Monday, November 21, 2016

City Power: Final Reflections on Cities and the 2016 Election

Guest Blogger

Richard Schragger

For the Symposium on Richard Schragger, City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age (2016).

I want to thank Richard, Scott, Lee, Nestor, Kathleen, and Audrey for their generous and insightful posts about City Power (and Jack Balkin for agreeing to publish them on Balkinization). In this short reply I will be unable to do their comments justice. My goal is simply to add one more reflection with the hope that readers will view these collective comments as an invitation to pay increased attention to cities. As I argue in City Power, cities should be at the center of our collective political, constitutional, economic, and legal thinking.

A number of commentators read City Power against the backdrop of the recent election results—and how could they not?  One irony of the election is that Donald Trump—a man who grew up in New York and made his fortune building there—ran a campaign that was shot through with anti-urbanism. County-level election return maps show how stark is the geographic and cultural divide between city dwellers and those who live in rural and exurban places.  Richard, Nestor, and Scott all point with some urgency to a divided nation—one that seems to pit “cosmopolitans” in big cities against “traditionalists” who live in less dense and less globally connected places.    

The phenomenon of blue cities in red states is in large part a product of residential racial segregation combined with legislative gerrymandering. The divide between failing, rustbelt cities in the Upper Midwest and prospering “new economy” cities on the coasts seems to be a feature of globalization—though we should be wary of resorting to abstractions when specific national policies have aided and abetted that divide. What is shared across this political/economic geography is rising economic inequality coupled with a palpable dissatisfaction with the status quo.

City Power argues that cities are able to address economic inequality, much more so than conventional economic theory would predict. Whether they are permitted to do so is another question altogether. We have seen how red states have clamped-down on municipal efforts to adopt minimum wage ordinances or other labor-friendly regulations, not to mention local LGBT anti-discrimination laws. The preemption rush will only intensify as Trump challenges other city initiatives, whether environmental or economic. As Nestor observes, Trump has already threatened “sanctuary cities” with sanctions—the withholding of federal funds—if they do not comply with his deportation mandate. Defenders of local power will need to invoke NFIB v. Sebelius to fend off financially “coercive” national mandates.

I have always been wary of centralized power even when it was deployed in my favored policy direction. City Power adopts the old Brandeisian notion that nation-states are too large for effective democratic governance. The Brexit vote and the American presidential election seem to be a reaction to a global democracy deficit. There is a perception that power is shifting away from democratic institutions and toward transnational corporations and centralized bureaucracies. But, as Kathleen so perceptively argues, we have forgotten how to tend to our local communities—we have failed to teach our students the importance of local institutions. This may make us vulnerable to charismatic strongmen who promise to fix what we can’t fix in our own backyards. As Robert Dahl famously observed, “City-building is one of the most obvious incapacities of Americans.”

Cities are agglomeration economies—Lee calls this the “magnetic city” (a truly felicitous phrase)—and spatial economies will chug along no matter what. The “legal city,” by contrast, has been and continues to be disempowered by (1) state-based federalism (chapter 3 of City Power) and (2) the cross-border constitutional rules and government policies that encourage footloose capital (chapter 4). As Audrey points out, local economic development is about “capital accumulation for some at the expense of others.” The same perhaps could be said of the entire global economy—an argument that those who advocate a “right to the city” have long been making. President-elect Trump has been the beneficiary of local economic development races (in New York, Atlantic City, and elsewhere), collecting subsidies for his real estate projects even as he now rails against the “rigged” economic system. 

City Power can be read as even more important for progressives seeking a post-election site for political and territorial resistance (as Nestor argues).  Resort to principles of federalism or localism is always the strategy for national political losers. One can also read City Power skeptically, pointing to the failures and inequalities inherent in the global urbanizing project and reemphasizing the need for national anti-poverty and pro-labor policies (as Scott tentatively suggests). On this score, smug liberals ensconced in their gleaming Trump Towers in fast-gentrifying cities are dangerously out-of-touch, pushing rents higher even as they advocate for municipal plastic bag bans. The recent urban resurgence could simply be a reflection of the economic processes that have always divided us by class and race (see Richard’s post). Whatever redistribution the city does is just a scrap left by a global economy that invariably produces inequality. 

I am not particularly sanguine about the direction of national or global politics, but I am hopeful about the direction of city politics. Here I share Jane Jacobs’s sometimes naïve belief in the city’s capacity to build the middle-class. New Deal-style urban liberalism helped turn immigrants into citizens. Municipal services—clean water, decent schools, subways, and hospitals—paved the way for working people to share in the country’s post-war prosperity.    

I also want to heed Frederic Howe’s 1905 call to treat the city as “the hope of democracy”—asserted in the midst of the machine era, when all around him intellectuals and policymakers were arguing that municipal government was a conspicuous failure. It was not true then and it is not true now. In 1967, another time of crisis for the American city, Dahl argued that cities were the optimally-sized democratic institutions and the places where all our best ideas should be brought to bear on the country’s worst social and economic problems. We face serious challenges today. I think that cities are capable of addressing those challenges, if we just let them. 

Richard Schragger is the Perre Bowen Professor and Joseph C. Carter, Jr. Research Professor of Law at the University of Virginia. You can reach him by e-mail at

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