The Authoritarian Surround

The suburbs have incubated authoritarian sympathies as well as revolutionary restlessness

In the summer of 1956 an enormous geodesic dome rose in Afghanistan at the Kabul International Trade Fair, 100 feet in diameter. The Eisenhower administration, having learned that China and the Soviet Union were building massive pavilions for the event, quickly commissioned Buckminster Fuller to design a building that would display for the world nothing less than the modern American consciousness. Made of nothing but aluminum and nylon, the dome was thoroughly representative of the new jet-set era. Contained in the sensorium were sewing machines, airplanes, and plastic life-size farm animals. In the center was a model television studio.

In many ways, that slapdash dome still summarizes the American political consciousness: thin yet resilient, with a consumer-driven mass media at its core. Meant to counter the propaganda style of 20th-century authoritarian regimes, the dome presented a small world “in which you could experience yourself as modern,” as Fred Turner writes in The Democratic Surround, “driven by your own desires, supported by a well designed aesthetic infrastructure and a powerful mass-production economy.” These immersive multimedia environments are the “democratic surrounds” of Turner’s title.

Mid-century American intellectuals, he writes, were convinced that “cultures and nations had personalities; those personalities depended on the psyches of individual citizens; and communication, whether through mass media or art or interpersonal interaction, could turn the minds of citizens in authoritarian or democratic directions.” Against the then prevailing theories of psychoanalysis or behaviorism, which both insisted that our personality was more or less inalterable once we reach adulthood, they drew on the humanistic 20th-century psychology of Gordon Allport, who argued that cultural surroundings could influence the personality structure of grown people. Mass media could be a means of mass psychological adjustment, a way to alter the character of an entire population, moving it away from fascism or communism and toward what the Eisenhower administration called “the people’s democracy”: an ideology that gestured toward a nominally multicultural society but foregrounded a dedication to individual autonomy and private property.

The American suburb has evolved into a carefully tuned media surround that seeks to sustain that apartheid at any cost

But what if these latter two qualities, not enshrined in a geodesic dome but embedded in elaborate built environments, produced the very fascist tendencies they were expected to reverse? American suburbs seem to follow from a certain idea of pseudo-democracy and self-reliance: people can vote with their feet and move to lower-density developments in smaller municipalities, among people they feel comfortable with. They find infrastructural support for individualized rather than mass transit, and they have access to a plethora of shopping to exercise their personal tastes and articulate their “lifestyles.” But at the same time, suburbs are a refined sorting device designed to isolate and segregate people, demonizing outsiders and terrorizing residents with a racialized fear of “intruders” and of general difference, investing the tendency to conform with a political urgency. The poor, precisely because they lack the material means of navigating the suburbs, are portrayed in the media as either a threat or an impediment to the middle class’s well-being.

The “authoritarian personality” — an idea derived from post–World War II psychological research into fascism’s appeal that developed a continuum of authoritarian tendencies along nine axes — has been revived to help explain Trump’s rise. A Vox article by Amanda Taub reports that “44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as ‘high’ or “very high’ authoritarians” in a study conducted just after the 2016 New Hampshire primary. In a Nation article called “Trumpism: It’s Coming From the Suburbs,” Jesse A. Myerson argued for a link between authoritarianism and geography, pointing to the racist motives and redlining policies that created America’s segregated suburbs. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s failed prognostication — “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin” — seems further evidence that the suburbs incubate authoritarian tendencies, much like the Kabul exhibition was supposed to make for democratic ones.

The modern suburb in America began as a means of providing abundant and comfortable housing to white Americans and has now evolved into a carefully tuned media surround — replete with ubiquitous screens running alarmist commercial media — that seeks to sustain that apartheid at any cost. But just as the media elevated a man to the presidency only to have him turn around and name it the “enemy of the people,” the built environment of suburbs is riven with contradictions that will ultimately be its undoing.

The earliest areas to be described as suburbs were medieval settlements that surrounded a castle or sat just beyond the city gates — outside the protection of stone walls but adjacent to civilization, close enough to derive some safety benefits and access to the courts, the church, and the guild hall. But as capitalism and Protestantism flourished hand-in-hand, the centralizing powers of labor guilds and the Catholic church waned. Then, with the development of urban factories and more elaborate transportation infrastructure, workers were both pushed and pulled out of the city: pushed by squalor and pulled by elites who were afraid of the class consciousness forming in urban conditions. The elites’ plan was to build towns on their estates and encourage the people to spread themselves thin.

The metaphysical mission of the modern suburb was to marry the conveniences of city life with the traditions of rural life, as they were schematized in early sociology, in works like Louis Wirth’s Urbanism as a Way of Life (1938). To call a place a city is to say important things happen here; the city is capable of producing or hosting culture, just like its dialectical opposite, the country, with its rural folk life. The suburbs are supposed to be balanced in between, with a culture made entirely of convenience.

