Uniting Citizens after Citizens United: Open Access Article in AMSJ

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.

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Coming Soon in American Studies–Uniting Citizens after Citizens United

It’s been a long, long struggle to whip this unruly article into some sort of shape and to find a journal and an audience for it, but I’m happy to say that American Studies will be publishing my essay, “Uniting Citizens after Citizens United: Cities, Neoliberalism, and Democracy” as the lead article of its upcoming issue.

Check out the cover from AMSJ’s Twitter (@AmericanStJournal), featuring a photograph of protest against Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager by James Fassinger.

I’ll have more to say about this when it gets into print–much of what I’ve written here about city power, cities as instruments of public democracy, and the way that the relationship between cities and state governments is inflected by racial and class inequality is informed by the foundational reading and groundwork for the article–but for now, enjoy the cover, as I certainly am.

The Stadium Scam and Cities as Instruments of Democracy

I’m working on the edits for an article I’ve been working on in some way, shape, or form since 2010. Yes. 2010. Such is academic publishing. The article (no spoilers) deals in chief with the ways that cities as legal corporations might potentially serve as instruments of public democracy by expressing and acting in the public interest. I counterpose this kind of democracy with a prevailing privatized view of political participation defined by the contribution to a candidate or a single-issue nonprofit advocacy group.

Spoiler alert (OK, a little one): I contend that public democracy is better. However, a big problem for cities, where people have routinely demonstrated a desire to practice public democracy, has been the renewed opposition of state legislatures, substantially influenced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to urban government action in response to democratic pressure.

What has made working on these edits tolerable and not a crushing reminder of the absurdities inherent in the academic publishing model is that current events keep reinforcing the argument. Today’s example comes from Deadspin, which, while nominally a sports blog, is routinely at the front of the line identifying the ways that sports (among other spectacles) have been leveraged by capitalists to transform cities and secure extensive public subsidies for billionaires (see also here and here).

The stuff that Bill Bradley describes could be happening anywhere, but it has particular poignance since it’s happening in Detroit, where local democracy has taken a considerable beating at the hands of capitalists and rural-suburban politicians). There, the city council has advocated requiring developers receiving public funds for major development projects to sign Community Benefits Agreements, legally binding contracts that would set terms by which the developer would be required to abide. These might address hiring, the number of construction and non-construction jobs to be established, the wages and benefits to be paid, and the proportion of local residents to be hired.

The precipitating events behind the proposed local law were many, but one stands out:

“We are allowing these large corporations—companies that could build a hockey arena without our money—to get in the corporate welfare line and take resources away from us,” Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan state representative who serves Detroit, told me. “In exchange for what?”

The hockey arena Tlaib mentioned is for the city’s beloved Red Wings, owned by pizza baron Mike Ilitch. The Ilitch family, whose net worth is estimated at $3.2 billion thanks in part to their Little Caesars pizza empire, received $284.5 million in public money to build a new, $450 million arena in the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. (They are desperately and vapidly rebranding it as the “arena and entertainment district.”)

While the Ilitch family was finishing up its honeypot stadium welfare deal last year—not to mention a wildly below-market rate $1 land transfer for 39 vacant parcels—they refused to sign a CBA that would ensure a certain percentage of permanent, non-construction jobs at the arena went to Detroiters. A group of locals formed the Corridors Alliance in an attempt to engage with the Ilitches, but their efforts were futile. The Ilitches did, however, agree to a mayoral executive order that demanded 51 percent of construction jobs go to residents and 30 percent of construction contracts go to local businesses. (The mayoral order, like Marathon’s hollow promise, is not legally binding.)

Take public money, the CBA reasonably insists, and deliver public benefits. Sounds about right? Not so fast:

The opposition made it all the way to the state capitol in Lansing during December’s lame duck session, where Republican State Representative Earl Poleski introduced House Bill 5977, which would “prohibit local units of government from creating a ‘community benefits ordinance.'” The bill, which died in December and was reintroduced in January, would ban Detroit’s proposed ordinance outright.

