A woman protesting outside Trump Tower in New York City.
A woman protesting outside Trump Tower in New York City. Darren Ornitz/Reuters

A discussion between Richard Florida, Jonathan Haidt, and the late Benjamin Barber about how how “rebel cities” can resist the Trump administration and create a new form of “urban sovereignty.”

In February, I had the privilege of hosting a conversation with my NYU colleague Jonathan Haidt and the late Benjamin Barber for the kick-off event of the NYUSPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab. The event was called “Empowering Cities Under the New Administration,” and I got to discuss a very hot topic these days: the challenges cities face in engaging with the Trump administration.

Before getting to that conversation, I want to add a note about Ben, who passed away on Monday after a long battle with cancer. Benjamin Barber was a luminary among political theorists, one who came to see cities as the spearhead of economic, social, and political progress. In his classic 1992 essay in The Atlantic, “Jihad versus McWorld,” Ben laid out the central tension of our time—how parochial hatreds and universalizing markets threatened the ideal of democracy. That tension lies behind the rise of populism and the divide between the places left behind by globalization and the cosmopolitan global city centers that benefited from it. As he wrote,

Democracy grows from the bottom up and cannot be imposed from the top down. Civil society has to be built from the inside out. The institutional superstructure comes last.

Ben’s vision for a new democratic ideal to follow the nation state looks a lot like the global city of today.

Ben became even more renowned for his classic book If Mayors Ruled the World. (We discussed that book on our site and at the 2013 CityLab conference.) That brilliant and prescient work suggests that cities are the only way forward, our last best chance for democracy and progress. Ben shared every similarity with Jane Jacobs, who also noted the deadening and darkening forces of the nation-state, and that cities and urban communities were the only real democratic impetus left in our society.

His latest book, Cool Cities, is equally brilliant, laying out the case for cities as the key to self-governance in a global 21st century. Another great legacy of Ben’s was founding the Global Parliament of Mayors, which brings together mayors from around the world to advance this movement.

Ben saw cities as the key to opposition to Trump and populism. He believed that the logic of history followed the logic of urbanization—that progress and growth and development would eventually prevail, even in these dark times. To the very end, he sought cities as oppositional forces and worked hard to find that movement in his writing. Our conversation, edited and abridged below, was an important step in that direction towards seeing cities as the way forward.

RICHARD FLORIDA: Ben, you have been writing about cities as a locus of opposition to Trump and Trumpism. After the election you wrote, “the resistance will be localized.” And you added, “The road to prosperity, no less than the road to global democracy, runs not through nations but through cities.” Tell us how you got to that position.

BENJAMIN BARBER: The argument I want to suggest we need to think about now with respect to cities, but I need to put into the context of how we are currently looking at the Trump administration and the resistance to it. There is a dyad you will see in front you today: Trump’s Washington, his illicit and cruel band of thugs—I’m sorry, but I think that is an accurate description—and then a magnificent and impressive civil movement, of which the women’s demonstration was a manifestation.

But [that framing] gives the impression that it is citizens on their own in the civil movement up against the powerful institutional forces that have been taken over by Donald Trump. I want to suggest that that draws a too pessimistic picture. There is an institutional and constitutional haven for resistance, defined by cities, which have resources, money, citizens, and the power to do something.

In other words, it’s not just us, the citizens of the United States who got outvoted in the electoral college. It is rather the most ancient political institutions of our world, and of the United States’s cities. All their institutional powers—their resources, their capacities, their lawyers—are in a position to mount an ongoing, systematic, institutional resistance to Trump and everything he stands for. It’s not just, “He acts, we protest,” It’s the confrontation of power with power—of national power with urban power.

FLORIDA: You have gone so far as to suggest that cities raise a lot of resources through taxing their population that are then shipped to Washington, D.C. and that blue cities, in particular, are the source of preponderance of resources that the federal government then takes and redistributes. I believe you said that perhaps cities should consider withholding, or somehow preempting those resources.