Whether any given neighborhood is considered “urban” or “suburban” now maps closer to ideas of safety and authenticity than building density. “Place-making” — urban-ish mixed-use developments and pedestrian-friendly shopping districts build in suburbs — do little to upend their basic perceived suburbanness.

But while we persist in thinking of cities and suburbs as culturally distinct, they are merging into continuous organisms in practice. Consider the stretch of settlements that hug the Interstate 4 corridor in Central Florida: Tampa to the west, Daytona Beach to the east, and Orlando in the middle, with lower-density townships like Sanford and Lakeland that hundreds of thousands of people call home filling in the gaps. From the highway, this seems like one continuous city that stretches across the entire peninsula — and there are quizzes and listicles that treat the region as such, pointing to a shared I-4 experience that extends beyond the discrete place names.

Urban theorists and city planners have taken to describing these amorphous regions with such terms as “multi-centered metropolitan regions,” “edge cities,” “polycentric urban regions,” and “polycentric mega-city regions” — clunky amalgams whose awkwardness points to their unsettled place in our culture. These terms try and fail to paper over the antagonisms and tensions between places we readily recognize as suburbs and cities. No one proudly (or begrudgingly, even) declares they live in a “polycentric urban region,” because such a phrase does nothing to communicate anything about the life they might want to project. Instead, if a young person wants to seem cosmopolitan, they will say they live “just outside” a major city. If a parent wants to convey a thinly veiled brag about the quality of the schools they have access to, they will name the suburban municipality.

One of the defining features of authoritarian personalities is a revulsion toward things and people that complicate their established categories. In the suburbs, everything is designed to have its specific place, and to walk or work in the wrong place is to transgress boundaries

In the late 1980s, the Los Angeles School of urbanism articulated what cities had become:  highly visible and openly accessible media objects that were at the same time locked down and garrisoned to all but the most privileged. Their Los Angeles is both the “fortress” that Mike Davis described in City of Quartz (1990) and the “rectangular dream machine for the world,” as Edward Soja called it in Postmodern Geographies (1989). It is this juxtaposition between the city as abstract brand and the city as actually existing rigid security apparatus that permits the authoritarian surround. It produces the conflicted image of the city that underwrites suburban fantasies of control and escape.

Still though, no matter how important semiotics is in understanding the city, as Soja points out, the physical form and geographic contours of a place can exert its own kind of self-reinforcing effects on politics. In the Journal of Urban Affairs, political scientist Paul Lewis reports that “liberal versus conservative political ideology is one of the most significant, weighty correlates of individual attitudes toward compact development.” If your politics lean to the left, you’re more likely to prefer the density of cities. If you are conservative, you like to be separated. Drawing on a poll from over a thousand randomly selected adults in the American Southwest, Lewis found that those who preferred compact urban development — cities — were also most likely to feel “low levels of communal belonging to the United States,” to consider themselves atheists or agnostics, and to regard immigrants positively.

According to Lewis, “preferences for living environments associated with the political left and right emerge in part from the fundamentally different moral intuitions these groups have about what is the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ way to live in an urbanized society.” Such intuitions play out in opinions about what constitutes a desirable home. For example, given that conservatives regard the family unit as the most important social institution, it makes perfect sense that they would choose the detached single-family homes that appear to emphasize this belief. Similarly, if you believe that the world is inherently dangerous, you would find comfort in physical buffers and boundaries that appear to protect your family.

The real estate industry and municipal governments have chosen to cater to these moral assumptions rather than challenge them — effectively placating reactionary attitudes. Rather than desegregate the suburbs, new and more precise discriminatory practices have been developed, including zoning laws that limit the number of units per acre. As a result, in some suburban jurisdictions, one can be surrounded on all sides by miles of homes that are valued within a few thousand dollars of each other. This class segregation also translates to racial segregation, as even wealthy black families tend to live in poorer neighborhoods as compared with their white counterparts. A recent New York Times review of census data found that black families that earned above $100,000 “are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods than even white households making less than $25,000.” The suburbs’ defining quality may not be its density or proximity to a city but how successfully those two qualities are brought to bear to enforce demographic homogeneity.

The suburbs offer a promise of perfect order, even if it is always already deferred. One of the defining features of authoritarian personalities is a revulsion toward things, and people, that complicate their established categories. In the suburbs, everything is designed to have its specific place, and to walk or work in the wrong place is to transgress legal, technical, and cultural boundaries. By instituting very precise uses for space — driving happens here, walking happens over there, people live here and shop down there — the suburb imposes the resource-intensive responsibility for abiding those boundaries on residents.

