Bruce Katz is the inaugural Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution and The New Localism.
The way back to political sanity runs though the cities—so it’s time for a national political party focused entirely on urban areas.
A recent Economist profile on Denver Mayor Michael Hancock had this intriguing observation:
Asked if the Democrats concentrated success in cities is itself a sort of trap, the mayor agrees. He urges the Democrats to become “the metro party.” Politics, metro-style, requires appealing to moderates, liberals and even conservatives.
Rather than just an electoral strategy, what if we took this idea—a separate Metro Party—seriously? Let’s call them the “Metropolitans.”
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.
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. And new challenges should breed new pragmatic coalitions, whether around the rise of the elderly share of the population, the growth of suburban poverty outside major cities, or the current opioid crisis engulfing metros across the country. When policy is localized, rather than nationalized, ideology gives way to problem solving.
In my view, the Metropolitans would not be a typical political party that nominates candidates for offices and competes directly with Democrats and Republicans. Rather, it would be judiciously non-partisan, forcing Democrats and Republicans to compete for an endorsement and its Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
As a practical matter, the Metropolitans would start in several states and focus initially on state policies. In this respect, it would reflect the distinctive economic advantages as well as disparate priorities of different parts of the country. It would be formed by a group of public, private and civic leaders from both political parties who represent different geographies within metropolitan areas—central cities and urban, suburban, exurban and rural counties—as well as a broad array of constituencies.
What would the Metropolitans do? First, put forward an affirmative agenda for economic growth. Each Metropolitan chapter would advance concrete policy ideas that advance the ability of their cities, counties, and metropolitan areas to grow economies that are innovative, inclusive, and resilient.
Second, the Metropolitans would serve a policing function, acting as a check on state proposals and actions that undermine the latitude of metropolitan leaders to grow their economies. State Metropolitan parties would call out state proposals and actions that impinge on the abilities of localities to make decisions that respond to local priorities. This would cover both efforts to preempt local action as well as impose unfunded (and unfounded) mandates on localities. To this end, the Metropolitans would try to define a 21st century vision of local control that both empowers local flexibility and problem solving as well as encourages cross-jurisdictional and cross-sectoral collaboration.
Finally, the party should rate state officials—Governors, state legislators, state attorneys general—on their support for the affirmative metropolitan agenda. This transparency would help a broad array of stakeholders—voters, as well as regional media, business chambers, and other organized constituencies—to determine which elected officials truly want to solve problems and which adhere to rigid ideologies.
I know that many observers will presume that Democrats will score high on the Metropolitan assessment and Republicans will score low. We should remember that Republicans were once the party of local control, and Democrats the party more comfortable with centralizing power. Frankly, once in power, both parties have shown a tendency towards petty prescription, holding the view that the “state knows best.” If anyone thinks otherwise, just visit New York State and see the never-ending fight between Mayor de Blasio and the leadership of the state government.
During this period of intense political partisanship, the formation of the Metropolitans would send a powerful signal. The ability of cities and counties to reach consensus shows that there is the potential for bipartisanship on issues that affect the pocketbooks of taxpayers and the bottom line of companies. The Metropolitans, of course, would not agree on everything; there are major differences within and across metropolitan areas. But that’s the point. Perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Metropolitan areas cannot descend into partisan gridlock; the stakes are too high. Progress must be made on issues where there is agreement and the best way to do that is to break free from the two party divide currently splitting the nation.
The route back to political stability and sensibility runs through our cities and metropolitan areas—if they organize politically to make it happen.