The Crisis of Urban Governance

The American constitutional order will be in a continuous state of crisis beginning with the inauguration of Donald Trump and his coalition. The source of the crisis is the fact that this coalition has absolute power at all levels of federal government and in most states, but has no base of support or legitimacy in the country’s major cities. At the same time, those same cities are the beating heart of American capitalism. Shut completely out of power despite making up a supermajority of the country’s productive activity, these cities will resist in ways that make them ungovernable. The American state under Trump is a colossus with clay feet, and it’s about to fall on us.

One of Jane Jacobs’ great insights was the urban development and economic development are in essence the same thing. Cities as economic entities grow out from the center, spilling over their political boundaries into suburbs and satellite towns. Agricultural productivity comes from innovations developed in cities, while rural manufacturing development is typically a redistribution of something from the city, such as a company relocating a factory to cheaper land outside a small town, or government using urban tax revenue to build infrastructure in rural areas. Jacobs was mistaken to argue that cities predated agriculture, but her analysis as applies to the present day is well-supported. Clinton’s overwhelming support relative to Trump in urban districts illustrates the lack of support for the Trump coalition in the most productive areas of the country. An analysis by the Brookings Institution MetroMonitor found that the counties Clinton won constitute 64% of the national GDP. More notable is the shape of that 64%. The largest three Trump counties by GDP are Maricopa County, AZ, Tarrant County, TX, and Suffolk County, NY. Only one of those, Maricopa County, is the central county of a metropolitan area (Phoenix). Tarrant County houses Fort Worth, but not Dallas. Suffolk County is the easternmost of the two Long Island counties, and its high GDP is attributable to spillover effects from New York.

The pattern of the country as a whole is mirrored in Trump’s metropolitan counties, as well. Put a simple overlay of the precinct results on a satellite image of Tarrant County, and you could almost predict election results by ground cover:


It’s clear that Clinton won most of Fort Worth and Arlington but lost thanks to the exurban precincts. To make an unscientific illustration of this pattern, we can see that the dense Trump precincts look like this:


and the less dense Trump precincts look like this:


Meanwhile, a more dense Clinton precinct of Tarrant County looks like this:


While a less dense Clinton precinct of Tarrant County resembles the more dense Trump areas, looking like this:


This is not to say that certain urban spatial patterns are causing one candidate to win a particular precinct over another. But denser areas correlate to preference for the Democratic candidate, and also correlate to greater economic dynamism. It’s like a fractal. Clinton won the denser states, she won the denser counties within those states, and she won the denser precincts within those counties. And yet, our constitutional order is set up to value the votes in less dense areas more than the votes in denser areas. The more that the global economy concentrates its productivity in global cities and their immediate suburbs, the more the US economic system will punish the people who choose to live closest to them.

This is not limited to the Presidential election. If anything, the electoral college is the most forgiving to urban interests of all levels of government. This seems absurd considering that Clinton won more nearly three million more votes than Trump and still lost. This is as many people as live a metropolitan area the size of Baltimore, St. Louis, or Denver. It is as many people who live within the city limits of Chicago. An analysis by Peter Marcuse found that on average, a Clinton vote was worth three quarters of a Trump vote. Disenfranchising felons, requiring registration at a fixed address, and voter suppression efforts also tend to disproportionately reduce urban turnout. Despite all this, at least under the electoral college and other statewide races it is possible to run up the score in urban and inner-suburban areas within competitive states. A vote from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas is worthless in a Presidential election. However, a vote from Milwaukee, Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Las Vegas, or Detroit is just as good as a vote from the exurban or rural areas of the same states. The density of these areas also makes canvassing efforts more efficient. The same number of canvassers can knock more doors in the same amount of time. It also requires less sophisticated targeting methods – in major cities, the vast majority of the population (at least in some neighborhoods) will either vote for the Democrat or not vote at all. Targeting by precinct, rather than by household, is a viable strategy. In suburbs, it is necessary to carry out extensive canvassing and phone banking to identify supporters and swing voters, and avoid the risk of turning out Republican supporters during get-out-the-vote efforts. The Obama campaign recognized the importance of both approaches, and placed large numbers of field organizers on the ground in all competitive states. Under their field plan, they “ran up the score” in urban and inner-suburban areas, while running an extensive persuasion campaign in small towns and outer suburbs. The effectiveness of this strategy convinced many Democratic insiders that they had some kind of mathematical lock on the electoral college and led them to ignore their failure in district races.

Unlike statewide races, district races generally do not allow urban citizens to have a meaningful vote in competitive elections. For the most part, major cities have a small number of congressional districts (often just one) representing most of the city’s population. The Democrats win overwhelmingly within those districts. Though competitive districts exist, they tend not to include major cities, and Democrats must rely more heavily on the persuasion strategy. In the 2016 House race, the GOP won 239 seats and the Dems won 194. And yet, the Dems came much closer under national popular vote totals, with 47.7% to the GOP’s 49.5%. Under a proportional system, the Dems would have had 207 seats, the GOP 215, with 13 seats going to various independent or third party candidates. These same patterns repeat themselves at the state level, with the additional problem of midterm and off-year elections depressing turnout. This further under-represents cities, since urban voters are less likely to turn out consistently. Once again, it is a fractal. The American political system under-represents cities relative to the country in Presidential elections, under-represents cities relative to the state in other statewide races, and under-represents urban districts relative to the overall composition of Congress and state legislatures.

