For many Americans, cities have become a beacon of hope. They are widely recognized as engines of the U.S. economy and laboratories of policy innovation and democratic deepening. Indeed, many view the can-do, eye-level politics of our city halls as an antidote to legislative paralysis in Washington, D.C., and the culture of top-down, self-serving, and polarizing party politics inside the Beltway.
This newfound confidence in cities has grown since the election of Donald Trump, especially among liberals. With like-minded mayors working together to advance environmental protection and immigrant rights, cities are increasingly being viewed as new bastions of progressivism.
But given the positive headlines that cities have been receiving, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the opposite view of cities was predominant for a long stretch of the nation’s history. Fueled by the ethnic tribalism of Tammany Hall politics, corruption and patronage were once the hallmarks of city life. And in the postwar period, with white flight to the suburbs and racialized disinvestment in the urban core, cities became associated with concentrated poverty and social disorder.
Are cities really generating equitable and sustainable gains in the health, wealth, and well-being of Americans?
In this series of essays that I have guest edited for Boston Review, I have asked scholars and practitioners to reflect critically on the promise as well as the limitations of U.S. cities as engines of human well-being and democratic deepening. The goal is not to pour cold water on the recent uptick in urban panegyrics, but rather to provide grounded analysis and commentary that urban reformers and city advocates can use to inform and identify courses of action.
At the heart of this exercise is the following question: are cities really generating equitable and sustainable gains in the health, wealth, and well-being of Americans and enlivening democracy from below?
For the most part, they are not. The U.S. system of federalism, the political economy that underpins it, and ingrained features of local democracy and organizational life inside city halls mean that despite the best intentions of their leaders, very few cities are in a position to realize their promise.
Indeed, city officials must contend with four major challenges—legal, operational, fiscal, and democratic in nature—that conspire to shape the fate of many of our cities for the worse.
In this series, Richard C. Schragger details the legal challenges that cities face, especially how state lawmakers use a variety of court-sanctioned tools to foreclose urban progressivism. In his piece, Richard Florida also identifies the obstacles that federal and state authorities have long placed in the way of cities and argues for new forms of devolution to overcome them.
Florida also points out how individual city governments cannot go it alone. He highlights specifically how city governments are dependent on large private employers and developers. He calls on these anchor institutions to do more to address the profound challenges of unaffordability and inequality in our cities, and he says city governments must find new ways of incentivizing them to become better citizens.
Later this week, Amy Liu and Nathan Arnosti will show how cities that collaborate with their suburban neighbors are able to make progress on a host of issues ranging from transportation to disaster management. And the contributions of Clarence Stone and Hilary Silver will also underscore the importance of collaboration in the everyday operation of urban governance. Silver points to the ways in which city governments, working closely with nonprofits and private partners, are able to address homelessness. And Stone examines how networks of local organizations that are united in practical problem solving can exert more power; in particular, he emphasizes the democratic restorative potential of these kinds of networks when they are able to bridge the divides between urban and rural America.
Below, I focus on the fiscal and democratic challenges that cities face—challenges that I see as fundamental structural constraints standing in the way of cities realizing their full potential. While this series highlights significant reasons to doubt the democracy- and welfare-enhancing potential of cities, it also sheds light on how some cities are overcoming these obstacles. By identifying pathways forward at this particular moment, hopefully we can channel and leverage the current energy in our cities.
On average, local governments in the United States raise about two-thirds of their revenue entirely under their own steam—one of the highest figures among wealthy democracies. For some, this figure is a sign that the United States remains true to the ideal of local autonomy praised by Alexis de Tocqueville almost two hundred years ago. But while high levels of local self-reliance might make sense in an age of spatial equality—as was likely the case in small-town New England in the early nineteenth century—in modern economies—which are both fueled by and engines of spatial inequality—too much fiscal autonomy undermines the ability of many cities to advance human flourishing. In other words, fiscal self-reliance and policy empowerment are not the same thing.
Rather than engaging in race-to-the-bottom competition to attract firms, the country’s leading cities should find new ways of collectively leveraging their advantageous positions.
Given the country’s system of “fend-for-yourself” federalism, cities often sink or swim depending on how able and willing their elected leaders are to collect revenue from local taxpayers and service users. Compared to Detroit, local governments in places such as Seattle or Boston should have an easier time finding money for public goods. But given the often higher cost of living in cities with the healthiest tax bases and the geographic sorting of individuals and families that this has produced, profound mismatches exist in the United States between social demand and fiscal supply. As a result, cities with greater need for public investments in education, jobs training, social services, and health care often lack the fiscal means to respond to that need.
