At the national level, the picture could scarcely be more bleak. Shut out of the legislative and executive branches, likely to be sidelined in the judiciary, progressives have very little leverage to stop or even slow down the Republican juggernaut. Any effort to protect vulnerable Americans from the most harmful effects of the new administration’s policies will have to come from cities and states. All resistance is local. The beginning of a new reconstruction will have to be local, too.
In this forum—an installment of our ongoing series, “That’s Debatable”—four writers take on the question of what can be done at the state and local levels to resist the Trump administration, and even to create a profoundly new political order. In a time of apparent impotence for the left their responses offer a plan of action; in a time of despair, they offer many reasons for hope.
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“Progressive federalism” has long seemed like a contradiction in terms. The left is supposed to favor strong national government, while the right champions the powers of states. But years of congressional paralysis have flipped this assumption on its head. Name an issue dear to the progressive heart, and there is probably more going on at the local level than the national one. This was true even before the 2016 election. Same-sex marriage may be the most heartening example of how states can effect change, but they have also taken the lead on the legalization of marijuana, raising the minimum wage, reforming the criminal-justice system, passing effective gun-control measures, and combating climate change.
Yet the power of states goes beyond instituting policies at the state level. States also wield enormous influence over federal policy-making. In fact, the federal government is so dependent on state and local officials that they have the power to change, and even resist, unwelcome federal policies.
We often assume that whoever controls the national government controls national policy. That’s just not true. Many of our most important national policies—those related to the environment, healthcare, insurance, transportation, energy, and the workplace—are implemented by elected state officials and appointed state administrators, not to mention a myriad of local institutions. Sometimes these arrangements are written into federal law, and some just evolve in practice. Federal drug policy can’t be enforced without the help of local police officers, prosecutors, and juries. Federal education policy requires the assistance of state and local agencies, school boards, and teachers. Federal immigration policy depends on states and localities serving as the federal government’s eyes and ears.
Scholars often file these arrangements under the rubric of “cooperative federalism,” but they also make room for what Jessica Bulman-Pozen and I call “uncooperative federalism.” States can significantly slow down or reverse federal policies simply by dragging their feet and doing the bare minimum necessary. That’s how state and localities have thwarted federal education reform over the last several years. Sometimes states just pull their enforcement resources. That’s what happened when Washington and Colorado “legalized” marijuana even though federal drug laws remained unchanged. Some states even engage in a form of civil disobedience, as many did in refusing to enforce parts of the Patriot Act.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have promised to be sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, while Governor Andrew Cuomo has insisted that New York will be a “refuge” for Muslims and other minority groups. These promises have made the incoming administration so nervous that it has threatened to cut off all federal funding—a threat that is plainly unconstitutional.
If President-elect Trump wants his policies to work, he will have to spend an enormous amount of resources and political capital to overcome this type of state and local resistance. Maybe he’ll learn one of the most important lessons in American politics. As hard as it is to control Washington, it’s even harder for Washington to control the rest of us. President-elect Trump may be able to ignore congressional Democrats, but he’s going to have to perfect the art of the deal with the leaders of left-leaning states and cities. That should provide a healthy incentive for moderation in a partisan environment that otherwise rewards those who cater to the extremes.
The City as a Commons
There is much we don’t know about what the Trump years will look like, but it’s clear the federal government and most states will not be forces for progressive action, let alone regeneration. This dark reality has prompted many to argue that cities will become the most promising arenas for addressing social inequality, cultural diversity, climate change, and political alienation. But how exactly might this work? If we need to reinvent politics wholesale, as this watershed moment seems to demand, what fresh perspectives and operational approaches might cities actually adopt and implement?
A fledgling movement in Europe to reimagine “the city as a commons” offers an array of inspiring ideas: platform cooperatives for network-based services, alternative currencies to encourage the social economy, participatory budgeting, and countless homegrown open-source projects. The essential goal of this emerging sector is collective emancipation through decentralized, self-organized, self-managed projects. Often with the help of digital platforms, ordinary people are finding that they can bypass predatory markets and unresponsive bureaucracies by devising their own governance systems. They can mutualize risks and costs and meet basic needs directly while making everyday life more satisfying and convivial.
Conventional politicians and economists have long claimed that shared resources will always be ruined through over-exploitation—the notorious “tragedy of the commons” fable, which presents the commons as an unowned resource free for the taking. But the commons is more accurately understood as a highly generative, self-governed social system—one that successfully structures cooperation to manage shared wealth.
We no longer need to rely on hypothetical fables to imagine how a commons works in practice. A variety of commons-based urban experiments is sweeping across Europe, helping to rebuild civic culture from the ground up. Following its election of housing activist Ada Calou as mayor in March 2015, the political movement Barcelona En Comú (Barcelona in Common) now seeks to fortify the “commons collaborative economy,” which already makes up a remarkable 10 percent of the city’s economy, numbering more than 1,300 ventures. One of them, Guifi.net, is a commons-based telecommunications network that provides free Internet access through more than 32,000 active nodes—a refreshing alternative to the telecom giant Telefónica. Similarly, the city’s well-developed network of independent FabLabs offers the rudiments of a new, localized production system that blends global open-source design with flexible, small-batch production. The city government is even planning to launch an alternative currency to recognize the value of informal social exchange, broadening the concept of “the economy” far beyond the idea of market exchange. Expanding such ventures can make city life more meaningful and affordable and services more responsive and participatory.
