A Declaration of Urban Independence
My wife’s words made me realize something else too: As disenfranchised and hopeless as Trump’s election had made us feel, his voters had been feeling the same way for a long time. While Trump’s victory was partly the consequence of a stagnant economy and growing economic anxiety, it was even more the result of growing resentment against the more open and “permissive” liberal values toward women, minorities, immigrants, and the gay and lesbian community that are characteristic of the country’s most prosperous urban regions.White Supremacist Liberalism is on full display:
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that as disastrous as Trump’s presidency was likely to be in many respects, it also presented a unique opportunity. If the GOP-controlled federal government isn’t going to help our cities—and under Trump, it is likely to work actively against their economic interests, not to mention the interests of the poor, minorities, women, gays and immigrants who live in them—then our cities will have to do the job themselves.
On Inauguration Day, when President Trump spoke of the “carnage” in America’s cities, urban liberals were miffed and mystified: Had he not been to a city lately? Our reference points are the urban revivals of cities like New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco, whose once-gritty streetscapes and working-class neighborhoods are now transformed into bespoke, boutique playgrounds for the wealthy and the creative class. But, the other, forgotten America that Trump spoke about—where “rusted-out factories” are “scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”—is all too real.I'm actually a little shocked by that paragraph. How deep must one be inside the Cathedral bubble to not know Trump was talking about black crime?
In 2016, Trump claimed the electoral system was working against him, but the truth is the opposite. Going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, America has had an anti-urban bias that is deeply ingrained, a seemingly unshakable conviction that big cities are not the engines of wealth generation that they are, but elitist, wasteful and libertine, overrun with crime and corruption, and crowded with unproductive, government-dependent immigrants and minorities. That bias is built into the structures of state legislatures and Congress, which grant disproportionate power to suburban and rural voters—today’s Republicans.Damn those opiod-addicted worthless white trash rednecks sucking up government welfare! How great would the cities be without having to live with rules drawn up by Christian fundamentalists, racists, misogynists, homophobes and trailer trash?
Even if Trump does collapse after one term or less, though, America will remain at a stalemate. Blue and Red America will continue to batter each other for as long as anyone can foresee, and neither side will really get its way. All we can look forward to is our quadrennial low-grade political civil war, and an endless seesawing between Blue and Red teams, neither able to consolidate their power and enact sustainable agendas. “The anger and resentment and hostility has been going up steadily since the ’90s and spiking up in the last year or two,” the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told me in February. “It just seems fairly hopeless that we are going to somehow come to understand each other and work together.”Cities are already thinking about it:
If our country is so divided that neither side can prevail, then can we possibly figure out how to coexist? Can Blue and Red America learn to accommodate their legitimate differences? The only way to do that is to pare back the power of our increasingly dysfunctional nation-state and give it to cities and localities. As a surprisingly diverse mix of figures on both the right and the left are now saying, America needs a devolution revolution.
When I asked Barber what would happen if Trump made good on his promise to punish sanctuary cities by withholding their federal subsidies, he proposed a truly radical response: “If that happens,” he said, “Cities ought to begin to withhold their taxes.” He added that the cities that make up the Global Parliament of Mayors—a sort of localist version of the United Nations that Barber founded to allow city leaders to address critical issues like climate change, immigration, pandemic disease, inequality and terrorism—had agreed to provide funding to U.S. sanctuary cities to make up for any cuts the Trump administration might inflict on them. What he was proposing was nothing less than a kind of urban nullification, a rejection of Trump’s assault on cosmopolitan America.If those cities are foreign, it's technically treason. Probably not a good idea to give the God Emperor an excuse to charge your city with treason. "The skyscrapers burned like candles on the God Emperor's birthday cake."
By lowering the stakes at the national level, devolution is perhaps the only conceivable way Red and Blue America can respect one another’s differences and coexist. Want lower taxes? Fine, but you’ll have to live with fewer services too, because blue cities will no longer subsidize you. Don’t like Obamacare? Fine, you don’t have to take it. But the uninsured that live in your red states will know who is to blame for their plight. Don’t like transgender people having the right to use the bathroom of their choosing? Fine, make your red cities and towns bastions of transphobism—but don’t impose your intolerance on the rest of us. We can agree to disagree, as long as both sides are willing to live with the consequences. Liberal cities will keep their tax dollars at home and spend them as they see fit.Acting a little bit like progressives goes a long way. Cause 1% of the pain felt by conservatives for decades and suddenly secession, federalism and devolution of powers are popular on the left.
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions: What New York and San Francisco need to grow denser and more affordable is far different from what Houston or Phoenix need to rein in sprawl, or what Detroit and Cleveland need to rebuild their economies. Diverse, clustered, geographically uneven countries like ours have the best shot at succeeding when local communities can create their own policies and strategies that best address their unique needs and challenges. Cities are the places where the rubber of economic development policy hits the road—and thus where they are tested and modified and honed. They are our true laboratories of democracy.Let's do this:
It may be hackneyed to say a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, but Trump’s presidency provides both a defining crisis and a real opportunity to recast both our urban and our national governance. During the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt forged a new kind of partnership between the federal government and the cities. It’s time to do so again, but this time on a wider scale and in reverse. It may be the only thing that can save us from ourselves.The Right must make hay while the Sun shines. As soon as progressives have the Presidency again, they will explain how totalitarian terror unleashed from the Oval Office is not only legal, but morally justified.