In the middle of the most important urban renaissance in a century, the people of the United States have elected a president who lives in a 58-story mixed-use building in midtown Manhattan. Whatever you think of him, the president-elect is a man who ought to understand cities. He has lived in America’s largest city his entire life. He comes from a family that has developed and managed urban real estate for three generations. The glitziness of major cities -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, even Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. -- has always had a magnetic appeal for him.
And yet Donald Trump’s election may be the most anti-urban act on the American political stage since the nomination of William Jennings Bryan 120 years ago, when the populist Nebraskan railed against New York bankers in a fiery speech at the Democratic convention. Trump’s political base is anything but urban. It is white, older, exurban and rural, and angry. His supporters are nothing like the Manhattan social elite he has always aspired to be part of. (He lost his home county 82 percent to 9 percent) They are more like the Archie Bunkers he lived among -- admittedly, as a rich kid -- growing up in Queens.
On the campaign trail, Trump occasionally brought up issues of urban blight -- especially in African-American neighborhoods -- but he usually did it in an old-fashioned way that made a lot of political observers think he was simply dog-whistling his white supporters rather than actual appealing to blacks and other urbanites. And he never proposed any urban-centric policies, insisting instead -- in surprisingly classic Republican fashion -- that he would stimulate so much economic growth that everybody would benefit.
All of which probably means that the federal government won’t be doing much of anything for cities over the next four years. Trump will try to revive American manufacturing with protectionist policies. He may seek to deport millions of immigrants, many of whom live in major cities. And in all likelihood he will otherwise be held hostage by the traditional tax-cutting rhetoric of a Republican Party that retained control of the House and Senate and will leave him no money to throw at the cities, even if he wanted to.
Fortunately, this is a time of great energy, creativity, and prosperity for American cities. Just as states become laboratories of democracy when Ronald Reagan cut back the role of the federal government in the 1980s, now cities are becoming the urban laboratories of democracy, pilot-testing new policies and ideas that might later spread across the country to become commonplace.
Ironically, even as most of them are controlled by progressive Democrats, American cities are the engines of our nation’s prosperity -- and practical Republican business leaders understand this pattern. Metropolitan areas -- led by cities and inner suburbs -- are now generating most of the nation’s growth in population, jobs, and wealth. This is even true in Texas, where most economic growth is occurring in four big metropolitan areas, even as the state legislature is largely controlled by rural interests.
There is little reason to expect that will change under President Trump. Because of their density and flexibility, cities are at the epicenter of the tech innovation that is changing the way people live, travel, and work on a daily basis -- innovation that is driving economic growth across the nation. Ride-hailing services such as Uber began and thrived first in big cities and now are expanding outward into suburbs, where they are gradually becoming part of the transportation system. The same is true for food delivery services, Amazon drones, and a host of other “disruptive” emerging businesses. And the educational institutions that incubate a lot of these innovations -- such as our host institution, Rice University -- are still located in the center of major cities too. It’s true that these emerging businesses don’t create as many jobs as the old factories used to (not that new factories create many jobs these days for anybody other than robots), but they are at the cutting edge of the 21st Century economy and the urban-centric approach to innovation and adoption of new ideas isn’t going to change.
Cities are also at the epicenter of the greatest economic and social problem of our time -- the growing gap between rich and poor -- and increasingly the solutions appear likely to come from the ground up rather than the top down.
One characteristic of both Democratic and Republican approaches to growth and opportunity over the past few decades has been a top-down approach from Washington. If you want to grow the economy or expand economic opportunity, you do something big at the federal level -- a huge jobs program, for example, or a huge tax cut. But such moves are increasingly hard to make in a polarized governmental system and because most of the big moves have already been made (huge tax cuts, for example), new moves increasingly occur only on the margins with limited effect. Trump will try to make a big economic move with protectionist tariffs, of course, but his own party is divided on them, and it’s likely that they’d create a deep recession in the short term because of the way the United States is integrated into the world economy.
On the ground in cities, however, it’s different. Some of the solutions involve new ways to connect people to opportunities. Jobs training programs, often focused on middle-skills, attempt to help young adults get the technical training they need to get good blue-collar jobs. More and more, you’ll see cities and metro areas initiating these moves, in large part because that’s where the jobs and people are located; and then the moves that work will be scaled across the country.
Similarly, it’s clear that there is an increasing trend at the local level -- and, to a lesser extent, at the state level -- toward New Deal-style economic policy that seeks to lift people up. Though it’s going nowhere here in Texas, for example, the move toward higher minimum wages is gaining traction across the country -- and not just in blue states. Several red states have passed minimum wage increases at the ballot box -- Arizona approved a $12 minimum wage yesterday -- and cities are experimenting with a wide variety of minimum wage policies as well.
Though conservative thinkers argue that minimum wage stifles economic growth and kills jobs, the practical reality is that cities across the country will tinker with minimum wage systems, providing evidence for states and eventually the federal government as to what works and what doesn’t. Unlike Congress or even state legislatures, cities don’t have to come up with blunt-instrument solutions in order to win over ideological legislators. They can craft nuanced approaches to policy and -- as many mayors have shown -- use big data in clever ways to monitor the effectiveness of those policies.
The bottom line is that on domestic and economic policy in particular the federal government is increasingly irrelevant. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution likes to say, the federal government today is really just a health insurance company with an army. Whatever you think about Donald Trump as president -- whether that thought inspires you or terrifies you -- the federal government under any president has limited running room to deal with the fundamental issues of economic innovation and the rich-poor gap.
Meanwhile -- unlike during the “Laboratories of Democracy” era of the 1980s -- most states are stuck on one side or the other of the red-blue ideological divide, pursuing predictable policies depending on which party controls the statehouse and the legislature. Which means that even with Donald Trump as president, the future of America belongs to the urban laboratories of democracy.