win a democratic election in the state absent winning the urban vote?

Answer: he doesn’t.

And the demographics of New York state are the demographics coming to the entire globe in 2050. Think about that.

The below United Nations data chart ought to be on the wall of every politically interested person, left or right. It focuses the mind. The blue line plots the percentage of urban dwellers in the world. The green line plots the percentage of rural dwellers. The chart begins at 1950 and projects out to 2050.

The large “X” that the intersecting lines generate is what ought to startle because it shows that the urban/rural percentages change places over time. In other words, there was once a roughly 70-30 divide in favor of rural dwellers in the world (in 1950). It will be the exact opposite in 2050 (70-30 in favor of urban dwellers).

The below chart stops at 2050, but the urban trend doesn’t. By century’s end, demographers project a 90-10 urban/rural split in the human population. 90-10. These numbers are great for the production of cultural liberals and left of center mayors in the world (like Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaragosa, Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, and New York’s Mike Bloomberg). It’s not so great for the production of reactionary-minded traditionalists (at least in substantial numbers).

The joker in the deck of this global urban trend is the international airport. Yes, plague may one day come to the demographic rescue of cultural conservatism. (See the excellent and disturbing movie, Contagion, for a plausible dramatization of how such a scenario could play out.) In an apocalyptic calamity of the global plague variety, culturally conservative ruralists could well inherit the Earth after all.


File:Percentage of World Population Urban Rural.PNG

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to X Marks the Flop: The Real Problem for Cultural Conservatives Going Forward

  1. Staffan says:

    For one, there is more than evangelicals and Muslims who are conservative. Like I said in a previous comment, Europe has a nationalist movement ranging from classical fascism to LGBT and drug friendly parties.

    Second, there is no reason to assume that conservative groups can’t thrive in large cities. New York has a large population of Orthodox Jews, and the majority of the Orthodox voted Republican. Japan and Finland are much more urbanized than America and have both rejected multiculturalism. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are just as urbanized as America and yet extremely conservative. You should also keep in mind that urbanization is slowing down in rich countries so what happens globally is that Africa is getting urbanized, not America which has a low rate of urbanization.

    Another thing to consider is fertility. Conservative groups have more children than liberals. This means that liberals need immigration to stay on top. But importing Mexicans with IQ 85 in large numbers will turn America to a low-IQ country with a corresponding GDP. When California morphes into northern Mexico a lot of previous liberals are going to vote Rebuplican – even New Yorkers.

    This is not to say conservatives will win a global victory, but that there are so many factors to consider that a simple victory for the liberal values is not a realistic prediction.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I guess it depends on how you define cultural conservatism. The Japanese may well be xenophobic concerning ever letting in many immigrants, but on most measures the Japanese are culturally quite internationalist, outward-looking, and liberal.

      As for Orthodox Jews, they are a good example of adaptation. They interact with the city as professionals even as they maintain strong links to their religious traditions.

      The reality is, however, that when you raise a kid in an urban environment, you can’t really control very well what that kid is exposed to over time. A conservative religious tradition over generations can maintain its identity in the city, but there are certain working assumptions about respect and diversity that also get absorbed. Those assumptions tend to be liberal.

      As for the United States and urbanization, it’s economy is projected to grow over the next forty years faster than other developed parts of the world precisely because its population is not gentrifying and there are young people coming in. Here’s a link to David Brooks making this important point:


  2. Staffan says:

    So Orthodox Jews are maintaining their conservatism in an urban setting while adopting some basic liberal assumptions? And if you look at the Muslim world there is urbanization and extreme conservatism sidy by side. The nationalism in Europe is rising in highly urbanized societies. That sounds pretty far from check mate to me.

    As for Brooks, I think I’ve already covered it. Intelligence is a very good predictor of economic development. You are relying on low IQ immigrants to increase the population so you will pay the price for that. There is no reason to believe that you are going to be the exception to the rule that IQ correlates with GDP. You will notice this in California soon: public spending will increase, businesses will move out to avoid the rising taxes and public service will deteriorate – welcome to Mexico.

    That said, big Western cities may foster a respect for tolerance and basic human rights in a way that less diverse rural areas don’t. However, with a steady influx of non-Westerners they become less Western. (Probably not a problem in Los Angeles since Hispanics are pretty West-oriented.)

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Money follows openness. Any urban area that can’t attract money and young people and gay people will do poorly in competition with other urban areas. And any ethnic group in a city that is too closed off will do poorly financially.

      Reputation also matters. Individuals and groups that want to do well in life while living in urban areas try not to develop reputations for being reactionary, stupid, sexist, closed off, ignorant, homophobic, backward, or intolerant.

      And money talks (and feet walk). The future is wherever the money and feet want to move. California has lots of poorly educated immigrants, but there are also a lot of professionals (scientists, techies, doctors from India, etc.) who immigrate here as well.

      The key is having great universities and an open, liberal and free enterprise culture that people, regardless of their backgrounds, can participate in. Freedom matters. Urban amenities matter. Not many people choose rural Idaho to live in rather than Los Angeles. Not many people choose orthodox Judaism over reformed Judaism (though both function in the city). And no businesswoman says, “Let’s take our tech start-up business to Saudi Arabia.” Instead, she says, “Let’s park our new tech business in an office building near UC Berkeley” (or Stanford, or UC San Diego, etc).