Despite their edge, Democrats are hardly faithful representatives of urban areas. Urban under-representation in Congress sidelines urban issues in national politics, while constitutional limits on the scope of municipal power constrain possibilities at the local level. This, combined with one-party Democratic rule in major cities has made it harder for those same cities to have a rich and rigorous internal politics. There are many competing visions for the future of cities. Should zoning and land use policies encourage more development or encourage historic preservation? How much should transportation policy focus on projects that benefit city-center districts like bike lanes and downtown streetcars, and how much should transit authorities favor urban-suburban connections like commuter buses and regional rail? Should cities take an active role in distributing wealth and administering social programs, or should they leave those functions to the national government and focus on economic development projects? Rather than citywide elections turning on distinct answers to these questions, the only competitive urban elections are sparsely-attended primaries between Democratic power brokers.

If cities were better represented, urban politics could become a key component of national politics. Parties with an urban base could run on platforms that reflect the kind of cities they would build if elected. Instead, municipal elections rarely correspond to national elections, and the officials elected rarely owe their position to a movement base pushing forward a shared vision for the city. In this environment, the best strategy for an urban politician to thrive is to focus on projects that offer them the most visible opportunities to aggrandize themselves and reward other power brokers – often in exchange for supporting someone else’s own self-aggrandizing boondoggle across town. An urban political order with competitive, high-turnout elections would create an alternative path to urban power: to support a popular movement against inequality within cities, and against inequality between cities and rural areas. This movement would administer reforms for more efficient and effective services that would benefit the city and its region. Our term for this is sewer socialism.

Like so many contradictions and hidden crisis points in the United States, the crisis of urban governance has been put off for generations through a series of stopgap measures, coping strategies, and compromises. The most significant of these is that the Democratic Party once had stronger institutional and strategic relationships with the labor movement, which gave them a permanent infrastructure to support Democratic candidates in small towns and rural areas. However, Democrats have steadily neglected their allies in labor, while Republicans have made destroying unions a strategic priority. The spread of “right-to-work” laws at the state level have weakened organized labor. Meanwhile, when Democrats had a solid majority in 2009, they failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions. The final failure was the Clinton campaign’s complete incompetence at a tactical level. But even if they had won, this was only the final blow in a decades-long process of rejecting populist strategies and policies that can win swing districts outside cities while driving up turnout within them.

The result is that we have entered an era in which the urban party has no power apart from a few enclaves (including the municipal governments of the major cities themselves), while the anti-urban party has almost uncontested power within the federal government and in most states. Through a combination of its own failed strategies and the structural under-representation of cities, the Democratic Party’s defeat has revealed just how marginal cities are in politics, even as they make up the lion’s share of the economy itself.

It is difficult to predict how this contradiction will play out, but it is possible to sketch its broad dynamics. To do so, it will help to understand the relationship between the political parties and the capitalist class. Leftists are fond of saying that the Democrats and the Republicans are both parties of capital, which is true. However, they do represent rival factions of capital. Though on the whole capitalists are most likely to support Republicans than Democrats (or else donate to both sides for purely opportunistic reasons), some capitalists rely more on major cities for their accumulation than others. The Waltons and the Kochs have no need for anything a Democratic politician can give them that a Republican politician can’t. However, real estate investors, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and upscale department store owners all rely on urban space and the agglomeration economies, institutions, and infrastructure that give that space value. Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms recruit from elite metropolitan universities like Stanford and Columbia. Real estate developers must build alliances with municipal governments to enact the zoning reforms and infrastructure upgrades they need to support their developments. Producer service firms like marketing companies and supply chain consultants tend to be located in global cities because global cities, by definition, are cities with large agglomerations of producer services. The capitalists with interests in these businesses may personally prefer Republicans, but they are hosted by places that are overwhelmingly Democratic and now have no federal representation to speak of.