Other cities in Europe are not far behind. Bologna, Italy, invites self-organized citizen groups to propose their own projects for managing public spaces, renovating abandoned buildings, and cultivating urban gardens, offering an appealing form of post-bureaucratic management. Madrid uses an online platform to let its citizens choose how to allocate 60 million euros in municipal investment. Linz, in Austria, offers residents more than 200 hotspots, five gigabytes of Web space, and access to public datasets on local government and city life. As detailed on the Internet of Ownership Web site, people in many other cities are inventing their own “platform co-operatives” that seek to provide commons-based alternatives to Uber, Airbnb, and other corporate goliaths of the “gig economy.”
Where is all this headed? As neoliberal politics continues to lose credibility, many are beginning to see great promise in “commoning,” a new species of social practices based on an ethic of participation, fairness, sharing, transparency, and inclusion. These are the seeds of a new political culture. Now taking root in Europe, they could flourish in Trump’s America.
Remember the Statehouses!
Republicans have long grasped the strategic importance of states in ways the Democrats have not. Prior to the 2010 election, there were only nine states in which the GOP controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature. In 2017, there will be 26, more than four times what the Democrats will have. The consequences of this decline go beyond the state level: If the Democrats had not seen a loss of almost 1,000 state-level representatives since 2008, Hillary Clinton may well have had a sufficiently robust political machinery to put her over the top in key swing states. Of course, the Democrats will have their hands full battling the Republican Party in Washington, now that the latter has amassed more power in the federal government than at any time since the 1920s. But they would be smart to take a page from the GOP playbook, which stresses that the road to national power runs through the states.
The most promising state-level issue for progressives is the minimum wage. Populist anger at economic inequality, and at the ability of wealthy elites to corrupt American politics, catapulted both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to prominence in the 2016 election. When President Trump disappoints his followers on matters of economic justice—as he undoubtedly will—progressives should capitalize on his failures. While the minimum wage may seem like a small measure, it is enormously meaningful to the everyday lives of low-wage workers. Moreover, it can be used as a wedge issue to reestablish the principle that governments at all levels must intervene in labor markets for the sake of fairness, opportunity, and economic efficiency. In 2016, minimum wage referenda succeeded wherever they appeared on ballots, including in GOP-dominated states such as Arizona and South Dakota. The issue scrambles the normal red-blue divide, offering an opening for a new progressive coalition.
A second promising issue is the legalization of marijuana, which also scored some big successes in the 2016 state elections, and which also crosses the partisan divide in unexpected ways. But the promise of this reform will only be realized if legalization becomes more than an expression of life-style preference and medical need—it can be a spur to a fundamental rethinking of the nation’s carceral-industrial complex and its failed War on Drugs. Most prisons are either run by states or by private corporations receiving state contracts, so it is here that the battle must be joined.
Finally, progressives must take their stand with the sanctuary-cities movement. Trump’s campaign licensed anti-immigrant, racial, and religious prejudice in America in ways not seen since before the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Trump has pledged to deport 3 million undocumented shortly after taking office. His ascension to the presidency may unleash hatred that targets far more people than those without immigration papers. That must be met by a social movement standing up for a different vision of America, one that emphasizes inclusion and hope rather than on exclusion and fear. This social movement must be built city by city, state by state.
Toward a Democratic Ownership Society
Cities—along with a handful of states—are the most important places left in America under Democratic control. They will inevitably play a central role not only as sites of resistance to Trump’s agenda but also as the birthing ground for new progressive strategies. An explosion of new forms of democratic ownership suggests how new power can be built and how foundations for long-term political change can be established.
In cities all across the country activists have been developing worker-owned cooperatives, community-based land trusts and financial institutions, and publicly owned broadband networks. Some have even launched efforts to take over and municipalize electric utilities as a way to address climate change. Mayors, realizing the potential, have begun to respond to this new wave of organizing and institution building. In New York City and Madison, Wisconsin, funds have been allocated to help build worker cooperatives. In Santa Fe, Oakland, and Philadelphia, intensive city-sponsored explorations of municipally-owned banks are underway.
In several hundred municipalities, community-wide broadband networks have been established. Sustainable energy strategies have become common, often developed in ways that expand cooperative or municipal ownership. Renewable energy cooperatives are springing up across the country; in hundreds of communities publicly owned companies or public-private joint ventures are capturing methane from garbage collection to generate electricity and provide jobs.
In Cleveland, the Evergreen Cooperatives complex of worker-owned enterprises has begun to open up larger possibilities for transforming the economy. The cooperatives are linked through a single nonprofit corporation, which aims to create broader community development. Directed purchasing by universities and hospitals that are highly dependent on public funding has begun to provide support for this new experiment in economic planning.
Progressives often forget that the New Deal of the 1930s drew on developments in state and local “laboratories of democracy” in the decades prior to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election. Similarly, what’s developing just below the surface in many cities today is important both as a means of resisting Trump’s policies and as a new foundation on which we can build a new progressive politics.
Historically, labor unions have provided the institutional power base of traditional progressive politics. But beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, through Reagan’s attack on the air-traffic controllers’ union in 1981, and accelerated most recently by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public-sector unions, union membership has dwindled from 34.7 percent of the labor force to a mere 11.1 percent now (only 6.7 percent in the private sector). If there is ever to be a renewal of progressive political power, it will require the steady construction of a new institutional power base. This can be accomplished only at the local and state levels.
The development of democratized institutions offers that possibility. Over time, as political and economic pain deepen—as they are sure to do in the Trump era—these institutions might even suggest how we can begin building a decentralized, community-based form of democratic socialism. We need to expand them, and link them to active organizing. That’s how these new experiments become the laboratory for the longer-term development of larger forms of democratic ownership at state, regional, and national levels.