“Revolt of the Suburbs in the 1968 & 2018 Elections,” an Oct. 2 panel of three award-winning historians, deconstructed the shift of the U.S. suburban population over time and their current influence.
Kevin Kruse, the Princeton history professor who co-edited “The New Suburban History,” moderated the panel between Lily Geismer, professor at Claremont McKenna College, and Matthew Lassiter, assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
The panel first examined Richard Nixon’s success in the 1968 presidential election.
According to Lassiter, “1968 was the key time for suburban strategy driving the two parties, and this is still shown now.”
Although Nixon’s campaign is commonly addressed as his “Southern strategy,” Lassiter argued that he actually targeted a mix of suburbs and new Southern states.
There was a “Republican shift in the South towards [those involved with] investments and in the suburbs,” which contained an overall affluent populace, Lassiter stated.
This strategy also appealed to the rest of the country, as Nixon ultimately won 49 states.
Lassiter noted there has been a growing shift in the types of voters in suburban areas. Voters are more diverse in economic status, race, and immigration status than the stereotypical notion of suburbs as primarily white and affluent would suggest.
Democratic gains in wealthy suburbs and shifts in presidential elections suggest rising liberalism, Lassiter continued. Those in the suburbs generally do not vote in response to partisan beliefs but have similar views on issues which affect them, such as exclusionary zoning, police brutality, income inequality, and homeowner privileges. However, Democrats have not prioritized these needs until recently. Thus, Geismer argued the conversation needs to be re-centered to political consequences and not political affiliation.
Geismer argued that when Democrats focus on suburbs “turning blue,” the policy cost is higher inequality due to housing segregation.
Geismer said the “transition of liberals and Democratic party in 1968 … [caused a] larger transition away from [the] union toward suburban knowledge workers.”
Lassiter reiterated that the U.S. public focuses too much on election outcomes and not on policy formation, as the latter is more informative of public opinion.
Geismer and Lassiter primarily argue that the politically polarized environment is not as polarized as it appears, and that voters should not overanalyze past and present outcomes.
“[There is a] tendency to predesignate outcomes as liberal or conservative,” Geismer said. This can cause voters to ignore real policy issues that both sides may compromise on. President Donald Trump’s current immigration policies are very similar to Obama-era regulations, and the War on Drug policies came from “Republican think-tanks.”
Geismer stated that a recent Pew survey depicts that the majority of voters are not polarized, that they are moderates, and that they are not voting. She said there was a large movement socially toward the end of the Obama era to address housing issues and toward having progressive movements at the local level in particular issues.
Regarding the upcoming midterm election, Geismer said, “Michigan’s very gerrymandered so even if the Democrats win the Senate and the Governor’s elections, they’re probably not going to be able to win Congress and the state legislature…. They’re going to have to really organize at the grassroots, they’re going to have to get rid of gerrymandering, if possible. There’s a referendum on that on the ballot and that’s probably the best thing that could happen for the Democrats [this upcoming election].”
Geismer left the audience with a cautionary note against reacting quickly after elections and to instead think: “How are you going to assess this in 30 or 40 years?”
The panel was held in McCormick 101 on Tuesday, Oct. 2, at 4:30 p.m.