So what will happen? The reactionary coalition that now controls the federal government will, in all likelihood, pass legislation, enact executive orders, or make court decisions that will harm and provoke urban dwellers. Left with no electoral or legislative means to resist – not because they lost fairly but because they are systematically disenfranchised by the system – they will respond in ways that make the cities increasingly difficult to govern, and therefore increasingly difficult to extract value from. Protests, strikes, and riots will accompany any attempts to roll back the programs urban dwellers rely on, or violate the rights they believe in. The federal government, unable to claim any real legitimacy with its urban constituents, will be forced to turn to violent repression if it is to exert control over the cities. Fortunately for them, they have inherited from the outgoing Democratic administration a ruthless machine of oppression: militarized police forces, a gulag archipelago of public and private prisons, a surveillance apparatus with little oversight and, if that fails, the military, the national guard, and the drones. If the acts of urban resistance are disorganized and sporadic, they will not pose a problem. However, if urban direct action occurs at a mass scale, there will be no way to put it down without damaging the very urban economies that the capitalist class relies om. What will it do to investor confidence if riot police are firing tear gas grenades at protestors in front of the stock exchange every other week? What happens to global just-in-time supply chains if mass protests shut down the Port of Oakland for days at a time? What happens to the real estate investors of any local city if a riot destroys their mixed-use condo developments? One function liberal democracy serves is to prevent violence from deciding questions of power, and in so doing create stable conditions for markets to function. The fact that it has come to this is unfortunate, and organizers supporting direct action should adhere to the principles of nonviolence as much as possible. But this election reveals that we do not live in a democracy, and this fact makes violence inevitable.

There are a few ways that this can play out. The worst-case scenario is that American capitalism will reconstitute itself as more peripheral, less productive, and less urban than before. The urban capitalists will lose money, the global economy may fall into another recession, and cities will become even more underrepresented than they are now thanks to racist voter disenfranchisement measures, reversing much of the social progress of the 19th and 20th centuries. Under our undemocratic constitution, this would be legal.

The middle-case scenario is that the cities fail to unseat the anti-urban coalition from long-term power, but do manage to come to an uneasy truce that preserves their independence and self-governance. If the anti-urban coalition maintains control of the federal government but takes a lighter approach to the cities, it may lead to a new division of political power in which cities and urban states take on more power than they have before, adopting some of the functions traditionally carried out by national governments. The beginnings of this kind of solution can already be seen in some urban social justice measures like sanctuary cities, in which cities set an immigration policy independent of the national government. The beginnings of a city-state arrangement are already in place: sister cities can be the beginnings of a diplomatic policy, militarized police forces the beginnings of a military, and so on. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to refuse to aid the federal government in the establishment of a Muslim registry or deportations of undocumented immigrants, and the city has even built-in a protocol to erase all municipal ID card data in the event that the federal government tries to seize it against the city’s will. In a very real sense, there are people who are citizens of the City of New York but not citizens of the United States.

The best-case scenario is that cities will succeed in fighting back, and win nationwide in such a way that restores them to representation at the federal level. The danger to urban productivity will prevent some of the worst from happening, while a social democratic coalition remakes or replaces the Democratic Party in a way that can be competitive in exurban and rural areas while increasing turnout in urban areas. If this scenario comes to pass, the winning coalition should be willing to call a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, and produce a re-established and re-ordained constitution without the undemocratic and anti-urban ratification system the current constitution calls for. Unless we change our system to equally represent all Americans, the crisis of urban governance will only recur. A democracy that grossly under-represents urban voters is not a democracy, and a Democratic Party that grossly neglects rural voters is not a democratic party.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Crisis of Urban Governance

  1. I don’t really like the political analysis, especially about Clinton’s support by GDP. Democracy empowers citizens, not dollars, at least in theory. And under a principle of one dollar, one vote, Trump would win the popular vote, and previous Republican candidates would win it by a landslide. The 67% of GDP figure for Clinton is based on a bunch of factors that are even less legitimate than one dollar, one vote:

    – GDP includes the profits of corporations headquartered in the area, which inflates cities.

    – GDP is counted where the income is earned, not where the employees live, which inflates job centers relative to bedroom communities.

    – As Xenocrypt on Twitter repeatedly explains, Clinton would have won a winner-take-all county electoral college by a higher margin than the national popular vote, as would previous Democratic presidential candidates.

    Then there’s the litany of ways the Republicans disenfranchise cities. This is true, but it’s a derived outcome of disenfranchisement by race (voter suppression) and party affiliation (gerrymandering, voter ID laws that let you vote with a gun license but not a student ID). Republican voter ID laws are even more savage against rural blacks than against urban blacks, since rural blacks tend to be poorer; North Carolina, where voter suppression flipped the state to Trump, has a lot of rural blacks, whose votes didn’t count any more than those of Charlotte-area blacks did.

    Finally, sewer socialism. You’re right that the way forward for US progressives is to come up with tangible achievements, which require both good government and commitment to leftist or at worst center-leftist principles. The problem is that the most visible achievements, i.e. universal health care and free university tuition, are hard to do in any US city except New York. And New York won’t do it, because its politics is about palace intrigue rather than ideology; de Blasio ran an ideological campaign but is governing as neither an ideologue nor a technocrat.

    This means that any good government achievement has to be done on the state level, not the city level. Free university tuition is easy enough given residency requirements, and Rhode Island just unveiled a proposal for two years of free in-state tuition. Universal health care is harder, since it’s much more expensive, leading to tax arbitrage problems; California can do it, but won’t, and among the other states, the few that can plausibly do this (Hawaii, Colorado, Minnesota, maybe New York) have too many Republicans or too many Democrats of the palace intrigue kind.

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