Those who are systematically denied the opportunities necessary to marshal the resources to live in suburbia are at the same time represented as the suburban way of life’s most pressing threat. They slow things down. They violate the boundaries. People who can’t afford cars or run small businesses from their homes are flies in the ointment. Jaywalkers on fast-moving arterial roads, the work truck parked in the subdivision that explicitly forbids work vehicles are not just nuisances; they threaten the suburbs’ entire reason for being.

But since the perfect order evoked by the suburban environment can never be achieved in practice, more powerful technologies of control are continually being authorized and implemented. Ironically, the modern gated suburb, with its controlled access gates and tall stucco walls, was imported from Latin America. According to anthropologist Setha Low, such places are “a response to transformations in the political economy of late 20th-century urban America.” In Behind the Gates, her study of residents in a gated “community,” Low notes that the prime motivation for moving into one is a “desire for safety, security, community, and ‘niceness’ as well as wanting to live near people like themselves” out of a fear of the crime brought by “others.” While most of her respondents acknowledge that the gates are more symbolic than functional, they also don’t expect to ever leave what they view as a far safer means of living. Davis observes in City of Quartz that parts of Los Angeles represent an “unprecedented tendency to merge urban design, architecture, and the police apparatus into a single comprehensive security effort.”

Black Lives Matter has performed some of its biggest political statements in suburban neighborhoods. Across the country, it has done what few movements have dared to do: block highways that sustain suburbs

Authoritarian personality types are also predisposed to exercising rigid parental control. The built environment of the suburbs accommodates this as well. Even the most rebellious child may find it challenging to sneak out to meet friends if they are separated by miles of road with no bike lane. It is no coincidence that middle-class families, who have to make discreet trips by car to playgrounds and other entertainment venues, have supplanted their children’s unstructured play with regimented playdates and planned activities.

The architecture we associate with the suburbs — strip malls and detached single-family homes — perfectly maps onto fascists’ desire for order, categorization, and control. People and activities must be separated and buffered to avoid annoyance and fend off danger. This centripetal force is immensely resource-intensive: expensive fleets of cars moving across vast distances, acres of land converted into single family homes, big-box retailers, and parking lots. For all this, what’s gained? The impression that no one will be forced to deal with any other type of person that they don’t want to have to deal with.

Despite all the reports about how millennials have shirked cars and traditional family life, the suburbs remain in demand. According to the National Association of Realtors, millennials make up a plurality of American homebuyers (at around 34 percent) and a full 83 percent of homes bought in 2016 were single, detached family homes. Most of those homes were built in the early 1990s and have three bedrooms and two bathrooms. In other words, they are typical suburban homes. This mismatch between stated preferences and actual buying trends might mean that millennials are changing, but it may also mean that — like all the trends associated with this generation — they are being forced to choose among the dregs of what previous generations left behind.

Perhaps this is why the primary depiction of the suburbs is that of terminal decline. Earlier literary depictions of suburban ennui (think Updike’s Rabbit, Run or even Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life) had once given way to popular works that use suburbs as shorthand for safe but dull dystopia (the place that Ferris Bueller wants to run away from). But now suburbs are more often depicted as derelict and dangerous: The OA, Stranger Things, The Leftovers, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Ozarks, The Americans, It Follows, Get Out, Nightcrawler, and Spring Breakers all prominently feature scenes of unfinished, abandoned, and criminal suburbia. They feature nonplaces that were forgotten before they were even completed: half-built homes, desolate parking lots, and neighborhoods that are seemingly devoid of the wage-earning adults that have always been suburbs’ raison d’être. America is quickly getting used to the idea that the suburbs, like the city, can be the locus of fear, alienation, and crime. Any good authoritarian mind-set needs an external threat, and with the absolute numbers of violent crime descending, these fictional, more existential threats about the longevity of the suburban promise are a good replacement.

What few actually existing tragedies remain are found and dutifully reported by local TV news stations. Local news is the broadcast media equivalent of suburbia’s built environments. This symbiotic system of media and architecture completes the authoritarian surround. The synthesis of these two systems — suburbs and local news — perfects a control mechanism that isolates people from casual conversation and sustains an alarmist sense of nearby danger and a state of necessary vigilance, as well as an attitude of self-congratulation over one’s suburban lifestyle choices.

In 2003, a team of communication researchers conducted a meta-analysis of three different data sets to determine whether watching local news increased one’s fear of crime. “Viewers of local television news” they determined, “experience heightened perceptions of crime risk on both a personal and societal level.” In one study from 1997, respondents were asked to rank the possible risk to themselves and the general public associated with 32 different threats; local-news viewers ranked multiple sex partners and “street drugs” as the biggest dangers, over motor vehicle accidents, stored nuclear waste, and lead in dust and paint.

