Localism Is OK If It Means Less "democracy"

 Make NYC Boss Again? (niemanrports/thomasnast)

Make NYC Boss Again? (niemanrports/thomasnast)

This week, President Trump has been busy trying to amass some “wins” for his 100-day mark (which, sure, is arbitrary, but sort of isn’t) and has taken two shots at cities to do so. The first is his (so far) failed attempt at “punishing” Sanctuary Cities and the second is his “skinny” tax cut plan which would presumably make good on proposed significant cuts to HUD.  Both cases highlight the specter of Federal cuts hanging over struggling cities in the Trump era, which has heightened the call for greater local control.  There are some sound arguments for ‘localism’ but they must include less democracy to make sense.

Before I get attacked for being a fascist or (even worse) a technocratic neo-liberal, let me explain what I mean by less democracy.  There are two naturally existing powers that make our quirky form of urban democracy uniquely dysfunctional.  These powers are currently harming our cities, each in their own way, and they would only get worse if cities were able to control themselves without federal intervention or oversight.  Both of these powers would have to be weakened significantly to make the types of changes our cities need. It’s unclear to me how exactly localism would do that.

The first power in urban politics is financial power.  As progressive and liberal as big coastal cities like NYC are in many ways, rich people that live in them still donate to and vote for rich people policies.  This means lower taxes, less regulation, and more privatization. These policies generally don’t help a lot of not-rich people, but get a lot of attention and support from elected leaders who need rich people’s money and support.

The idea that these folks would embrace (or, more cynically, allow) truly progressive politics to capture and distribute their mega wealth or undermine their political or social power to shape policy is…optimistic.  It’s much more likely that they would continue to find, support, and get elected Cory Booker-types to appeal to the left while diligently normalizing rightward policies that potentially undermine the civic health of the city in the long run.

The second power in urban politics is voting power.   As progressive and liberal as big coastal cities like NYC are in many ways, most people that live in them still vote against policies that change (or perceive to change) their neighborhoods too much. NIMBYISM is a unifying feature across all income-levels. A lot of people just don’t want taller buildings, greater density, or more homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. They don’t think that the short-term disruption they would endure would benefit them in the long run (which is true in many cases) and generally resist top-down or outside-in policy prescriptions.  

After the horrors of Urban Renewal (though federally funded, its programs were controlled at city and state level, infamously by Robert Moses in bulk) this reaction was understandable and necessary.  Community Boards, ULURP, historical preservation, and other policy tools were all successful attempts to localize power at the neighborhood level.

However, decades later, many of these same tools have devolved into reactionary platforms that can easily be gamed by incumbent interests at the expense of other constituencies in the present, who don’t know the ropes, or future residents who can’t be at CB meetings and the like. This doesn’t serve the city's civic interests either.

So the inherent problem with localism is thinking that even in liberal, progressive NYC, we all want the same thing.  If only we could stop sending so much of our money to DC, we’d get the political out comes we all want spending it locally. It’s obviously not that simple.

Financial power and voting power sometimes align in NYC, but for the most part have few shared political goals.  And even if they have shared goals, they don’t have shared strategies.  For example, would most voters want charter schools to replace public schools? Would most wealthy residents (or corporations) stay if their taxes went up significantly? What would the political environment look like if these two groups clashed endlessly for power? Would it actually produce better results for NYC?

We don’t have to speculate much on this scenario, because its how politics worked in NYC for generations before there was any federal intervention. The city’s long and colorful political history is dominated by the struggle between financial power and voting power, which constituted “democracy” at the time. 

Tammany Hall is perhaps the most infamous political machine in American history and dominated the voting power in NYC (mostly by corralling the immigrant working class) from the late 18th century well into the 1940s, occasionally losing power at the city or state level to various temporary reform coalitions backed by wealthy interests.

The consistent result of this political dynamic was a deeply, shockingly divided city.  For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, New York was the epicenter of modern capitalism’s contradictions: The highest levels of progress and culture and the lowest levels of squalor and brutality.  No level of municipal government, political machine, or private philanthropy could fix this generational poverty and inequality.  These institutions had no interest in challenging the status quo because, in many cases, they benefited from it. 

By the way, if you haven’t heard of Henry George, this is a good opportunity to check him out.  This type of normalized corruption is what prompted Mr. George to study contemporary urban capitalism and democracy.  His seminal work on the topic, Progress and Poverty (1879) is why he is considered the father of progressivism. He even tried (and failed) to run for Mayor in NYC against Tammany Hall.

I’m not suggesting that NYC would return to 19th century machine-style politics in a new form of localism, but this history shows how truly “local” politics tend to create extremely disconnected factions.  Corruption and demagoguery thrive in this environment. Even worse, these factions tend to stabilize around a mutually beneficial status quo that rarely serve the interests of the larger political body (in the present or future). It also shows how exceedingly difficult it is for new politics to enter this status quo once its established.

This to me is the great contradiction of promoting localism.  How can localism create the type of political room to change our current status quo? Would it simply mean greater power in the hands of a small elite? Would it also mean greater power in the hands of NIMBYists? These problems already exist with the current levels of federal involvement, how would removing that involvement fix them?

Returning to Henry George for a moment, he (like me if you can believe it) was an optimist and believed firmly in people.  Democracy to him was not a collection of token attributes achieved simply by voting.  It was an ever-changing intellectual and emotional forum for all people to challenge the purpose of our economic and political organization.  He saw the small-d ‘democracy’ of the Gilded Age as an affront to this ideal and as a threat to our republican form of government.  No doubt he would see today’s small-d “democracy” in a similar vein. 

I see the appeal of ‘localism’ in its basic sense.  Next week I’ll talk about some of the larger dangers that I think it could present, but there is nothing wrong with wanting more local control.  Who would actually wield that control and to what end is the great unknown.