State aid and federal grants can play an important role in helping cities with weak fiscal bases. This is reflected in current state transfers earmarked for education, some of which use formulae to provide a base level of support for low-resource city governments and local school districts. But as research by the Education Law Center at Rutgers University shows, some states actually have regressive systems that allocate less funding to localities with greater poverty. Indeed, the fiscal architecture of our cities means that the United States has deep-seated spatial disparities in educational opportunity that are unlike any other wealthy democracy.
As difficult as it might be, we must reform the fiscal foundations of local government.
The goal should be to allow as many cities as possible to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by a dynamic market. At the same time, these reforms must do justice to the fact that, for reasons only partly within the control of civic leaders, some places are simply more attractive as sites of investment than others. A few cities enjoy perennial structural advantages while the fiscal fortunes of many others are deeply affected by the ebb and flow of macro-economic tides and the historical interplay of race and class.
The fiscal design of our local government systems should be able to adapt to the shifting tides of the market and the changing needs of firms, workers, and residents. Currently that is often not the case.
What we need is a new fiscal compact, one founded on cooperation and solidarity, not just among cities in the same state or metropolitan region, but also between cities across the nation. Rather than engaging in forms of race-to-the-bottom competition to attract firms and residents, the country’s leading cities should find new ways of collectively leveraging their advantageous positions. The fiscal gains that come from cooperating in this way should then be shared, both among the strong who refrain from forms of competition that benefit private firms at the expense of the public purse and among cities that otherwise would be left to fend for themselves.
In a nation as wealthy as the United States, with so many places thriving economically as they are, we should be able to fund cities in ways that build rather than undermine their capacity to meet the needs of Americans. Policy empowerment through adaptive systems of local-government funding should be our north star.
Imagine for a moment, in some hopefully not-too-distant future, that state and federal lawmakers and city governments have been able to agree on a system of vertical and horizontal transfers that truly empower local governments. Operating within these transformed fiscal parameters, how likely is it that city leaders would routinely deliver equitable and sustainable gains in the health, wealth, and well-being of their residents? In view of the current state of electoral politics in many of our cities, the odds aren’t great.
Many cities have long lacked the commonly accepted, basic features of a well-functioning democracy.
On the face of it, it might be difficult to accept that many of our cities are democratically challenged given the uptick in grassroots mobilizing and organizing in recent years. Speeches, rallies, and new programs advancing the living wage, immigrant rights, police reform, universal pre-K, and climate adaptation, among other things, suggest that cities are at the forefront of democratic renewal and progressive change. But at the same time, we must not ignore the fact that many cities have long lacked the commonly accepted, basic features of a well-functioning democracy—namely, people turning out to vote in competitive elections.
Electoral participation and competition make it possible for us to hold our city leaders accountable—to reward them when they do a good job and to punish them when they do not. But in most cities, these electoral instruments of reward and punishment are weak and dull.
Turnout in local elections, for larger and smaller cities alike, is shockingly low, hovering around the 20–25 percent mark. (Dallas and Las Vegas see single-digit turnout rates.) That these depressed levels of local electoral participation receive so little critical press coverage suggests that this key sign of democratic malaise is now so normal as to have become invisible.
For many, these turnout figures will be cause enough for concern. But disparities in turnout across voters grouped by age or race are additionally troubling. A Portland State University study found that residents over 65 were 15 times more likely to vote than those aged 18–34; and work by Zoltan Hajnal has revealed sizeable differences in voter turnout between white, black, Latino, and Asian residents in big-city electoral contests.
It will come as no surprise that low levels of turnout, especially among particular social groups, has significant implications for who gets elected, including the number of black, Latino, and Asian officials. It also impacts the kinds of policies and programs that elected officials pursue. Hajnal’s research shows that when turnout is particularly low among socio-economically disadvantaged groups, cities spend less on programs aimed at helping the poor. In fact, his work suggests that higher local turnout could increase the amount of money cities spend on housing, health services, and education by a third.
For cities to face their democratic challenges head-on, they must reclaim, rather than repudiate, partisan politics.
