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.

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Fulton County Elections

The ACLU is suing the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections for voting on changes to polling places in predominantly African American communities after providing insufficient notice to the public of its intentions.

This is one consequence of something I pointed out in previous posts. The Georgia legislature in 2013 approved changes to several aspects of Fulton County government. They approved changes to the apportionment of the Board of Commissioners, converting an at-large seat to a districted seat in north Fulton, increasing the power of affluent Republican suburbanites. They hamstrung the county’s ability to raise property taxes. And they shifted the power to staff the Board of Elections from the Board of Commissioners (controlled by Democrats) to the state legislature (controlled by Republicans). These changes were enabled by gerrymandering state legislative districts so that parts of the north Fulton suburbs were joined with parts of other conservative-leaning counties. Accordingly, a county that voted for Barack Obama by approximately 2-1 over Mitt Romney has a legislative delegation with Republican majorities in both houses.

I wrote at the time that this might prove to be the most consequential of these moves. As the metro Atlanta area becomes the decisive battleground in the state, conservatives will face certain temptation to make it more difficult for Democratic constituencies to vote.

Metropolitics and the Defense of Wealth

This is a very intriguing post by Destin Jenkins at the Organization of American Historians blog Process. Jenkins argues for looking at the phenomena lumped together as the “racial wealth gap” from the side of the possessors of wealth, asking how advantage accumulated. Jenkins particularly wants to challenge recent, but ahistorical, critiques from the left. Both politicians like Bernie Sanders and crossover heterodox economists like Thomas Piketty have identified the 1980s and 1970s respectively as decades when inequality accelerated. These arguments are not so much wrong, per Jenkins, as grossly incomplete, focusing on

implicit archetypes of deracialized middle class and poor Americans getting the short end of the stick while a deracialized wealthy elite collects the spoils. Though strong on explaining the expanding wealth gap, their histories miss how changes over the last fifty years, whether under the guise of such metanarratives as neoliberalism, financialization, or post-industrialism, compounded the deeper history of racial disparities in wealth. Indeed, one wonders whether it is the growing wealth gap amongst white Americans that has forced pundits to engage with wealth disparities.

Jenkins notes, building on work by Ira Katznelson and citing a recent Demos report “The Asset Value of Whiteness” by Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro, that researchers have built a solid case for extending the temporal frame of the wealth gap back to the New Deal era, when social support for housing helped white Americans to begin building wealth in home equity while excluding Americans of color.

Yet, Jenkins argues, a still longer frame, informed by W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction, allows historians to understand a far longer pattern of forcible and legal dispossession of Black Americans. This is a move of consequence, because it forces us to think not only of the incomplete development of U.S. social democracy (a problem  potentially fixable) but also of a more insidious history of dispossession by legal and extralegal means.

Most analyses of the racial wealth gap focus primarily on disparities in the acquisition of wealth. Hence they use the language of amassing, inheriting, accumulating, references to “inherited poverty,” and claims that black people are “late comers” to acquiring wealth. But we should also think about the racial wealth gap in terms of racial disparities in the defense of wealth: the relative ability to defend wealth from expropriation, whether through violence, state-sanctioned seizure, and sometimes both. After all, what good is wealth if you can’t defend it?

The historical record of whites’ ability to defend wealth and Americans of color’s relative inability to do so is bloody and brutal, and Jenkins’ focus on the period between Reconstruction and the New Deal bridges a gap between works like Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White as examinations of the links between state power, capital, and racism.

As a metropolitan historian of the later 20th century, I see an indirect connection to my own work, which deals less with overt violence and more with the ways that institutions can be mobilized and manipulated to defend the value (market and affective) of white-owned property, among other prerogatives. This is reflected in suburban incorporation and secession movements, where political boundaries are changed to enhance or protect wealth. This is still a fairly controversial proposition, and outside of fields influenced by critical race theory, the contingent and contested nature of political boundaries, like the inherent racial inflection of property value, is not always readily grasped, even by insightful analysts.

This kind of institutional politics requires ideological support to make the specific advantage of one group appear to be an expression of the general good: of freedom of choice, the market, or the American Way. I’ve written about the way that nascent public choice theory in the 1950s, which applied neoclassical economics to the organization and operation of local governments, both reflected and helped to defend and normalize the metropolitan fragmentation that accelerated in the postwar era. As suburban developers and homeowners in Lakewood, California and surrounding suburbs of Los Angeles County formed cities to capture local tax revenue, they fought against metropolitan cost sharing and defined a narrow and local sense of community that rejected wider ties.

