Will Our Cities Save Democracy?

Will Our Cities Save Democracy?
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Will Our Cities Save Democracy?
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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With dysfunction all too common in our national politics — marked by party-line votes, partisan rancor, and, of course, government shutdowns occurring with nauseating regularity — hope may lie closer to home.

“It seems like an understatement to say that there’s gridlock at the federal level,” Boston University political scientist Katherine Levine Einstein told those attending an RCP-sponsored gathering Tuesday in Washington. Indeed, Congress appears increasingly incapable of performing even its most rudimentary — and therefore ostensibly least controversial — functions, much less tackling issues of pressing national concern.

Add to this impairment widespread discontent among left-leaning Americans with the outcome of the last presidential election. The result? Renewed pressure to seek solutions to political problems at the state and local levels — either by acting when the federal government fails to do so or even “resisting” the policies of the administration. Perhaps ironically, this renewed emphasis on state and local government is precisely what many American conservatives have long sought. And so we may have in 2018 an unexpected opening for bipartisan agreement in the renewed politics of localism (or federalism). Here, as the country continues to urbanize, cities and their leaders are key.

Along with colleague Graham Wilson, Einstein is co-principal investigator of the Menino Survey of Mayors — a “multi-year data set of survey-interviews of U.S. mayors exploring a wide variety of political and policy issues,” named for the late mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, and part of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. She and her team are interested in what cities — and mayors in particular — are doing “in the absence of federal action” on issues ranging from housing and policing to budgets and climate change. At the RealClearPolitics event, Einstein presented the findings of the latest survey, sponsored by Citibank and the Rockefeller Foundation, and drawn from in-person and phone interviews with over 100 mayors of cities with populations over 75,000.

The results show a surprising amount of agreement among mayors about which political problems they think are most pressing and what they can (and cannot) do to solve them on their own. For instance, over 50 percent of mayors cited rising housing costs as a leading concern. This finding held across parties and whether their cities were rich or poor or coastal or landlocked. On some issues — including divisive ones such as climate change — mayors expressed optimism about their capacity to act without federal intervention. On others — such as immigration and education — they sounded more pessimistic, pointing to financial shortfalls or other limitations due to lack of federal assistance.

A colorful figure in this localist resurgence is Louisville’s Greg Fischer — recently named one of America’s 11 “most interesting mayors” by Politico. In a panel discussion with RCP Washington Bureau Chief Carl Cannon, Fischer showed an intuitive grasp of the need to repair the bonds of civic friendship, which is not to say whitewash disagreements.  

Fischer (pictured, to Joe Biden's left) is a self-styled political outsider — “I’m a business guy and entrepreneur that just happens to be mayor” — who does not seem afraid to say what he thinks. (When asked about the public-pension crisis facing many cities and states, he responded: “It’s all part of the great American dream. … That is, we want everything but we don’t want to have to pay for anything.”) But he emphasizes the need to focus on the “essential elements that bind us together” rather than “differences like race, political party, ethnicity,” which should be “secondary to us thriving together as an interconnected people.”

Cities are the places where that can — or should — happen. Fischer sees the city as “a platform for human potential to flourish.” But he worries that growing inequality is preventing our cities from flourishing and thus keeping us from seeking the common good. Many conservatives will balk at his proposed policy prescriptions (e.g., raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes). But they will welcome his denunciation of the left’s “intersectionality,” which, Fischer thinks, divides us up at moment when we should be doing the opposite. “We are all many different things,” but “we have to see each other in the complexity that we are so we can partner where we can partner.”

In theory, there is no reason why our national leaders cannot evince this winsome blend of principles and pragmatism. But we may be more likely to find it nowadays among those political institutions that are directly responsive to the communities in which people actually live and work. Mayors have an important role to play here, by helping to “restore … faith in the capacity of democratic political institutions to solve problems and come to grips with the real issues in people’s lives,” as Wilson put it. How so? Not by solving all our problems or by ignoring our deep and enduring disagreements, but rather reinvigorating the idea that local governments should function as what Louis Brandeis famously called the “laboratories of democracy.” The late Supreme Court justice was referring to states; but it may prove an apt description of our nation’s cities.

M. Anthony Mills is the managing editor of RealClear Media Group.

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