American Studies and University of Kansas Press have generously supported open-access online publication of my article, which is now in press in the current issue of American Studies.
The article is a think-piece about recovering traditions of public democracy in American cities prompted by two observations I made when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC was announced in 2010. First, the way that liberal commenters on the decision talked about the problem of money in politics (that corporate political expenditures were somehow much worse than those made by rich individuals) made little sense, and the solutions they proposed (empower “small donors” to make more contributions) less sense still, since, anecdotes of grandmothers sending their dimes to campaigns aside, the donor class is roughly coterminous with the wealthiest 10% of Americans. Hardly a triumph of democracy. Second, that there was a major blind spot in the ways that commenters were imagining corporations. While business corporations were set up as antagonists to the non-profit corporation set up as an issue-advocacy group (the latter being legit as a political player in the liberal critique), this position was rooted not as much in an argument about equalizing influence, but in an argument about ensuring the rights of shareholders to keep owning stock while ensuring that the companies they invest in don’t support political speech they oppose. While this is a sort of democracy, it’s not really very satisfying.
So, what else could be done? Because I’ve had a longstanding interest in the legal status of cities and its relationship to spatial forms of inequality, one line of inquiry that occurred to me was that no one, whether liberal nor conservative, nor lefty, was discussing some of the most important corporations of all: cities. Rather than condemning the recognition of a corporate right to speech as applied to businesses (whose owners can speak quite loudly enough as individuals), why not ask what would happen if the rights of cities as corporate speakers were recognized, and if the substance of city speech became an object of public politics?
I wanted to see if I could connect the role of cities in today’s political economy to the diminishment of democracy. After a lot of reading about local government law, the history of urban home rule movements, and the legal theory of government speech, I think I did. You can judge for yourselves. Here’s the abstract:
The 2010 Citizens United ruling has been misunderstood. This essay argues that the FEC’s arguments, which shaped the dissenting opinion and subsequent reform proposals, were deeply rooted in a neoliberal, individualistic, and undemocratic conception of shareholder citizenship that fetishizes the ability of individuals to spend money to influence elections. More democratic politics must come not from rejecting the principle of corporate political activity, but extending it to include cities. Historically, broader doctrines of city power helped to solve common problems and establish the concept of the public interest in diverse urban areas. Social, spatial, and ideological developments associated with suburbanization have helped a neoliberal notion of shareholder citizenship to supplant this public democracy. Recent events demonstrate that new urban social movements might leverage city power to make cities not just venues but instruments of politics.
And you can access the full-text here, again, for free and without an institutional subscription, thanks to AMSJ and KU Press.