Crucially, the ground-level work of these political entrepreneurs was mirrored by a group of academic entrepreneurs at UCLA, who theorized fragmentation not as a wasteful duplication of resources or a means of exclusion, but as a necessary adaptation of local government to market dynamics. I argued that the real intellectual work done by public choice theory was not descriptive but normative; the theory, adopted in bowdlerized form by political conservatives in governor Ronald Reagan’s orbit, effectively mandated a more competitive relationship between local governments, delegitimized metropolitan government, and raised the stakes of competition between local governments so that some would win and some would lose. For residents of cities like Compton, the consequences were devastating, as Black and Latino homeowners found that their home equity was tied to their city’s status as a losing competitor in the game.

This is why I’m quite interested to read Nancy MacLean’s forthcoming book Democracy in Chains, which is reviewed in Jacobin by Colin Gordon (certainly not coincidentally an urban historian whose work has detailed the economic and political consequences of public choice metropolitics in greater St. Louis). MacLean’s book mines the papers of James McGill Buchanan, a political economist and Nobel Laureate notable not only for his contributions to public choice theory but for his successful institutional entrepreneurship. Buchanan established numerous funded institutes dedicated to reorganizing social institutions around market principles, ultimately facilitating the Koch brothers’ beachhead in academe.

Unfortunately, as Gordon notes in summary of MacLean, Buchanan’s

market fundamentalism, and the policies that flow from it, are essentially faith-based — and either blind or indifferent to their own contradictions.

Here, MacLean echoes the recent work of the sociologists Margaret Somers and Fred Block, underscoring the many ways in which “free” markets are embedded in social relations. Ignoring this fact simply camouflages advantage and disguises the reliance and dependence of successful market actors on conditions (property rights, contract law, patent protection, worker suppression) secured by state action.

As Gordon notes, mostly (but not exclusively) Southern “Freedom Caucus” politicians carry this tradition forward today in Congress. But of course, campaigns for suburban secession, tax revolts, and other metropolitical battles also evince this

conviction that the polity could be cleft between “makers and takers,” and that it was the “takers” who, by employing state power to tax wealth and income, were doing the exploiting.

I found this thread running through the words and deeds of anti-tax politicians, advocates for incorporating new cities, and secession advocates in north Fulton County, and it runs through the strong support for Donald Trump and backlash politics in many American suburbs, as well as the right’s predilection to concentrate power in state governments through federalist devolution from Washington and preemption of local action.

GA 6 Special Election

So, Jon Ossoff came close to beating Karen Handel in the Georgia 6th district special election. I’m personally disappointed, surprised only that it was close, and not sure the result portends anything for the future.

As I’ve written (drawing from others’ commentary as well as my own historical work on the Atlanta suburbs), many affluent suburbs are Trump country. The 6th has become more ethnically diverse in recent years, but the effect of that diversity is mitigated by the fact that the district is drawn to elect Republicans. The 6th is a highly educated district, and Democratic optimists thought it would behave like the other 9 top-10 educated districts in supporting Democrats for Congress. It’s perhaps more like affluent but less educated districts than they were willing to recognize. Ultimately, as Molly Ball writes in The Atlantic, Republican voters in a structurally Republican district are going to vote Republican.

My personal take as a non-political scientist is that Ossoff’s efforts at minimizing ideology and idealizing pragmatism (to the point of being almost as unwilling as Karen Handel to refer by name to Donald Trump) are a bad strategy for Democrats in 2018. Even Matthew Yglesias is off the bipartisan civility train, though not as far off as Hamilton Nolan.

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.

Yeah, But…. Or, Economists do Postwar Metropolitan Segregation

Leah Boustan, an economist at Princeton and the National Bureau of Economic Research, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times last weekend that distilled the essence of her new book, Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, described thusly by Princeton University Press:

Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth. Furthermore, many white households responded to the black migration by relocating to the suburbs. White flight was motivated not only by neighborhood racial change but also by the desire on the part of white residents to avoid participating in the local public services and fiscal obligations of increasingly diverse cities.

I’m going to offer two caveats for my analysis right off the bat: First, the whole book is ambitious in scope, and proposes a provocative thesis that migration was less clearly a Good Thing for the interests of Black advancement (reading the blurb, one might approach the book asking “compared to what?” but….). And second, it’s quite difficult to express complex research findings in short form. The book seems highly worth reading, among other reasons because of the kind of media traction it’s getting through, well, NYT Op-Eds.

That said, I found the article to be flawed in its basic assumptions about the definition and nature of racism in American urban areas, particularly as related to metropolitan real estate markets in the 20th century, and not very informed about the historiography of that phenomenon. Continue reading

Trumpism and the Suburbs

This is a very interesting article by Jesse Myerson, which addresses something that’s irritated me about the discussion of Trump’s “white, working class” base. Leaving aside the sloppy definition of “working class” by the proxy of lacking a college degree, the implicit thesis embedded in the terminology is that Trump’s support reflects the economic anxieties of people who have been left behind by the transforming post-industrial economy.  Continue reading