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Cities Are Where Most of Us Live, But Can Mayors Really Rule the World? Why We Should Be Optimistic

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

I could not be more excited about helping to bring this blog to life with this amazing group of scholars. For those of us who are working on or at the state and local levels of government, this is a fertile time to be engaged in this important endeavor.

Growing up, my mother would often recount stories about her experiences coming of age in the South during the Jim Crow era. The fear and horror of that time for her was matched only by the pride in a federal government, and federal courts, eventually stepping in to recognize, codify, and enforce civil rights for African Americans against recalcitrant states and local governments. So it is no surprise that my generation looked to Congress and the Supreme Court to continue to push forward on policies that ushered in greater racial, social and economic equality and justice.

I think most of us would agree that, today, the relationship between national and state and local governments is far more complicated than it was (or seemed) over a half century or so ago. At least when it comes to civil rights, racial justice, and a range of social and economic rights. On the one hand, we are witnessing in real time the effort by many state legislatures to restrict voting rights, with predictable impacts on historically disenfranchised populations, and the stalemate in Congress to pass federal legislation to curb these efforts.

On the other hand, on one of the biggest civil rights movements of my generation, state courts and legislatures led the way in recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry and form families in the same way that opposite-sex couples do. They did so at a time when successive Presidents from Clinton, Bush to Obama expressly opposed marriage equality (although Obama later reversed himself). The Supreme Court eventually concurred with progressive state rulings finding a right to marriage for all couples by a thin 5-4 majority that no longer exists today.

Local government enthusiasts, including my late friend and colleague Dr. Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World, have argued that virtually every progressive policy adopted in the last decade or so – minimum wage increases, defense of human rights, defense of immigrants – was an urban one and a local one. In a highly fractured polity, they argue it’s not reasonable to expect that big policies and solutions will come from Washington and want to return as much power to states and local governments in the hope that innovative solutions flow from the bottom up.

It is true that when we look across the nation, local governments are taking the lead, and arguably innovating, on a range of contentious social, economic, environmental and public health issues. Sometimes the policies they adopt are strongly resisted by their state governments and the federal government. During the COVID pandemic, for example, local governments often put in place health measures — shutdowns and mask mandates — that created tension with their Governors. Likewise, a number of local governments have embraced “sanctuary” policies — refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials to detain or deport undocumented migrants — even as their state governments sought to punish them and the federal government sought to defund them.

Other times, local experimentation may be fertile ground to cultivate progressive policies and demonstrate their efficacy for later adoption by higher levels of government. As a presidential candidate, Andrew Yang ran on the importance of universal basic income (UBI) both as an anti-poverty tool to mitigate the impacts of job automation and as an anti-racist tool to shrink the racial wealth gap. Yet a number of local governments already were adopting UBI pilots, giving low-income residents a set amount per month. Founded in June 2020,Mayors for a Guaranteed Income represents over 40 cities either advocating for, or enacting these policies. President’s Biden’s successful push for a monthly child tax credit, a form of UBI, is arguably an example of the “upscaling” of these local experiments to the federal level and illustrate the success of cities as laboratories for progressive economic policy.

Similarly, on climate change, cities are taking unprecedented steps to divest from fossil fuels and put in place aggressive carbon reduction targets in the absence of federal legislation, which appears unlikely to materialize in the near future. At least 45 cities have established reduction targets that would align with a 2 degree Celsius target set out by the Paris Agreement, though not necessarily the preferred 1.5 degree target. When the largest cities set aggressive reduction targets, they can rival the efforts of many nations whose economic output they match or exceed. The majority of states have not heavily legislated in this area, leaving local governments ample room to experiment with new ideas, policies, and regulations.

But not all local government policies are progressive, which leads me to be slightly more skeptical about unabashed enthusiasm for strong localism. As one example, consider the rise of “second amendment sanctuaries,” local governments (mostly counties) that refuse to enforce any gun control regulation. On neutral principles alone, is it possible to support immigration sanctuary cities without supporting second amendment sanctuaries? Is the latter more defensible because they are cloaked in arguments rooted in contemporary second amendment jurisprudence?

These are the questions that keep me engaged and up at night. There are no easy answers but I have plenty of thoughts to offer. Stay tuned...

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