City Power and Resistance in the Reagan Era

Cities have become a focus of hope and attention since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. Academic and non-academic urbanists, activists, and politicians have noted the eruption of large scale protest marches, smaller organized acts of resistance to anti-immigration measures, and declarations by municipal leaders of opposition to Trump initiatives to punish sanctuary cities. Beyond these actions, the tendency for cities to house large and diverse populations offers a symbolic rebuke of implicit and explicit white nationalism in the Trump base and administration. Cities, at risk of hyperbole, seem to be the best hope for preserving a diverse, inclusionary, and small-d-democratic society.

I’ve written about this before in an award-winning article prompted by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. I argued that with many legal limits on the volume of money in electoral politics ruled unconstitutional, it was crucial for anyone concerned with democratic participation to think hard about the next step. I challenged one strain of liberal response to Citizens United, the call for more small-donor contributions to advocacy organizations to balance out possible surges of corporate and individual cash (while also disputing a pillar of the liberal dissent in the decision, i.e. that “corporate” spending in politics was more corrosive to democracy than spending by rich individuals). Rather than fight a futile battle to outspend antidemocratic forces, those supporting an inclusionary and egalitarian society should look to cities as a class of corporation that, per the Citizens United decision, could (and should) exercise their own speech rights.

Not to toot my own horn but, in an essay that I began writing in 2010 (and had to keep revising to accommodate new anti-urban and anti-democratic developments) and finally saw in print in 2015 (thanks American Quarterly for your 18-month delay in sending it for review between 2012 and 2013!), I was kind of prescient. I noted, incorporating arguments made by law prof Heather Gerken, that cities as corporate bodies could exercise some small powers allotted to them by state governments to effectively engage in wide-ranging speech–what Gerken called “dissent by decision.” I used the examples of San Francisco’s explicitly declared sanctuary city policies (glad that issue’s gone away!) and Los Angeles’s decision not to spend municipal funds with Arizona firms in the wake of that state’s notorious “papers please” law entitling local law enforcement officers to demand proof of citizenship from brown suspicious people they stopped for traffic or because they felt like it other offenses (which has, since January 2017 evidently become federal policy). Indeed, the number of mayors, city councils, and other local officials denouncing aggressive ICE action has grown in proportion to the agency’s aggression against all  undocumented persons in the country, above and beyond a criminal minority.

Now, it’s important not to oversell “dissent by decision” and its impact. Municipal boycotts by themselves don’t change policy at the state or federal level. But they do spark deliberation and debate. And, as I argued, when they follow and are pushed by social movements, as by immigrants and their allies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, these actions establish clearly that immigrants have a stake in and are in fact parts of the cities they inhabit. The growth, vitality, and economic power of cities depends on their openness, with the corollary that urban leaders cannot simply ignore workers, taxpayers, students, parents, or consumers in their cities simply because they lack national citizenship (though of course some places that are legally incorporated as cities have done precisely this, under the influence of the national right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform/FAIR, sent up memorably by Samantha Bee this week, but I’m referring here to the larger, more diverse, complex places commonly connoted by the term “city”).

If I were writing that essay over again, I’d do a few things differently. I would probably not be so cavalier about the surge in Super PACs and “dark money” being simply the continuation of money politics by new means. The opacity of those organizations offer great potential for mischief, even if many rich individuals like Sheldon Adelson or Foster Friess pridefully advertise their individual financial backing of candidates and causes as ego displays. I’d also dispense a bit with some of my analysis of legal doctrine and political theory and go to more historical examples. What can we learn about successes and failures for this kind of urban and municipal intervention in national politics?

That’s why I’ve been interested in a report (full report here as .pdf, summary here) from the transit infrastructure advocacy group Jobs to Move America and the Center for Media and Democracy on the legacy of municipal anti-Apartheid protests in the Reagan era. As a small-town child, my knowledge of the anti-Apartheid movement was sadly limited to its symbolic representation in the wardrobe and set decoration of The Cosby Show. But the movement had been pushed to a level of visibility such that the General Electric corporation’s NBC network would allow an affluent and aspirational black family to tout it because of public action, including urban protests and boycott decisions by 92 municipal and 28 state governments that confronted the Reagan administration’s appeasement of Pretoria and earned harsh federal retaliation, embodied by efforts to withhold infrastructure funds from rebellious cities and to involve business and ideological groups opposed to boycotts in an alliance to push for legislation to limit local authority to engage in boycotts or related activities.

So what can we learn? The authors of Reagan vs. Cities note that pushback against municipal boycotts can, today as in the 1980s, take four main forms:

  1. Adopting national policy to deter independent actions by Congress, cities and states.
  2. Collaborating with the business lobby to oppose sanctions.
  3. Interpreting federal law to justify withholding federal funding from cities and states adopting sanctions and divestment policies.
  4. Actively organizing support for litigation to challenge city divestment and sanctions laws.

Suppressing local power to dissent works hand in hand with austerity politics. Justice Department analysts in the 1980s identified their most compelling rationale to block local divestment efforts in the fiscal responsibility of local governments. If making a stand against apartheid resulted in higher costs for contracts, it could be invalidated:

federal grantees were prohibited from adopting laws or procurement requirements that placed a “burden on competition” by either limiting the pool of bidders vying for a federally funded contract or by raising the price of the federally funded contract.

This points to a critical division in thinking about what cities are and their function in a democratic society. Are they vehicles for residents to participate in political debate, or simply service delivery systems? While no one would doubt that cost is a concern for municipal contracting, it is far from the only one.

Among the more than 250 pages of primary documents reproduced in the .pdf of the report are memoranda showing the emerging influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council as a broker between business interests and state legislatures, influence that has only increased and has been reflected in a host of efforts by state governments to preempt local decisionmaking. It’s also worth knowing that ALEC is already strategizing against urban resistance to its agenda, not only engineering state-level preemption of city legislation on environmental, wage, civil rights, and immigration issues, but seeking to seed city halls with copacetic politicians, as Nicholas Ricciardi notes (AP, here as published in San Francisco Chronicle):

The city council project is the brainchild of Jon Russell, a councilman from the Virginia town of Culpepper, population 18,000. He was dissatisfied that the traditional, nonpartisan municipal groups, like the National League of Cities, seemed to constantly think more government was the answer to problems.

“Now we can communicate with 2,500 elected officials across the country that we know share our values and push back against some of the progressivism that’s gotten into cities,” Russell said.

Though the group is still young, it’s notched some significant accomplishments – most prominently helping distribute model legislation to end the automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks that 12 Kentucky counties implemented in 2014 as a precursor to that state becoming the 28th “right-to-work” state.

The American City County Exchange also distributes model legislation on everything from a taxpayer bill of rights that would require a supermajority to raise property taxes to measures requiring that cities explore all available materials to build sewer pipelines. An official at the city council project, Bruce Hollands, is head of the PVC pipe association.

Perhaps the best indicator of the growing role of cities in encouraging democratic action is the extent to which reactionary elements have rallied to control what cities do.