Cities Fighting to Lead

Cities are where the economic action is and the political power isn’t. The battle to redress this imbalance has already begun.


America’s future lies in its blue dots, the cities that have left the industrial era behind and linked themselves into the global economy. Overwhelmingly, they are progressive in policies and Democratic at the polls. But their freedom to act is hobbled by red-tide America, the maimed hinterlands tethered to the past but dominant in state capitals and, now, in Washington. Overwhelmingly, they are populist in policies and Republican at the polls.


All this was on display in the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords. If this played in Washington, it bombed in America’s cities. No fewer than 246 mayors, including the mayors of all the nation’s global cities, attacked the pullout and vowed to line their cities up with the accords, in defiance of the new national policy. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “The world is depending on cities in the US to take up the mantle of leadership on climate change. Chicago will happily accept that challenge.”

As Ivo Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, has written, “global cities are increasingly driving world affairs – economically, politically, socially, and culturally. They are no longer just places to live in. They have emerged as leading actors on the global stage.” As such, they have the key role to play in shaping the future.


But it’s not as easy as that. “The American city continues to be badly abused,” as Richard Schragger wrote in City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age. “Its challenges are overwhelming, its resources limited, its citizens racially divided, its authority questioned, its capabilities undermined.”


The reason: cities, as powerful as they are, remain alien outposts surrounded by jealous hinterlanders who refuse to give them the freedom and authority they need.


Blame it on the founding fathers.

"Cities, as powerful as they are, remain alien outposts surrounded by jealous hinterlanders who refuse to give them the freedom and authority they need."

The US constitution doesn’t even mention cities. It devised a federal system, with some powers reserved to the federal government and all other powers devolved to the states. Legally, cities are the creatures of states – “convenient agencies of their states, not independent polities,” as Schragger puts it – and have no real powers that the states don’t give them. In practice, this isn’t much.


Most states limit the right of cities to tax themselves. States can grant home-rule powers to cities and then withdraw them. States can and do slap down local minimum-wage laws, overturn bans on plastic bags, keep cities from putting restrictions on guns, even prohibit cities from banning gifts in Happy Meals. In an extreme case, states can simply take over cities and run them, as Detroit found out.


States are happy to let cities run basic municipal services or take on social welfare chores, because this shifts the cost of these expensive projects to the cities themselves. But when cities try to do something that offends the backwoodsmen in the state legislature, the state veto is imposed.

"Cities can fight back against state strictures and prevail."

Faced with this constitutionally protected high-handedness, what is a poor city to do? Actually, more than you might think.


First, cities can fight back against state strictures and prevail. The Indiana state legislature passed a bill two years ago giving businesses the right to discriminate against same-sex marriages, and Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, signed it into law. Businesses and politicians in Indianapolis, faced with a nationwide boycott, protested loudly. Pence and the legislature quickly backed down.


Second, cities have powerful allies, as Indianapolis discovered. Increasingly, they are home to the major corporations’ headquarters, major universities, and the giant hospitals and law firms and markets that dominate the global economy and make their voices heard in the political debate.


Third, cities keep their states afloat. Invariably, big cities send more tax money into state treasuries than they get back in state spending. A New York State study showed that New York City paid 45 percent of the state’s revenue and got back only 40 percent of its spending. A similar study in Indiana showed that the Indianapolis region paid 33 percent of the state’s tax revenues and got back only 28 percent of the state’s expenditures. These imbalances add up to billions of dollars that cities could use in hard-nosed bargaining.


Fourth, as Schragger points out, cities can use their power of zoning and permits to enforce labor and environmental rules. Until now, cities have hesitated to use these powers, for fear that businesses would move to friendlier places. But the fact is that most of these footloose businesses, many of them factories, have already left. The businesses that are left – hotels, universities, government agencies – are in cities because they have to be there. Lawyers, accountants, and other business services have to stay in cities because that’s where their clients are and, besides, are not likely to be upset by wage or environmental laws.


Fifth, cities have always been politically helpless and have triumphed nevertheless. States have dominated cities since the 19th century. In that time, the cities have won many of the great urban-rural battles, from the triumph of organized labor to the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, from repeal of prohibition to the invention of the weekend. Invariably, cities have been on the right side of history.

Michael Bloomberg, the UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change (C), speaks next to Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes (L) and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, at the Ceremony Awards of "C40 Awards the 11 Best Cities of 2016 for Addressing Climate Change", during the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City, Mexico, December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

"Cities cannot wait for an ineffectual federal government to sort out its own problems."

Now, cities already are moving gingerly into foreign affairs. Increasingly, they are bypassing Washington and dealing directly with foreign cities on such issues as climate change, immigration, and terrorism. American cities belong to formal and informal networks of global cities, such as the C40 Group dealing with climate change.


Many of these issues, including climate change and immigration, should be handled by Washington. But partisan gridlock and the power of lobbies there has blocked virtually any progress. These issues are part of the daily job of running cities, which cannot wait for an ineffectual federal government to sort out its own problems.


Until now, cities have rarely challenged Washington policy, preferring to act in areas where the federal government has left a vacuum. But Chicago and other cities have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities, vowing to protect immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, against the Trump administration’s announced plans to round them up and deport them. 


The constitution makes the president the chief federal law enforcement officer, which would seem to give Trump the right to overrule the sanctuary cities. But in the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that cities must make social services available to everyone, no matter what their immigration status, a ruling that seems to put these sanctuary cities on defensible legal ground.


If the sanctuary cities win this battle, it could draw the lines for future fights with Washington, as cities test the limits of their autonomy.

"Trump was elected by red-sea America... His constituency wants a return to the past. If he tries to give it his voters what they want, he will collide head-on with cities charging into the future. "

These fights seem sure to come. Increasingly, globalization is making cities more powerful while crimping Washington’s reach and power. In the age of Trump, foreign cities will prefer to do business directly with American cities, instead of trying to penetrate the murky maze of Washington politics.


Politics will rear its head in other ways favorable to cities. The columnist David Brooks, writing about ways to oppose the Trump administration, wrote about all those ambitious and idealistic young Americans who want to do both well and good. In happier times, they would have headed for Washington, because it was where they could wield the levers of power. Indeed, many of them did just that eight years ago, after the election of Barack Obama.


Now, Brooks said, “the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make (a) contribution at the state and local levels.” A flood of young talent into Springfield, Albany, or Harrisburg seems unlikely. But the big global cities, increasingly powerful in the world, are suddenly the place where these smart and ambitious young people can best use their ideals and brains.


Crudely put, Trump was elected by red-sea America and was overwhelmingly opposed by blue-dot America. His constituency wants a return to the past. If he tries to give it his voters what they want, he will collide head-on with cities charging into the future. 

People protest President Donald Trump's travel ban outside of the US Court of Appeals in Seattle, Washington, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/David Ryder

"Washington responds to an America that is irrelevant to the global economy. The cities throw out bridges to the world."

A president should be the leader of the entire country. Right now, this seems impossible.


The view from Washington is narrow, pinched, and inward. The view from the great cities is broad and outward. Washington responds to an America that is irrelevant to the global economy. The cities throw out bridges to the world.


As Daalder said, “We live in a world no longer divided between left and right, liberal and conservative, but open and closed. Cities – and especially the big, global cities – are the vanguard of openness, pushing for open borders, open markets, open societies and open minds. These cities are our best defense against the closed nationalism and populism infecting our societies.”


We began this series of essays by saying that America’s cities are on their own. Not really. They are in a new league with other great cities around the world, filled with people who also see the future and need American help to reach it.