“House Bill 5977 sets up the state as a dictatorship telling local units of government that they cannot do what is best for their community, workers and residents when it comes to wages and benefits tied to economic development in that community,” Tlaib said in a statement.

I should also mention that the Detroit Regional Chamber Political Action Committee donated money to Poleski’s reelection campaign last summer, according to Secretary of State disclosures. And while it was a paltry and deeply stupid check for only $250, it’s worth asking why the Detroit Regional Chamber is propping up a state representative from Jackson, a county 80 miles west.

The reason of course, is that the concept of pre-emption, which plagued cities in the nineteenth century when urban special interests could leverage the anti-urbanism of rural legislators to stop cities from doing anything they didn’t like, has come back in with a vengeance. Whether it’s an idiosyncratic case like Detroit’s CBA initiative or the kinds of cookie-cutter pre-emption bills ALEC has distributed through the State Houses to try to kill off living wage bills or environmental protections, urban special interests of the stadium-building class have discovered that the states are a potent weapon against local democracy.

“Unspoken” By Whom?

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflects on the fact that virtually all–45 of 46–of the elected officials in recently incorporated metro Atlanta cities are white. Reporters Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy tiptoe around the racial unbalance of the new cities, affluent and white-majority portions of counties where whites are not a majority. They note that the disproportionate whiteness of local government is causing some people to wonder if race was a motivating factor, while giving equal time to officials of the new cities and advocates for incorporating more white-majority cities who claim a color-blind racial innocence.

What’s more galling, however, than this brand of wishy-washy balance, is the way that Torpy and Edwards construe the controversy as new:

But one impact of new cities in metro Atlanta has gone largely unspoken: all have led to elected governments that are almost entirely white in counties where whites are no longer a majority.

The problem with the “largely unspoken” claim is that it’s utter and complete bull. Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus opposed the incorporation of Sandy Springs for years, charging that the incorporation was an effort to create a white-controlled city and to protect the affluent area from annexation by Atlanta’s black-majority government. The incorporation only passed in 2005 after the Republican takeover of both houses of the General Assembly. After the affluent and white-majority cities of Milton, Johns Creek, and Chattahoochee Hills in Fulton County and Dunwoody in DeKalb County incorporated, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Reverend Joseph Lowery sued under the Voting Rights Act to demand that the cities be legally dissolved precisely on the grounds that the new cities would make it impossible for minority residents of those cities to have effective political representation.

The suit, Lowery v. Deal, was dismissed by the district court and an appeal failed to win in the Circuit Court. I’ve written about the suit here, and will have an article published at some point in the future in the Journal of Urban Affairs dealing with the racial dynamics of local government in Fulton County. I won’t spoil the plot, but I argue that white suburbanites have, just as much as they resisted residential integration out of fear of having black neighbors on their block, resisted political community with African Americans because of stereotypical understandings of black-led government as profligate, corrupt, and accountable exclusively to black interests. This form of racial antipathy, which focused on the presence of black people in city hall, undergirded resistance to annexation of Sandy Springs by Atlanta in 1966 and a three-decade movement to incorporate the area. Today it undergirds efforts to reduce the scope and power of Fulton County government and to separate north Fulton in a new Milton County. Color-blind rhetoric about efficiency and responsiveness of local government are intelligible to voters in the context of this racialized set of assumptions about black-led governments. So my argument is that the whiteness of local government in these cities is, if not the whole point of incorporation, a major motivating factor. It’s unfortunate that the AJC gives equal time to disingenuous denials of this political reality. 

But it’s more disappointing that the AJC fails to acknowledge its own complicity in making the charge of racial exclusion “unspoken”. The paper offered no substantive coverage of the claims made in Lowery while the suit was pending. If the arguments of the most influential group of black elected officials in the state, along with one of the most influential leaders of the ongoing movement for black freedom and civil rights, have been ignored by a major metropolitan paper, it is a clear indication that arguments on race made by nonwhites are not unspoken so much as unheard.