Mayors Saving the World?

Emma Green at Atlantic Cities asks if a new generation of mayors, pictured here, is up to the task of saving the world.

My first reaction? These mayors?


Maybe not the guys to save the world?

Green cites a growing body of “glocalist” advocacy that positions mayors outside of national partisan gridlock as “nonideological problem solvers.” Fitting Bloomberg, Booker, and Rahm into that category does serious violence to all three words in that description, unless, of course, problem solving is redefined as privatizing everything in sight. Chicagoans are getting wise to this, but the folks at Brookings seem to be missing the point.

Historically speaking, though, it’s not so odd to think of the urban scale as the most relevant one to address many kinds of problems. While the city has been a basic political, social, and economic unit for millennia, the nation-state’s run has lasted only a couple of centuries. Cities remain centers of commerce, immigration, and intellectual and artistic ferment that confound national borders. So why should our social life be organized around the imperatives of an imaginary construct like the nation, rather than by the immediacy of urban space? Building on what Henri Lefebvre calls the “Right to the City,” Ed Soja argues that

After centuries during which the national state defined citizenship and human rights, the city is seen again to be a special space and place of social and economic advantage, a focal point for the workings of social power and hierarchy, and therefore a potent battleground for struggles seeking greater democracy, equality, and justice.[1]

But this contemplation of equality based on the mutually shared condition of urban habitation is not part of the agenda of privatizers and 1%-ers like Bloomberg, Booker, or Emanuel, who have eagerly embraced privatization as a way of removing accountability for public services from the public, speeding the accumulation of capital, and disempowering the political constituencies that have sprung up in urban society through years of struggle for democracy, equality, and justice. While the glocalist position advanced out of Brookings is that the federal retreat from urban policy puts cities on their own, it is by no means clear that neoliberal pursuit of mobile capital is the necessary response. Though, to be fair, it does seem to be the only thing anybody’s trying.

There’s another problem with the idea that cities can step up to fill the leadership void created by partisan gridlock in Washington and the federal retreat from urban policy: the intervening layer of state governments between cities and the federal government. Throughout American history, state governments and rural interests have fought against the influence of cities in the state houses. Since cities to one degree or another are “creatures of the states” and owe their powers to grants of authority from the state governments, the kind of autonomy and flexibility glocalists praise is a highly tenuous proposition. The kind of freedom municipal governments have enjoyed to work to solve their own problems and involve their residents in the democratic process is a relatively recent phenomenon dating to successful home rule movements in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. It came about because social movements led by workers, public health advocates, civil engineers, feminists, and immigrants demanded that cities integrate them into the body politic. It wasn’t perfect, but it did create in modern cities what Thomas Bender calls an opportunity for people to “think themselves into politics.” [2] And it was in no way a “non-ideological” effort to solve problems; this kind of democratic opening, imperfect and incomplete even as it was, struck at the heart of questions of ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and private property that defined the politics of the last gilded age.

The survival of this “unheralded triumph” is by no means guaranteed. In state houses across the nation, gerrymandered districts favor suburban and rural interests and diminish the size of the Democratic party caucus to which urban representatives most frequently belong. Further, right-leaning policy advocacy groups, most notably the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have worked to limit cities’ power, drafting model bills for right-leaning legislatures that would preempt local governments’ power to do things like levy local option sales taxesmandate living wages, deny permits to predatory lenders, control rents, require employers to negotiate in good faith with unions as a condition of doing business in a city, require licensing procedures for businessesprovide telecommunications services, regulate packaging of consumer products, regulate handguns or regulate oil or gas drilling. If cities retreat to “non-ideological problem solving” then ALEC-dominated state legislatures are going to take away their power to actually solve problems.

Of course, among privatizers like Bloomberg, Booker, and Rahm, this might not seem like a problem at all, since things like charter schools, privatization-driven educationreform“, and privatization of water and sewer infrastructure are also on ALEC’s agenda. But it’s a problem for the rest of us, and one that unfortunately won’t be solved in a non-ideological way but will require people to wrestle with big questions about what their city governments are for.

[1] Soja, Edward W. Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, 96.

[2] Bender, Thomas. “Intellectuals, Cities, and Citizenship in the United States.” In Cities and Citizenship, edited by James Holston. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999, 21.