BARBER: One of the scandals of the current administration is that when Donald Trump announces that if sanctuary cities refuse to comply with orders from Washington to round up immigrants and to cease becoming welcome homes for immigrants, they will be punished financially by withholding resources that they need. A handful of [U.S.] cities produce half of GDP, but the world’s cities together produce 80 percent of GWP, and a preponderance of taxes paid, whether it’s to the U.S. government, to the European Union, to the British government, to the French government, and anywhere else. Cities are wealth producers. So isn’t it odd and ironic that governments tax and borrow from citizens and corporations and institutions of the city, then hold out the monies they receive as a kind of blackmail?

My proposal is a radical one: If that happens, cities ought to begin to withhold the taxes. Ask their citizens not to pay their federal taxes, but taxes to the city. Of course, the courts will immediately come after them. And if they come after New York and San Francisco and Boston, that’s going to be kind of tough. But what if they have to come after 600 or 6,000 cities that together are saying, “We produce the wealth. You are not going to give it back to us; we’ll keep it.  Come and get it.”

That’s a revolutionary act. But we live in an era where we need rebel cities. Cities have to do more than just resist; they have to say, “We have the democratic majority. We are the source of wealth creation. We are the source of universities. We are the source of culture. And we will not be bullied by a minority [party] that has taken over the federal government and is trying to impose on the cities by encroaching on the rights of citizens, the rights of immigrants, and the rights of minorities.”

In other words, cities don’t have to say, “Oh dear, please don’t punish us.” They are in a position, if they have the will, to say no. It’s a complicated and difficult, but it is by no means out of the question—if cities have the will.

FLORIDA: There is another argument about cities and empowerment that comes not from the left but the right. Joel Kotkin has been making this case for quite a while. In his book, The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin makes a parallel argument. [To Jonathan Haidt] You picked up in a conversation you had with Vox right after the election here. You said: “We have to recognize that we are in a crisis, and the left/right divide is probably unbridgeable. And if it is, we have to give up doing the big things in Washington, and do as little as we possibly can at the national level. We are going to have to return as much power as we can to the states and localities, and hope that innovative solutions spring from technology or private industry.” How do you see this coming about?

: Because we have a “vetocracy,” it’s easy to stop things. We are evenly divided, and the passions keep rising. The anger and resentment and hostility has been going up steadily since the ‘90s and spiking up in the last year or two. You have a stalemate, and then you increase the passions behind the gridlock. The past is a pretty good guide to the future. We haven’t been able to do a lot of big stuff. It just seems fairly hopeless that we are going to somehow come to understand each other and work together.

One of the reasons why there is such fear, anger, and hostility is because people act as though whoever wins the election, it’s like the fate of the world depends on it. And in fact, it does! Whereas in Canada, it doesn’t. We’ve put so much power into [the presidency], and America is a very diverse place, morally, politically, and in other ways. The idea of being told by your government about your sacred values, you don’t just say, “That’s wrong.” You are absolutely outraged. Both sides do it. If you make a list of what are the sacred values on the left, the social justice issues, the Trump administration is going straight through them. An awful lot does depend on [presidential elections]. I see no way forward so long so much hangs from it.

FLORIDA: So from mutually assured destruction to some kind of détente and mutual coexistence.

HAIDT: That’s right. Détente is good word for it.

FLORIDA: Partisan differences, which are so acutely sharp at the national level, seem to almost completely disappear in cities and with their mayors. When I go to a city and talk to the mayor, I typically can’t tell if that mayor is a Republican, or a Democrat, liberal or conservative. Why do you think that is?

BARBER: The difference in cities is that the focus is on addressing real problems, problem solving. We all know [Mayor Fiorello H.] La Guardia’s famous quote that there is no particular Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. In the city, you are trying to make things work. Republicans like [Oklahoma City mayor] Mick Cornett and [Albuquerque mayor] Richard Berry, when they sit with Bill DiBlasio here in New York, they’re are on the same page. What did you do about the water supply? How old are your pipes? Those are the questions they are facing, not “Are you a Marxist?” It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. It’s not ideological. It is pragmatic in the very best sense of that word.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, local meant parochial. Local meant backwards. Local meant reactionary. The fundamental balance between national and local has been inverted. What in the 19th century was a defense of universal rights by a national government and resistance to that by racists and localists, today has been exactly inverted.

