Brooks Rainwater is the Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.
As local politicians attempt to keep government from grinding to a halt, they need the support of an involved citizenry.
In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, mayors of Florida cities—and other local leaders across the nation—want to help protect children from gun violence by passing common sense laws, but in many cases, their hands are tied by state governments that ban local regulation of firearms.
Unfortunately, the use of state laws to stop or ‘preempt’ local lawmaking is not limited to guns.
Half of all states now ban local efforts to combat inequality through minimum wage policy, while 18 states have denied local governments the power to enact paid sick leave policies. States have shut down local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances; halted efforts to protect immigrants; undermined efforts to advance environmental protection, and stifled innovation by preventing cities from having a say on high-speed broadband.
Not only do these measures place a wedge between the government and the governed, they constrict liberty.
The United States—as the name makes clear—is a collection of states that serve as the foundation of our federal system. It was founded with the intent that these ‘united states’ would work together to better our democracy, innovate and lift great ideas from communities large and small to inform national policy. Now, rather than elevating the best ideas, state legislators are using top-down tactics to tamp down local decision making and erode our democracy.
State-level preemptive tactics are overturning elections, limiting local anti-discrimination efforts, perpetuating racial and economic inequality, and systematically stripping local governments of their power to respond to local problems. These tactics are amplified via partisan divisions that have only grown as a result of strategic redistricting taking place in states nationwide–-solidifying and deepening political divides in statehouses.
These measures restrict the ability of all of us to make our own decisions reflecting community values and goals. Ground-up democracy—civic engagement, democratic participation, and a love of liberty—is essential to who we are as Americans.
Why did democracy take root and flourish in America when it failed in so many other places? That question drove Alexis de Tocqueville to travel and study the United States in 1831. He concluded that local government was the key because it functioned as a “school of democracy” where Americans learned to participate, take charge of their own affairs together, and expect accountability of public officials.
Local democracy, Tocqueville wrote, also taught Americans how state and federal democracy should work to promote the common good. But local government, and its role at the heart of our democracy, is in peril in many states.
Local governments and policymakers are facing increasing hostility. Whether it is a legal attack on “sanctuary cities,” in order to compel municipal governments to ‘deputize’ local police as immigration officers, or even the seemingly innocuous question of whether communities can regulate dockless bikeshares on their sidewalks—these local decisions are being disallowed by disconnected state legislators.
And again and again, state legislative bodies have sought to stop cities that want to raise wages, even though, across the country, large majorities support it. Numerous states have preempted cities from passing restrictions on gun owners, despite vast support for laws banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.
So far this year, state lawmakers have shown a growing focus on interfering in local government, rather than finding solutions for the problems Americans collectively face. It’s no wonder that a recent survey from Boston University found that both Republican and Democratic mayors were very concerned about state government preemption. Fifty-seven percent reported much less, or less than average autonomy from their state governments, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2016.
The weakening of local authority and community decision-making has immediate consequences on the health, safety, and economic wellbeing of residents, but the rise of state preemption also has long-term significance for our democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient ideas on local governments as schools of democracy continue to hold true today.
Local leaders are not sitting idle in the face of this threat. Mayors and city councils across America are actively contesting the rise of state overreach and will continue to fight. The ability for local leaders to solve problems and protect their residents—including schoolchildren—is too valuable to lose.
With the life and death issues we all face, we cannot wait as the federal government and state governments dither or, in the worst cases, actively stand in the way of progress. Local leaders are focused on solutions.
It is clear that cities cannot stand alone. The collective impact of engaged local citizens is essential. Without it the loss of local democracy could cost us the only still-functioning form of government left.