Have States Lost Their Place as Labs of Democracy?

Experts say cities will be the new place for innovative policy. But there are two reasons that might not happen.
by | April 2017
The U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis popularized term "laboratories of democracy" to describe states. (Shutterstock)

William Fulton

William is a Governing columnist, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, there was a lot of buzz around the idea that the states would become -- in the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis -- “laboratories of democracy,” where policy innovations could be hatched and experimented with and then spread across the nation.

Now history is (kind of) repeating itself.

Ever since Donald Trump and the Republicans swept the November election, there has been a growing chorus of urban experts saying that cities will be the new laboratories of democracy. As the Trump administration and GOP Congress cut domestic programs, and as state governments become more ideologically conservative, cities can serve as the pragmatic labs of policy innovation. Urbanists across the board, such as Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin, agree on this point.

And it’s a tempting argument to make. After all, cities are where the most innovation and economic power reside. Indeed, the most visible innovation in our economy -- app-based companies such as Uber, Airbnb and food delivery systems that disrupt traditional markets -- have all emerged from urban settings.

But things aren’t as simple as they were in the 1980s for two reasons. The first is that the entire nation is more ideologically divided. And in this partisan era, cities, for better or worse, are viewed as Democratic and therefore untrustworthy laboratories for the Republicans. It’s true that -- as with governors in the ’80s -- a few big cities have very competent moderate Republican mayors. But overall, cities are viewed with skepticism by Republicans because they represent the Democratic base.

Furthermore, the liberal Democratic impulses that reside in city halls don’t always align with innovation, especially when labor issues are involved. In Texas, where I live, Uber and Lyft are engaged in a battle with big cities over fingerprint requirements for drivers. The battle has moved to the legislative session in Austin this year, where preemption of local power to regulate ride-hailing services is on the agenda. Now that’s ideologically confusing: Hip urban companies from the Bay Area going to conservative Republican legislators from rural Texas to override large city governments.

This underscores an important point and the second reason why the innovation environment today is different: Cities, unlike states, are not sovereign. They can always be preempted by the state government.

In my field of land use planning, there’s been a traditional pattern to innovative policy. It starts at the state level somewhere on the coasts and gradually works its way through the Midwest, the South and the Southwest until something that only Californians or Vermonters thought of a decade ago is now the norm. Of course, it’s possible that this pattern could continue now with cities -- unless statehouses shut down the laboratories of democracy.

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