This post is part of a CityLab series on power—the political kind, the stuff inside batteries and gas tanks, and the transformative might of mass movements.
On the world stage, cities have immense clout. They drive economies, breed culture and new ideas, and concentrate human talent.
Yet, in the United States, cities severely lack political power. Not only has the Electoral College and the gerrymandering of congressional districts limited the national impact of urban votes, our system of federalism barely recognizes a right for city government to make independent decisions. While states can cite the Tenth Amendment to challenge the federal government, no similar legal mechanism exists for cities. Without the constitutional or policy tools to resist federal encroachment or set local priorities, cities must get creative and overturn conventional assumptions about their political power.
That’s the argument posed in City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age by Richard Schragger, a professor of law at the University of Virginia Law School. He spoke with CityLab by phone to discuss how metropolitan areas can wriggle around these structural challenges—and flex their muscles again.
You wrote this book before the election happened. Since then we’ve been hearing a lot more about how U.S. cities must reassert power within the federalist system. Has the election affected your thinking on this question?
It reinforced the book’s argument for the decentralization of power to cities. The Trump election revealed the large political divide between rural and exurban America and urban America that has been exacerbated by the urban resurgence of the last 20 to 25 years. Ironically, increased prosperity and energy in cities has exacerbated the divide between cosmopolitan folks in cities and what I would call traditionalists outside of cities. That divide doesn’t seem to be going away. When you look at political maps they’re quite stark—not blue states and red states, but blue cities and metropolitan areas and red states.
Cities have all this economic energy and large numbers of people—why hasn’t that translated to more political power?
Cities do and can exercise certain kinds of economic and regulatory power. We’ve seen in the urban resurgence a further increase in economic power. The problem is in our system of state-based federalism. State legislatures and state officials limit cities’ ability to act.
Right now, we have a crisis of preemption—when states override local laws that they don’t like. We’ve seen this over and over again. When Charlotte, North Carolina, passed their transgender bathroom law and the state legislature came in, they not only overrode that law, they adopted a statute that preempted minimum wage, local contracting rules, and all kinds of local anti-discrimination laws.
In Florida, they have threatened local officials with removal through their preemptive legislation, what I would call a punitive preemption. In Tallahassee, that was a case over local gun regulation. There’s particularly pointed preemption in that case. You’re getting enormous pushback from states against progressive local legislation. Cities have economic power and are often the economic drivers of their regions—and their states frankly—but they are often quite limited by the state legislature.
One of the key points that you make in the book is about how cities are economic engines but capital by its very nature can move place to place. How can cities leverage their economic power for political change?
As a strategic matter, cities have to engage in coalition building. We’ve seen some of this. One way that cities can do this is to try to create coalitions with business. North Carolina is a good example. The business community, which is mostly based in urban areas, opposed the state’s override of the local transgender bathroom ordinance.
Cities could also work to elect statewide officials, especially governors, who are sympathetic to their political agenda. The city is more likely to exercise power in statewide elections than in the state legislature, where individual members aren’t going to be influenced by the city’s economic strength.
In the book, you quote Lyndon Johnson’s famous quip about the presidency: “It could be worse. I could be a mayor.” What do we need to understand about the power of mayors?
I think mayors are quite underrated in the United States political system because power tends to move upward. But mayors are doing much of the hard work of governing in this country. There are limits on their capacities. State officials compete with mayors for political credit and they often shift political blame to mayors. When governors and state legislatures promote tax cuts, the burden of those tax cuts often falls on local services. Then the locality has to pick up the slack. State legislators and national legislators are in political competition with local officials like mayors. That political competition means officials are going to override local efforts they disagree with, and they can do that fairly easily.
There’s another issue: Mayors are often conceived as CEOs of their cities. We think of cities as businesses that mayors run. I think that’s a mistake, because then we expect mayors to foster economic development. Mayors and officials in cities should focus less on economic growth and development. Instead they should focus more on providing basic services to the people that are in the city now. Instead of trying to attract new people and businesses to your city, you should do your best for the folks who live there now. We actually don’t know what kind of policies are effective at fostering growth in cities. We should provide resources in cities to do what’s right, even if we’re not sure it will foster growth.
Can competing cities cooperate to bolster their collective interests?
We should reject the idea that cities are competing. There’s never been any evidence that there’s a competition, although people do tend to talk this way. I think that’s a mistake and it’s been damaging to the city power to think of cities along these lines. It means that we don’t recognize cities’ common interests. We start to act as if it’s zero-sum—this city gets economic growth and development and that city doesn’t. That’s not the way regional economies work. Economic geographers show it’s not about competition—it’s about agglomeration economies where cities operate in the context of other cities and in the context of trade between those cities.
Once we jettison the competitive paradigm, we can start thinking more about what cities can do together. One of the things we need in this country is a more robust cross-city political movement. Cities should see themselves as institutions that have mutual interests and join together. We don’t have that kind of political movement right now.
Another question that has bubbled up to the federal level is economic inequality, which in cities has become very stark. What power do cities have to try to address this, especially when some of the most economically successful metros often have some of highest levels of inequality?
Cities are effective instruments of creating wealth and that wealth is often unequally distributed. What cities can do is ameliorate inequality. The local minimum wage movement has been quite successful in this country. Cities are engaged in broader social welfare redistribution than theorists have thought possible.
Cities can provide opportunities for working-class people and immigrants to move into the middle class. That’s what cities did in the beginning of the 20th century, and cities can do that again. What we need to provide to the people in cities is decent housing, decent education, public safety in transportation, and health care. Those things can be provided by cities. This is what cities did in the New Deal era. There was a push to house and feed and clothe and take care of urban citizens. Cities are trying to do some of that, and they can do more.
But doing that relies in part on federal funding. With the Trump administration proposing to slash funding for urban housing and transit, how should cities approach the question of federalism and fighting for the essential programs, especially when cities are paying so much in federal taxes?
It’s a real challenge. There is a lot of federal money that supports the things that cities do, such as supporting anti-poverty programs or transportation. Now we have an administration that’s hostile to the social welfare state. Unfortunately, cities may have to absorb these cuts and costs. It will be necessary for people in cities who do have resources to advocate and agitate for a better distribution of resources in the city—to push back politically.
In the meantime, cities are going to have to take on more of the task of taking care of their own. That’s going to put some strains on their resources. It will mean that folks who want to see these policies will have to do it on the local level and not expect support from the federal government.
That’s difficult, especially for progressive minded folks who have always looked to the federal government for support. The better strategy is to gain that support at the local level and to pursue those goals at the city level.
What cities are providing good examples of that strategy?
There are cities engaged in what I would call progressive policy making. San Francisco is an example of a labor-friendly city, New York City is also an example. But there are some smaller cities that are doing some of this too.
In the book, I talk about community benefit agreements, which is a way of leveraging local power to distribute the costs and benefits of development more broadly. Detroit is experimenting with community benefit agreements. I talk about an example in New Haven in the book. Los Angeles has sought to try to leverage its control of the Los Angeles port to adopt environmental and labor friendly to regulations there. Unfortunately, [the environmental law] was challenged in the federal courts and that was limited by national law. That’s an example where you have efforts by localities to pursue policies that are then shut down by either federal or state law.
Because cities are in a politically weak position in this country for structural reasons, resistance to that can only come as part of a political movement. There isn’t really an answer that is either a litigation answer or a specific policy answer. There needs to a response by cities, as cities, in the United States. They have to create coalitions that would resist the withdrawal of funds, the punitive preemption, and the overriding of local legislation.