Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

"Urban Archipelago"

The current issue of The Nation has two articles devoted to urban politics and policy. This one, by Joel Rogers, is available only to subscribers, though I wonder if this gives a pretty good picture of what he’s thinking. Here I note only the irony of a national movement to take over state and local government in the name of (allegedly) local prerogatives.

The other article, by Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols, is available in full on-line, even to interlopers like me. It makes for interesting reading, showing something about the bankruptcy of "progressive" policy on the only level at which it currently claims to have much influence.

One of the policies Nichols touts is the so-called "living wage," which requires corporations that contract with a city government to pay wages of up to $12/hour. The consequences of such a policy seem to me obvious: fewer companies will bid for municipal contracts, resulting in less competition and higher overall costs, which will result in greater expenses for the municipal governments and higher taxes for city residents. Faced with higher taxes in exchange for essentially the same services, some city residents will flee to the suburbs. Those who stay will likely be those who, in effect, can’t afford to leave (because they lack transportation or live in subsidized housing) and those who are willing to pay any price, bear any burden, to live "where the action is" (affluent urban sophisticates of every sexual orientation). Because it is, in effect, hostile to the middle class, the living wage program actually contributes to the sprawl "progressives" deprecate.

This blindness to the middle class--indeed to families of all classes--is evident as well from the article’s stunning silence regarding education (save for a single mention of "decaying schools"). Any realistic urban policy--"progressive," conservative, or moderate--has to have at its center an approach to education. As I noted, Nichols says nothing, though what he and the people he describes want is clear enough: more money, which presumably will come from the federal government.

Indeed, the article makes it very clear that what interests Nichols about local government is the capacity of locally-organized populations to influence state and national policy:

"It’s more clear than ever that decisions made in Washington affect my ability to do my job," says Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, who has worked with the Institute for Policy Studies to develop the Cities for Progress network. "I can’t fix things in the neighborhoods of Chicago unless I do my part to make sure Washington does the right thing."

Here’s more of the same:

Leaders of the Cities for Progress movement want to institutionalize that pressure by getting cities to pass resolutions calling for an end to the war and development of a universal healthcare program. By providing organizing assistance to progressive local officials and then linking these projects to one another, Cities for Progress hopes to create a resurgence of urban activism. "We want people to get rid of this idea that working on the local level and working on the national level are somehow different," says Malia Lazu, its national field director.

Rather than really addressing issues, like education, that mean something to parents of all classes and races, "progressives" are engaging in symbolic politics in an arena where a small number of well-organized activists can carry the day. The article, of course, speaks in terms of the Davids of community activists facing the Goliaths of big corporate (conservative) money. But in urban politics, well-educated and affluent "progressive" activists are the Goliaths, at least when compared with poor minority and immigrant communities. When I see "progressives" support something like school choice, which continues to have a great deal of support in minority communities, I’ll begin to be convinced that they’re actually listening to, and not merely using, urban voters.

Update: Katie Newmark, Win Myers, and Ken Masugi pile on.

Discussions - 3 Comments

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. The Left is desperately looking for relevance and, not finding it at the national level, has ratcheted down its ambitions to the state and local level. Unfortunately (for them at least), they bring to this "new frontier" the same old narcissism. Their struggle for dominance at lower levels of geography has more to do with how Leftists feel about themselves than it does with the welfare of local populations.

For a great takedown of the "living wage" movement and the hyppcrisy behind it, see Steven Malanga’s great new book, The New New Left, just out. In fact, read it for its other stuff, too, like his analysis of the anti-WalMart crusade.

My "living" wage is a million a year. Check please!

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