Sociologist Barry Glassner’s 1999 book The Culture of Fear charted the disconnect between what people were afraid of and what their actual statistical risks were. From poisoned children’s Halloween candy (not a single confirmed case can be found) to the elderly being beat up by gangs in their own homes (the elderly “are 16 times less likely to suffer violent crime than people under 25”). At the heart of this problem, Glassner argues, is a perverse incentive structure where “immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.” Those scapegoats are sadly predictable: poor, queer, and nonwhite people. In the 10th anniversary edition of the book, Glassner laments that the culture of the fear of the ’90s has been supercharged with overblown threats of domestic and international terrorism.

This incentive structure for profitable scapegoating has been bolstered by media consolidation. The conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group is set to acquire Tribune Media, which will give it ownership of stations in media markets that cover 70 percent of American homes. Sinclair represents what might become the future of establishment conservative media: Its stations are free to run whatever local news stories they find important but are occasionally handed “must-run” segments with a clear conservative bias. Past must-runs have included an indictment of the national news media for publishing fake news and a story about the Democratic Party’s history of supporting slavery.

This sort of programming — where reports of discreet events near you are interspersed with condemnations or lamentations that support conservative thinking — is the perfect complement to the frustrated expectations of suburbia. As the news anchor lists all the things that went wrong last night — a stabbing, a drunk driver, a robbery — you are also treated to commentary about, say, the importance of a well-armed police force. Such framing is rhetorically powerful: Commentary on a political issue like crime looks very different when sandwiched between two stories about crime that just took place near you.

In this way, local news serves the same function that an active street life serves for city dwellers, only it conveys a radically different message. You don’t see people calmly and uneventfully living their lives; instead you see threats to the life you have worked to build. This then reinforces the sort of political sentiment that brought the suburbs into being in the first place.

Much has been made about the role of social media and algorithmic news sorting in the 2016 election and national political sentiment in general, and yet, according to Pew Research, social media tied with local news as the second-most helpful source of information for the 2016 election (behind cable news). Local news viewers skew older, with boomers being the most likely to rely on local TV for a majority of their news consumption. Suburban residents, according to another Pew study in 2012, were most likely to watch and share local news. These middle-class boomers, remember, are also the ones who showed up for Trump. In the New York Times’s final 2016 election calculations, Trump won suburban communities 50 percent to 45 percent and boomers 53 percent to 45 percent. Correlation is not causation, but given how local news generates anxiety and fear, this correspondence between suburban local news viewership and Trump support seem more than coincidental.

There is a potential silver lining to the suburbs’ isolating qualities. Because of the intensity of suburban dispossession, the poor and marginalized are motivated to act and to resist. The Movement for Black Lives reached mainstream attention through resistance in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Black Lives Matter began and has performed some of its biggest political statements in suburban neighborhoods; across the country, it has done what few movements have dared to do: block highways that sustain suburbs.

The centrality of suburbs to black political movements may be rarely acknowledged, but it was predicted. For instance, bell hooks’ 1990 book Yearning critiques second-wave white feminists’ assumption that the home is always already a site of patriarchal domination. For hooks, the home can be a feminist site of subversion where black families can retreat from a racist society. The suburban home, which was meant to buffer the white family from perceived urban dangers, may become the kind of peripheral place that hooks has always considered a “central location for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse.” She extolls the virtues of marginality as worth embracing, not running away from. Suburbia, of course, is literally on the margins.

We would do well to look at how movements like Black Lives Matter can help us dismantle the authoritarian surround and replace it with something far more hopeful. The suburbanites’ culture of fear may prove unsustainable because the material conditions of suburbia itself are in danger. The suburbs of the past were made for comfort and convenience but their future will inflict quite the opposite. The cheap oil that made the suburbs possible is not long for this world and no amount of self-driving electric cars will replace it. What will replace the authoritarian suburb in a near-future America is the present urban reality of the rest of the world: a dense center of rich elites surrounded on all sides by a dispossessed suburban fringe. In such a scenario the safety valence of the urban and suburban flips and it is the city that is considered both safe and cultured and the suburbs will be seen as simultaneously boring and dangerous. Not unlike war or prison.

It will be in these suburban enclaves, where capital’s surplus population is stored for eventual use in the precariat economy, that radical politics will find a natural home. It will take creative planning to make the post-oil suburbs useful for the rest of us, and it is in that work that a new social order built out of necessary mutual aid can take shape. What was an authoritarian surround that fostered reactionary politics can be a proving ground for liberation. The suburbs of large metropolitan areas, in conjunction with the relatively small but dense towns overlooked by financial speculators, are ours for the taking. And we might as well start now, while everyone else is still watching TV.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.