A Metropolitan Party?

Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz recently discussed the prospects and possibilities of a metropolitan political party. His argument in a nutshell is that the pragmatic orientation of local officials makes it more likely that they will resist the polarization of national partisan politics and implement solutions to pressing problems:

The United States desperately needs a new political force that resists the nationalization of partisan politics and, instead, infuses both establishment parties with the pragmatic, problem solving modus operandi of leaders at the local and metropolitan level.

This certainly sounds a lot better than what we’ve got now. But substantial caution is in order. Metro areas house about 8 in 10 Americans. So, while it makes sense to expect national politics to cater to the needs of those 8 rather than the 2 (who might lazily be inferred to live in Trump Country), it doesn’t make sense, given what we know about the contentious politics of metropolitan areas, to expect the 8 to agree on a comprehensive political agenda.

For example, Katz suggests sensibly that this new party build its organization and constituency at the state level, where significant policy decisions affecting cities and metro areas are made. Specifically, Katz identifies state legislative preemption of municipal action, a serious problem for economic equity, development, and environmental protection. This would avoid the Democratic Party’s fixation on the Presidency and the Senate and cultivate a roster of political candidates for US House seats. But state houses are already metropolitical battlefields. School integration and funding equity? Taxation? Welfare policies? Economic development? In metropolitics, all of these policy areas have been hotly contested, and contested more importantly as zero-sum games.

This overlaps neatly with the tendency of white Americans to see racial advancement for nonwhites as coming at their expense, and it follows from recent arguments that Trumpism has a strong base in middle-class to affluent suburbs in America’s metro areas. Modern conservatism is not (or not only) the dying scream of rural America, it’s the tantrum of the affluent suburbanite. Metro areas contain multitudes, and they certainly contain the Tea Party.

So, when Katz writes

There is clearly a set of issues that sane metropolitan leaders across the red-blue divide can agree on: investing in modern regional transportation that connects people to jobs and goods to markets; boosting the economic competitiveness and innovation capacity of local industries; or policy reforms in housing, education and workforce programs.

I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Perhaps the work of identifying a positive agenda for equitable growth can tie metro areas together across racial and class divisions; New Regionalist scholars have long argued that equitable growth improves outcomes for rich and poor by removing drags on metropolitan economies like poverty, poor education, and collapsed property values. The hurdle has historically always been securing buy-in from the wealthy. And if the Metropolitan Party is to exercise power above the local level in the United States, it is going to have to be in places like New York where fusion arrangements are common or as a caucus within one (gee, which one?) of the dominant parties. Which might tie it to the partisan rigidity that Katz decries before it results in serious reform to the party. And more radical thinkers in the Right to the City tradition demand a grassroots politics far more inclusionary and redistributive than the technocratic development politics that Katz’s proposal suggests. But thinking about metro areas in terms of the representation and influence to which their populations are entitled may be the best way forward to govern for an equitable and democratic society.

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