Judged by the second standard of a well-functioning democracy—competitive elections—many cities across the United States are similarly crippled. In one recent study of mayoral races, almost 50 percent of winning candidates had more than a 20-point lead over runners-up. As work by Jessica Trounstine shows, uncompetitive local races, combined with low rates of electoral participation, have provided fertile ground for political monopolies and forms of skewed policy responsiveness. In fact, research by Hajnal and Trounstine estimates that spending aimed at less-advantaged residents is 40 percent higher in municipalities with high turnout and competitive elections compared to municipalities with uncompetitive, low-turnout races.
For cities to face their democratic challenges head-on, we must reconsider the role that competition plays in local elections. Crucially, this will involve reclaiming, rather than repudiating, partisan politics in our cities.
Moving to nonpartisan elections made sense a century ago as a strategy to wrest city governments from the corrupting grip of machine politics. And in many quarters, this Progressive-era ideal of the pragmatic municipal government still holds great sway.
Recent work by sociologist Josh Pacewicz, for example, shows how a culture of apolitical, even anti-political pragmatism takes hold in city governance as a way to attract dollars from footloose investors, private foundations, and state and federal grants and to secure positive evaluations from credit rating agencies. A city where important decisions are made as a result of partisan conflict is seen as a divided one and is unattractive to external funders. Or, as Pacewicz puts it, in our system of fend-for-yourself federalism, cities “have everything to gain from collaboration and everything to lose from conflict.”
The virtues of pragmatism also feature heavily in much of the contemporary writing that praises cities. As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak note in The New Localism (2018), cities are able to take on serious challenges when they are governed collaboratively through the “regular engagement of business, civic, and academic leaders [that] elevates pragmatic thinking and commonsense discourse and crowds out the inflammatory rhetoric associated with partisanship and ideology.” According to this dominant view of the city, pragmatism and partisanship are like oil and water.
Given the persistently high levels of inequality and socio-economic exclusion that we find in cities across the United States, it seems naïve to believe that tackling these issues would not involve conflicts of interest and values between different social groups. But when a cult of pragmatism crowds out these kinds of conflicts from local electoral races, the groups most adversely affected by the status quo find it difficult to make their voices heard. These are the people who have good reason to disagree with how our cities operate. But when they mobilize and organize to air their disagreements, they are regarded as political and ideological—even radical.
Local democracy shouldn’t be about denying that disagreements exist between different social groups; it should be about finding a way to give voice to and legitimately manage them. When elections work well, they provide not only a way of surfacing disagreements but also—crucially—a way of structuring them into an organized form. The structuring of contestation in this way is what makes it “partisan.”
If partisanship is to be a positive force in our cities, it must challenge the increasingly divisive binaries that dominate state and federal politics. Urban governing processes must be rooted instead in robust electoral competition between well-organized groups that represent the breadth of socio-economic interests and values of our cities.
A cult of pragmatism has made it difficult for the groups most adversely affected by the status quo to make their voices heard.
Across the nation, in cities large and small, we are seeing bottom-up mobilizing and organizing around police reform, environmental protection, workers’ protection, and rights for immigrants, transgender people, and women. This is a fundamental component of effective local democracy, but time will tell whether and how these new forms of activism are able to use the local ballot box to confront traditions of nonpartisanship, the cult of pragmatism, and political machines. Given the country’s system of strong mayors and local winner-take-all voting rules, these groups likely have a steep hill to climb, but cities will be better served by local elections that revolve around competition and that are driven by coalitions of socially-embedded, organized groups.
To be clear, pragmatism in and of itself is not a problem. Getting representatives from the public, private, and nongovernment sectors around the same table in a spirit of practical partnership is absolutely crucial for addressing our cities’ complex problems. But pragmatism should not dictate who gets a seat at the table. It should instead be an important goal of the work done at the table.
The essays in this series show how cities are able to boost the well-being of Americans in ways that are equitable and sustainable. They also show how cities can be engines of democratic deepening, providing opportunities for communities to grow in strength as well as collaboration. The hope that many of us have for our cities is therefore not misplaced. They do indeed hold great promise.
But as this introductory essay and the other essays in this series point out, significant obstacles stand in the way of many cities’ fulfilling their promise. These relate to the structure of the nation’s economy, how federal agencies and state legislatures treat local government, the relationship between urban, suburban, and rural Americans, and the ways in which city halls rely on private actors, including large firms, nonprofits, and philanthropic foundations.
Clearly these obstacles have deep historical roots. As such, they will seem like immovable objects and working toward overcoming them a daunting undertaking. But if our cities are to realize their full potential, they must become targets of sustained political mobilization and organization. With the energy and activism blossoming in our cities today, now is certainly a good time to address them head-on.