Why Cities Lose in Winner-Takes-All Elections
Jonathan A. Rodden on the Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide
The story of why cities lose in democracies with winner-take-all districts does not begin with the advent of sophisticated gerrymandering or the outbreak of contemporary culture wars. Rather, it begins with the birth of leftist mobilization in urban working-class neighborhoods during the era of rapid industrialization, known as the “second industrial revolution,” which took place from around 1870 to the outbreak of World War I.
A good place to begin the American version of the story is at 8 pm on July 23, 1877, near the intersection of Seventh and Penn Streets in downtown Reading, Pennsylvania. According to historical accounts, many downtown residents were out enjoying the cool evening air, and a group of curious onlookers, including women and children, were examining a rail car that had been taken over earlier in the day by striking railroad workers. A group of 350 state militiamen, marching on the tracks from the rail depot to the tap of a few drums, opened fire on the crowd without warning, killing several men, including police officers. A mob broke into the Reading Armory and a local gun store. A bloody battle ensued, and ten Reading citizens, none of whom were rioters or strikers, were left dead. Reading descended into chaos. Railroad tracks and an important bridge were destroyed, and an uneasy calm was not restored until the arrival of federal troops.
The Reading Railroad strike was just one part of a national strike called by the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers and Firemen in response to massive pay cuts amidst a deep recession. Similar violent incidents were occurring around the United States throughout the summer of 1877. The strikes had started in Baltimore and spread to New York, but the strikes in Pennsylvania were among the largest and most violent, and from there, they quickly spread to many of the industrial towns of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri as well. Unrest occurred not only in Pennsylvania’s large cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but also in smaller industrial outposts like Johnstown, Bethlehem, Harrisburg, and Hazelton. Unrest emerged in Toledo and Zanesville, Ohio; Terre Haute and Fort Wayne, Indiana; Effingham and Mattoon, Illinois; and Sedalia and St. Joseph, Missouri.
A 13-year–old boy named James Maurer was present among the crowd in downtown Reading that day, and later described “the hysterical sobs and shrieks of mothers and fathers, and the groans of the wounded and dying.” For Maurer, this “tragic act in the real drama of class struggle” was a call to action. In the ensuing years, he joined up with a group of young radicals associated with the Knights of Labor and the Socialist Labor Party, and eventually, the Socialist Party of America. Maurer went on to serve as a Socialist representative in the Pennsylvania State Legislature from 1910 to 1918 and became the leader of the Reading Socialists—a group that dominated Reading politics for decades. The Reading Socialists worked with labor unions, published a newspaper, and owned a large building and even a park where they hosted picnics for workers. They elected several popular mayors and controlled the city council for much of the 1920s and 1930s, and routinely sent legislators to the capital of Harrisburg to fight for policies like workers’ compensation and pensions. Twice, Maurer was the Socialist candidate for vice president of the United States.
Something very similar was happening in other countries that were experiencing rapid industrialization during the same time frame. As peasants were moving to cities to take jobs as wage laborers in Britain, Europe, and then Australasia and North America in the late 19th century, they were mobilized through cooperative efforts of labor unions and, soon thereafter, workers’ parties. Strikes, labor unrest, and heavy-handed responses by firms, armed gangs, and governments led labor leaders to form political parties and begin running for office in the late 19th century. The Belgian Labor Party was founded in 1885, the Swedish Social Democratic Party in 1889, and the Australian Labor Party in 1890; the British Labor Party started contesting seats a few years later. Each of these parties was formed in the midst of urban strikes, labor unrest, and anti-labor violence.
Though much has changed since the labor unrest and mobilization that took place from the late 19th century through the Great Depression, Europeans, North Americans, and Australians still inhabit the basic landscape of cities and party and electoral systems that took shape during that period. In the late 19th century, legislatures in Europe, North America, and Australasia were formed exclusively via winner-take-all districts. Not long after workers’ parties started running for office, they realized they suffered from a basic problem: manufacturing and mining activity, and hence the voters most likely to respond to their appeals, were highly concentrated in urban legislative districts. This created a dilemma for workers’ parties. If they maintained the purity of the socialist rhetoric favored by their radicalized urban supporters, they would not be able to form the alliances with voters in more centrist districts that were necessary to achieve electoral victory. However, to make those alliances was to invite challenges from insurgent radicals and communists. By focusing on the needs of the geographically concentrated working class, workers’ parties were able to win decisive victories in industrial cities, but they found it difficult to transform votes into commensurate seats.
It is important to understand the rise of urban workers’ parties and the dynamics of their geographic dilemma in the early 20th century for three reasons. First, this era foreshadows the dilemma faced by the Democrats and other urban parties today. The occupational basis and ideological content of urban parties has changed dramatically, but the basic political geography—and the dilemma faced by urban parties—is the same.
Second, in the early 20th century, European countries enacted reforms that resolved this burgeoning dilemma: they abolished single-member district representation schemes and replaced them with systems of proportional representation. Political geography and the emergence of workers’ parties led broad coalitions of elites to embrace electoral reform in Europe—and hence preserve nascent multiparty systems—but not in Britain, North America, and Australasia.
Third, even though they were absorbed into the Democratic Party during the New Deal and have become a footnote in the history of the United States, James Maurer and the Reading Socialists allow a useful glimpse of a road not taken—an understanding of the ways in which the United States is unique among industrialized countries. The period of labor conflict, violence, and union mobilization was just as intense in the United States as in Europe—and perhaps even bloodier—but it never led to the emergence of a political party based purely on the interests of urban labor. Rather, urban labor became one of several factions within an existing political party that continued to be many things to many people. Without a nationwide threat from an urban workers’ party beyond Reading and a few other hotspots, the United States developed neither the partisan division on the left that has characterized Canada and the United Kingdom, nor the broad constituency for electoral reform that emerged in Europe. It emerged from the era of labor conflict with one of the purest two-party systems in the world, thus setting the stage for the arrival of extreme urban-rural polarization in later decades.
Excerpted from Why Cities Lose by Jonathan Rodden. Copyright © 2019. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.