American cities seem to be cleaving from the rest of the country, and the temptation for liberals is to try to embrace that trend. With Republicans controlling the presidency, both houses of Congress, and most statehouses, Democrats are turning to local ordinances as their best hope on issues ranging from gun control to the minimum wage to transgender rights. Even before Inauguration Day, big-city mayors laid plans to nudge the new administration leftward, especially on immigration—and, should that fail, to join together in resisting its policies.There is actually some really good meat in the article. There are real issues, philosophical and concrete, that are consequential and worth discussing.
But if liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city. Recent events in red states where cities are pockets of liberalism are instructive, and cautionary. Over the past few years, city governments and state legislatures have fought each other in a series of battles involving preemption, the principle that state law trumps local regulation, just as federal law supersedes state law. It hasn’t gone well for the city dwellers.
I think we have a lot more heat than light in the discussion for two reasons.
The first is definitional and obfuscatory. Richard Florida, an urbanist researcher who is a gifted writer and conveyor of ideas, has stumbled on this issue many times. Graham captures the rub here:
Yet the economic reality that underpinned rural-urban distrust in the 19th century is now inverted: In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities, from Austin to Atlanta, from Birmingham to Chicago.There is a trope that cities are characterized as solidly blue, highly productive and packed with high end knowledge workers. There are elements of this that are true, but there are parts that are not. It all hangs on the definition of what constitutes a city.
Atlanta is a city of some 5.7 million in a state of 10.1 million people. It clearly dominates in terms of both population and in terms of the economy. It is a powerhouse. It fits the model above about creative, productive city versus the rural yokels.
Except that it doesn't. The core of the issue is that this an equivocation fallacy.
Metropolitan Atlanta as a geographical area does indeed have 5.7 million people. But the City of Atlanta only has 464,000 people, only 8% of the metropolitan area. The City of Atlanta is indeed dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. The relevant election is not the general election, it is the Democratic primary. Whoever wins the Democratic primary, wins the election. And yes, it is a center of education with two major universities in city limits. And yes, there is a creative elite of artists, engineers, lawyers, engineers, etc.
But the other 5.1 million Atlantans who live outside the city limits are all over the place. Some of the near areas are seamlessly urban, dense, and creative. Other areas are residential suburban. Others are light and heavy industry. Yet others are almost rural. While there are some parts of the melange which are definitely Democrat, many others are various shades of Republican ranging from intellectual libertarian Republican to small town socially conservative Republican to small government/fiscally conservative Republican.
The equivocation fallacy is that Atlanta (metropolitan and on balance conservative) is the same as City of Atlanta (definitely big city Democratic).
I am only using Atlanta as an example. The circumstances and details will vary City by City but the differences in issues between City of X and Metropolitan X are common across the country.
The reason that this is important is because of the divergence between the two concepts. Using Atlanta again as an example. City of Atlanta is Democratic. It is about 52% African-American. It has an extreme economic inequality. It has a significant crime issue. It struggles with delivering basic city services. It has a large commuter population (people who live outside the city but commute in). There is remarkably little government transparency. There are significant whiffs of scandal. There are unfunded pension plans for city workers. On and on. Nothing out of the ordinary for American municipal government.
In contrast, the City of Sandy Springs is within Metropolitan Atlanta, i.e. part of geographical Atlanta but not City of Atlanta. Sandy Springs is about a quarter the size of City of Atlanta. It is 65% white. It is small government oriented, Republican (libertarian), known for its high quality city services, and focus on government and financial transparency.
The contrast between the two is stark and it is critical, when discussing policy, to distinguish the circumstances of City of Atlanta proper, and those areas, such as Sandy Springs, which are geographically Atlanta.
Georgia is a red state and many articles clumsily cast big city blue Atlanta wrestling with rural red Georgia. The reality is that there is a struggle but of a different nature. Blue City of Atlanta does wrestle with the rest of the state, sometimes allied with some purplish parts of geographical Atlanta, often in contest with red suburbs and other parts of geographical Atlanta. Because of the equivocation fallacy, the dividing lines between city and state, such as argued by Graham, are made to be much sharper than they are.
There is a second issue that interplays with the city state paradigm and that is who subsidizes whom. Sometimes it is argued that rich cities subsidize the poor rural state (as in Graham's article). Sometimes the reverse argument is made. The challenge is that we are not in much of a position to know because there are so many hidden subsidies and so many unfunded obligations.
It is not uncommon for cities to have two, three, four, five and more decades of the appearance of productivity and civic health when in fact they are accumulating huge debt obligations and even larger hidden pension obligations. It is easy to look like you are successful if you are spending several times more than you are taking in from tax revenue via debt and bonds. On a smaller scale, the same thing can happen in suburbs, smaller cities and rural counties but the problem tends to be smaller simply because their borrowing capacity is lower and many of them have balanced budget charters.
So the issue of who subsidizes whom and by how much is a real and legitimate issue but one to which we simply do not have sufficient good information to know the answer.
And that brings us back to the political issue. It is easy to cast cities in opposition to suburban/rural as a contest between Blue in opposition to Red. The reality is much more complicated. It is about long term sustainability and viability - issues which politicians on all sides are heavily incented to obscure.
UPDATE: The U.S. Megalopolis Isn't as Politically Powerful as You Think by David Byler deals with the same topic from a different angle.