Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

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.

louis-brandeis
The U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis popularized term "laboratories of democracy" to describe states.
(Shutterstock)
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.

Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
Sponsored
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.