      • Staffan says:

        Now you are just saying stuff without anything to back it up with. If money was following openness then China wouldn’t be doing so fine. As far as young people go, it seems like Utah is the youngest state in America and LA has twice the unemployment of Salt Lake City. New York has a median age of 42 compared to 35 for Detroit. The facts aren’t matching your idea of diversity as essential to financial success. Other than that rich cities seem to have a lot of gays. But like I said before, there are gay-friendly conservatives. Pim Fortyun was out of the closet and still very popular with his nationalist voters. And I suspect most people feel that Orthodox Jews are somewhat closed off.

        As for reputation, well I’m not going to defend stupidity, but I will say that there is plenty of that on both sides of the fence. I think we can agree that it isn’t a defining quality in a conservative person (or in a liberal).

        Yes, money talks, and one way it does that is through unemployment rates.

        “The key is having great universities and an open, liberal and free enterprise culture that people, regardless of their backgrounds, can participate in.”

        You have that and you’re failing! Money walks, not words, remember?

        “Not many people choose rural Idaho to live in rather than Los Angeles.”

        I don’t know the situation in Idaho but the trend of people moving from blue to red states is well documented, http://www.npr.org/2010/12/23/132234651/census-data-will-reshape-u-s-political-landscape

        “Not many people choose orthodox Judaism over reformed Judaism (though both function in the city).”

        According to Wikipedia 60 percent of Jewish children in New York are Orthodox.

        “And no businesswoman says, “Let’s take our tech start-up business to Saudi Arabia.” Instead, she says, “Let’s park our new tech business in an office building near UC Berkeley” (or Stanford, or UC San Diego, etc).”

        I used Saudi Arabia as an example of how conservatism can thrive in big cities, and as such it is a great example. It’s liberals who think an influx of Muslims to the West is a blessing of diversity – your friends, not mine. As for moving her business to California that doesn’t accord with the job creation and unemployment statistics.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        You are right that I need to match my claims with statistics, but my quick response to some of your points is that China is drawing on low-lying economic fruit and will have to liberalize over time to remain dynamic; California’s economy is growing; and urban Jews are largely politically and culturally liberal.

        As for Utah, its economic activity and concentration of youth are almost certainly centered around its cities. My bet is that Utah is liberalizing as well. A lot of the issues that have older cultural conservatives wound tight are becoming dated. It’s hard to know how Bush-era sensibilities reassert themselves going forward. Obama has routed the Tea Party and exorcised its energy from the body politic. People don’t want hysterical and hostile culture warriors and warmongers in office anymore (at least not the majority of people).

        You are probably right that a lot of conservative and liberal attitudes have a genetic basis, but when you get urbanized you learn different modes for expressing your temperament. My bet is that conservative activism, as it faces urban diversity more directly and honestly, will turn inward into conservative community building that is not as determined to change the larger culture as a whole. There will still be a lot of conservatives in the world, but they’ll tolerate a lot more diversity when they’re out and about in the city (not demand that the city as a whole reflect their covenantal relationship with God).

        Over time, this will calm liberals down about conservatives (and vice versa). There will be more respect. Conservatives attract enemies by trying to get nonconservatives to live under the covenantal commitments they choose for themselves. Liberals, of course, also have to back off (leave Big Gulps alone, etc.). No nanny-ism and values hectoring from either side.


    • Santi Tafarella says:

      As for your Western, non-Western concern, here’s the reality. The West has won. Everybody is moving in our direction (and those that aren’t are losing at the money-making game). Indians are Westernizing, Asians are Westernizing, Africans are Westernizing. A lot of Muslims are resisting Westernization. Most everybody else is doing things in ways that are in key ways in accord with the Enlightenment (respect for democracy, medicine, science, education, capitalism, freedom of expression, etc.).

      • Staffan says:

        Using Western culture as a proxy for Enlightenment or similar values is a huge simplification. Was Edmund Burke Chinese or Muslim? Am I somehow a non-Westerner?

        But more importantly. Who will protect human rights in a world in which unconditional diversity is the ideal? People with IQ 85? Or Muslim tribalists who view us as the outgroup? Yeah, I said “us”, I went there : ) Diversity is a liberal suicide. The cruel irony is that I and probably most conservatives in the West share the basic idea of human rights and want to protect them, while liberals think anyone opposing diversity must be the enemy.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I don’t doubt that you have Europeans who hate their own civilization and want Islam to stick it to the West. They’re a minority, though. And I still think that democracy, free trade, and urbanism are effectively starting to tame the kinds of cultural conservatism represented by Islam.

        Islam is in crisis, not the West.

        In terms of cultural medievalism, we are at the stage of Peak Conservatism. In other words, the kinds of cultural conservatism that gave us jihad and Bushies 13 years ago is on the decline. The right side of the bell curve has been reached. It’s all downhill for cultural conservatism from here (barring a plague or nuclear exchange in a crisis).

        As for Burke, I like his theory of the sublime, but his politics were always too stuffy. It’s hard to like a guy who hated Thomas Paine and thought the American and French revolutions were bad ideas. Combining democracy with capitalism is proving poisonous in the long run to reactionaries and fanatics. Freedom to make money and having the power to vote people out of office who fail to set up policies that make money means that pragmatism will win the 21st century. We should be relieved. It could be far worse.


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