How Cities Became the New Laboratories of Democracy

The ascent of cities is real, though things may not be as rosy as some suggest.
October 2018
Reedy Riverwalk in downtown Greenville, South Carolina
Reedy Riverwalk in downtown Greenville, S.C. (Shutterstock)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Everybody who watched it remembers what Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter in the closing moments of their 1980 presidential debate. Reagan stared straight into the camera and asked the voters a simple question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Enough of them answered in the negative to give the challenger Reagan a decisive victory over the incumbent Carter at the polls that November.

It was a fair question. Most of us have a clear enough memory of the recent past to provide a meaningful answer, at least in regard to our own lives. But what if we ask ourselves about a much longer period of time -- say 40 years? Then many of us become unreliable witnesses. The warm glow of nostalgia begins to take over.

The current period of widespread public discontent has made “are we better off?” into a more urgent question, and has produced a whole series of works seeking to determine whether life really was better a few decades ago. The most important of these is Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, in which the author makes a careful statistical case that across a whole range of crucial categories -- health, schooling, clean air, financial security and so on -- the numbers just keep getting better all the time.

The one thing Pinker doesn’t try to say is that the political process is getting better. There he leaves the conventional wisdom alone. Unyielding partisanship, legislative gridlock, incessant name-calling and the overall corrosion of public discourse give most people the impression that we have been living through a period of demoralizing decline. “In area after area,” Pinker writes, “the world has been getting more rational. There is, of course, a flaming exception: election politics and the issues that have clung to it.”

But even here, there is room for a somewhat different view. What if the national political culture is just as bad as most of us believe, but another corner of the political system is steadily getting stronger?

That’s a reassuring enough idea in these times that you can understand its potential appeal, and there have been two books published this year making essentially the same argument: Federal and state government may be a mess, but local governments are an increasingly positive force, innovating and solving problems that would have been beyond them a generation ago.

James and Deborah Fallows, after four years visiting localities around the country, wrote in Our Towns of “an intensity of local civic life that generally escaped any outside notice.” Meanwhile, Bruce Katz and the late Jeremy Nowak were arguing in their book, The New Localism, that the conventional wisdom that “cities are powerless, mere creatures of the state” is wrong. “Federal and state governments, for the most part, are no longer in the problem-solving business,” the authors write. “They have dealt themselves out of the equation through a combination of dysfunction, incompetence and hyperpartisanship. … As politics has become nationalized, problem-solving has become localized.”

Both books are laced with urban success stories from the past couple of decades, some quite convincing, some less so. Katz and Nowak zero in on Pittsburgh, where a proactive local government and a cooperative nonprofit sector have turned a fading steel town into a 21st-century headquarters for the development of robotics. They also cite Indianapolis, a city once renowned for its dullness, where a succession of mayors has created a vibrant and growing metropolis with an economic base in sports and health sciences.

Fallows and Fallows take a more scattershot approach, flying their private plane into nearly 30 small- and medium-sized cities and casting about for signs of entrepreneurship and vibrancy. One of their favorite stories is about the revival of downtown Greenville, S.C., where local politicians and city planners have turned a decrepit textile-era Main Street corridor into a serious tourist mecca for the entire South. Another deals with Duluth, Minn., a depressed mining town that is now one of the world’s most important manufacturers of small aircraft.

It doesn’t take very long to come up with other urban victories that add weight to the argument. One can cite the remarkable crime decline that has reinvigorated cities all over the country, and in particular the revolution in law enforcement that has been credited with bringing the number of homicides in New York City down to a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1990s. Or the conversion of seedy riverfronts into community showplaces and gathering spots. Or the successful efforts of a number of financially troubled cities, most notably Houston, to accept fiscal responsibility and deal with their crippling public pension debts. Or the ability of a place like Cleveland to create a thriving transit corridor that experts insisted couldn’t work.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. The most interesting challenge may not be identifying these tangible triumphs but gaining insight into what makes them happen.

One common explanation for the revival of effective urban governance is that partisanship is muted, as in the dictum expressed nearly a century ago by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: “There’s no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets.” This may express a truth about New York in the 1930s, but it doesn’t do much to explain the present wave of urban accomplishment. It’s not that Democrats and Republicans are cooperating; it’s that there’s hardly any bipartisan cooperation required these days. Democrats have been running big cities essentially as one-party strongholds for nearly a generation. When former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted to build Millennium Park, he didn’t need a single Republican vote to do it. Whatever the recent urban triumphs may be traced to, it’s not bipartisanship.

Another theory is that urban politicians are performing well these days because they have longer time horizons: They aren’t fixated on the next election and can govern for the common good. “Few national politicians even pretend about long-term visions anymore,” James Fallows writes. “Cities, because they can do things, still make plans.” I have trouble buying this one. There’s no disputing that short-term thinking afflicts Congress and most state legislatures, but the short-term curse is a larger societal affliction, one that plagues Wall Street, public schools and a host of other major institutions. There’s no plausible reason why mayors or city councils would be immune to it. County commissioners seem just as obsessed with reelection as members of Congress are.

But there is one common strand that runs through nearly every successful locality these authors visited. It’s the presence of collaboration: the ability of local elected officials to work with chambers of commerce, universities, foundations and other nonprofits to formulate ambitious plans and see them through. Pittsburgh’s emergence as a science research center is largely the result of an alliance between city hall and Carnegie Mellon University. Chattanooga, Tenn., owes much of its success to the joint efforts of the city, the public utility and two local foundations. Columbus, Ohio, has so many cooperating partners that its effort is known colloquially as “the collab.” It’s always some variation on the theme of benign and closely connected interest groups, public and private, working together.

Even if collaboration does, in some way, amount to the secret sauce of modern urban governance, there are legitimate reasons to question whether the picture is quite as rosy as these two books suggest. Fallows and Fallows are upfront about looking for success stories, for “towns with positive energy, with signs of rebound from some kind of shock or shift.” If you start out seeking those towns, it’s almost a given you’ll find them. If you are searching for unrelieved despair, you can find that too. You pretty much have to take it on faith that revival -- or at least incipient revival -- is the crucial story of contemporary urban life. It’s a plausible argument, as both these books endeavor to show; I don’t think it’s one that ought to be swallowed whole.

But it’s not a crazy idea. The wave of reform that remade American government and politics in the early 20th century was for the most part a creature of state and local entrepreneurship. James Fallows writes that “after our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in towns we never would have suspected.”

Nearly 50 years ago, the sociologist Daniel Bell made the startling prediction that in the 21st century the centers of power would be global and local. National governments would become increasingly minor players. The global half of his forecast has stalled, given the success of Brexit and the surge of nationalist sentiment on the European continent. But the other half -- the emergence of new, local centers of power and innovation -- seems destined to live on for quite a while.