Every progressive policy you can look for—whether it’s the minimum wage, whether it’s the defense of rights, whether it’s the defense of immigrants—is now an urban one, a local one. And national government has become reactionary, not universal. It is not just the United States. National governments are increasingly parochial, and cities are increasingly cosmopolitan. It’s exactly reversed, which gives cities a whole new role.

HAIDT: This is a really crucial part of the discussion. If you think globally, the battle lines are between what you might call the globalists versus the nationalists. The globalists aren’t necessarily in favor of globalization in terms of big corporations, but they are basically the “Lennonists,” [as in] the John Lennon song “Imagine.”

So the central question becomes, “What do you think about borders and walls?” Some people say, “Good fences make good neighbors” and other people say, “If there is a wall, I am going to knock it down.” This is the divide in our heart. The people who are the globalists in that sense, they tend to leave their small towns. They can’t stay. They would suffocate there.

The psychology of politics is really the psychology of religion, understanding national elections is not about what’s the most efficient policy. It really is the psychology that that we evolve to be religious; we evolve to do intergroup conflict; we evolve to make things sacred and encircle around them.

You’re absolutely right that for mayors, it’s a fundamentally different game. It’s not very ideological. But here is my fear: If we go the way that Ben is suggesting, we are going to be basically just taking all of that ideology and bringing it down to the local level. I want to read one quote from your article in The Nation: “Today, it is America’s cities that can confront President Trump, asserting, ‘You are our president, but you are not the representative of our principles.’ The Constitution empowers us to defend our sacred beliefs and rights, which are inclusion, diversity, climate action, and social justice. And when a Washington patriot cries ‘USA, USA’”—that’s the nationalists—“...an urban patriot will proudly respond ‘Planet Earth, Planet Earth,’” that’s the globalists.

If we go this way, it’s already clear: Cities lean left, rural leans right. We can expect there’s going to be massive culture war.

BARBER: The word I want to introduce here is interdependence. The issue about whether or not walls work has been answered by history. We need think of the challenges any government faces—local, state, national, or international. There is no New York climate change, no U.S. warming, no North American carbon emissions. It’s a global problem. Terrorists in fact are pernicious, malevolent NGOs with no known national borders. They don’t work within borders. That’s why they are so effective. Pandemic disease doesn’t carry a passport. It doesn’t stop at borders. It’s not American or French. The economy, jobs, the political consequences of how they come and go, along with financial capitalism, and corporations. They move where they will.

We live in a world where every challenge we face is interdependent and borderless. And we respond to these problems with bordered, sovereign independent states born 400 years ago, which are utterly incapable of dealing with them. Way before Trump, national governments had proven themselves incapable of dealing with climate change, terrorism, jobs, with all of those issues, because they are interdependent cross-border issues. We’re still trying to deal with them with these ancient sputtering institutions, organized around sovereignty and independence. We still love that word, independence, but interdependence is the reality.

Cities from the beginning have been about bridges, outreach, inclusion, trade, movement, mobility. They have been cosmopolitan in the sense that they reach out to one another. Back in the 10th century, the Hanseatic League of German Cities overcame the principalities and made agreements together. The League of Mediterranean Cities in 1500 was already working around the Mediterranean against the borders of empires and the ancient principalities.

The reality is cities are global. The very pragmatic local interest we talk about corresponds to the global reality of interdependent problems, which is why cities are in the forefront of dealing with climate change. Cities are in the forefront of dealing with terrorism. There is no such thing as a terrorist national security problem. It’s an urban security problem. Terrorists don’t go after farms. They don’t go after rural places. They go after big cities. Terrorism is an urban problem. Pandemic disease. It’s an urban problem. It travels node-to-node, big city to big city. The largest problems we face globally, we also face locally.

So the odd man out is the nation—too large to be effective dealing with these local issues, but too parochial and small, with their borders and their sovereignty, and their independence to really deal with the global issues. My view is not just everything devolves down to the cities and we just do it there—we bring cities together working in organizations like the C40 Climate Cities, ICLEI, my new Global Parliament of Mayors, working together as they deal locally with these issues, so they can also deal globally.

FLORIDA: Several decades ago, urban economist Charles Tiebout wrote that people “vote with their feet.” Different kinds of people choose different kinds of places based on their utility. If you are young and single, and you want a great nightlife, you head to the big city, but if you have a family with kids, you go to the suburbs because you want good schools and low crime.

This idea extends to how we live. We we choose the places we want to live, and those of us who choose to live in dense big cities have a different set of preferences than those who choose to live in smaller cities and suburbs. Can’t we just respect that? Can’t we figure out that we have to respect these differences?

HAIDT: You will always have some kids born in the city, who are going to want to move to the suburbs or further out. You can’t just have isolated cities that have borders to keep out conservatives. That’s not going to happen.

So yes, I read that line from Kotkin, “Vive le difference! Can’t we all get along?” But then what are you going to do about your sacred policies? Are you going to let people outside have a different bathroom policy for transgender students? Are you going to let states decide for themselves about abortion?

FLORIDA: Well, they are already—why not?

HAIDT: That’s where the hard decisions are. Do you really allow them to make decisions that you find abhorrent?

FLORIDA: I think, the biggest and hardest question in our national conversation. Why not? If I can live my life in a place I want to live it, why do I have to police someone else? Here’s the question: are we better off with a multiplicity of social, cultural, and economic policies that we can vote with our feet into? Or are we better off with this every-four-to-eight-year nuclear-political-cultural meltdown?

BARBER: Here is the problem: It is a slippery slope from cultural multiplicity and a readiness to acknowledge different norms and different ways of living. We can all go and move somewhere where people kind of agree with us and the right of individuals, wherever they are to be respected. It is all very well to say, “You know what, if you don’t like gay marriage, move to the suburbs in South Carolina.” There will be a ban against gay marriage, but if you don’t like it, you know, so go to New York or go to Charlotte or somewhere if you care about those issues.

But if you live in rural South Carolina, and you are gay, and you want to get married, why the hell should you be told, “No, you can’t do it here”? It is in the nature of rights as a concept that they are obligatory claims that we make based on what it means to be a human being. But the problem is, you can’t make this decision from the point of view of the majority community and what is comfortable for it. Rights have to be made from the perspective of the individuals, and their claims to be full human beings, worthy of whatever rights we agree should be attached to being a human being.

FLORIDA: Let me try a different tact: My view is that the single biggest problem we face in America today is our overblown executive branch and the imperial presidency. Trump just makes that clear. He is a big part of the problem of course, but so is that institution that empowers his lunacy. This centralized executive branch is completely out of sync with the clustered knowledge economy. The founders gave us a good instrument called federalism and this federalist system was not meant to suggest only a strong executive and imperial presidency. It is a dynamic instrument that we can tune. How can we begin limiting the powers of the executive, damping down the powers of the imperial presidency and shifting powers to cities?

We all are familiar with the horizontal separation of powers with our three branches of government. There is the separation of power and the horizontal separation of powers will be increasingly important… But the other side of it is that there is also a powerful, vertical separation of powers that works in the separation of power between nation, state, and local level—the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which says powers not specifically enumerated and given to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people. I wish it said “states, cities, and people,” but unfortunately, it says “states and people.”

But I think we can read into that to say that federalism is not just a form of subsidiarity. In Europe and elsewhere, most people see federalism simply as the feds run things and then they devolve some power down and use the local jurisdictions as implementers of national policy. But in the United States, federalism is a co-equal subdivision of power, where it is not just about subsidiarity of the lower units, but about the full force of local units.

In a certain way, sovereignty is moving from the national government to cities. Remember, when you think about political philosophy, sovereignty is the power and capacity of a government to ensure the property, the life, and the liberty of its citizens. That’s the basis of the social contract. We obey government because government secures us. Increasingly, national governments have been unable to discharge on their obligations as a sovereign. They can’t protect us against terrorism. They can’t deal with global climate change. They can’t deal with pandemic disease.

It is radical to go here but I want to suggest that there is a kind of dissolution of the social contract. People ask, “If not the national government, who?” I’d like to suggest that if cities show themselves able to secure life and liberty, if cities take on the discharging the obligations to sustainability, if cities begin to deal with urban security, then increasingly, they become the sovereign body. Then we can talk meaningfully about urban sovereignty.

The full video of this conversation is available on the NYUSPS website.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  4. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  5. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.