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Political Barriers

J. Phillip Thompson

Dan Luria and Joel Rogers present a compelling vision of how we can revitalize our national economy by paying attention to our existing growth centers (mainly in cities), raising wage levels through union organizing, and popularizing debate on economic and fiscal policies. Their article amply demonstrates the economic irrationality of many government development policies. However, it suggests that a "parade" is "just waiting to form" for the New Urban Agenda, and that all that is needed are "enterprising politicians, labor leaders, savvy community organizers, or sensible metro businesspeople to get in front." This view underestimates the political barriers to implementing a metropolitan vision. Moreover, it is unclear to me how the New Urban Agenda will address racial difference and persistent poverty.

Luria and Rogers emphasize that anti-urban policies violate the "democratic" principle that policy should be "for the people," because the majority of Americans live in urban areas. However, our political system has anti-majoritarian institutions. The US Senate is a prime example. Each state elects two senators, regardless of the population. Senators from small and sparsely populated rural states wield disproportionate influence in the Senate, generally against urban interests. Similarly, governors are elected from states that are irrational economic units, often combining suburban and rural populations to the political detriment of cities. While government development policies may not be economically rational or politically democratic, they are consistent with the way we structure politics. These long-standing political structures, and many of the politicians that inhabit them, are a forceful voice against change. It is therefore hard to imagine a New Urban Agenda without fundamental political reform.

The vast majority of elected officials are state and local legislators. They number in the hundreds of thousands. A majority of them represent urban areas, and a sizable fraction are in central cities. Given their sheer numbers, urban legislators would appear to be natural advocates for the Urban Agenda. So, if the distribution of state economic benefits is as prejudicial as Luria and Rogers maintain, why aren't urban legislators crying out across the country?

I offer several explanations. First, state legislators tend to be quite parochial, in part because they are individually elected from geographically small districts. They have small budgets and can seldom afford to hire policy experts, nor do they have the capacity to monitor mammoth bureaucracies and complex regulations that shape policy. Given majority vote rules and governor's veto power in state legislatures, legislators from cities can only have impact when they band together. Often they do not. These factors converge to engender a cumulative self-reinforcing negative political culture, that I call "retrograde representation." Lacking a policy staff, or policy resources, it is hard for legislators to know what to advocate. Without a policy vision, there is little basis for forming stable political coalitions with other urban legislators. In the absence of strong unified urban political coalitions, it is hard to change policies. If they cannot substantively impact on major policies, urban legislators have little by way of a track record at home. With an insufficient grasp of policy issues and an inability to impact on major policies, why talk to voters about these issues? Better to focus on visceral symbolic issues like locking up criminals, or non-policy issues like broken street lamps.

There is also the matter of race. Luria and Rogers describe white racism as a primary cause for anti-urban bias historically and suggest that it can be overcome by understanding common economic interests. This optimistic view ignores the structural aspects of racial hegemony embedded in our political system, and consequently overlooks the role that African Americans must themselves play in the fate of cities. Why should whites change their racial practices, and who is going to make them? The notion that white Americans will rebel against anti-urban policies because they are immoral and anti-majority rings hollow, particularly given African American history. The dispositive political question is not whether policies are bad for the majority, but whether they are bad for the majority of whites. Can a majority of whites be moved to think of their destiny as tied to that of African Americans and other minorities? This is the critical issue in the metropolitan political mix. It may be no accident that movements toward regionalized urban government and policymaking have had their greatest success in the Midwest, where white populations are most dominant within regions. The argument that economic self-interest will prevail over racism, when moral arguments fail, is an old one. But history teaches us that white America will not change its habits simply on its own. Democratic advances have always--and especially in this century--required strong African American participation and leadership.

The need for African American leadership and mass participation in the quest for democratic advances sharply raises the issue of black leadership and power in cities. As to both, the current situation is dismal. I do not mean this as a personal criticism of black elected officials; universal failure cannot be personal. The problem is historical and structured into our political system. In our nation's history, African Americans have had little experience in democracy and hence in deciding policy. What little power and policymaking experience they have gained has been recent and concentrated in cities. The lack of policy experts who can translate African American aspirations into technical criteria is a profound weakness that has handicapped black administrations and legislators across the country. Even more important, two hundred years of racial exclusion in policymaking has so deeply embedded racial discrimination within the fabric of our transportation, housing, education, corporate, electoral, and media structures that such discrimination has come to be accepted as a natural state of affairs. I therefore could not agree more with Luria and Rogers that politicizing public policy is of critical importance. Why haven't black elected officials, the bulk of whom are legislators, been doing this? Why isn't a movement already evident in the black community? I would suggest that African American legislators suffer from the "retrograde representation" syndrome that I described earlier. At its worst, African American legislators in majority black districts are reduced to a brittle, barren, and anti-democratic symbolic nationalism, one that substitutes identity for issues, and demonizes all political competition. Equally retrograde is the "de-racialized" black politics adopted by some black candidates who abandon black voters' core issues to attract white voters. No wonder inner-city African Americans are cynical and don't vote.

Is there a treatment for the retrograde representation syndrome, and a role for black politics in the metropolitan future? I think so. Reviving local democratic institutions is the bridge to a shared New Agenda. Here is the first step: Devolve governmental functions from the city level to the community level. This is a broad demand. Although not absolute, it is crucial. We need a different model for how government should work, one that increases efficacy and at the same time gives citizens more control over local government. The new model would move resources to the community level--which means that quality administrators would be paid to build strong community institutions that understand the residents and conditions of their neighborhoods. These local institutions would reach out to regional businesses and government service agencies to connect residents with outside resources and opportunities. The government model we use now, with its large centralized bureaucracies that are disconnected from communities, creates chaos and confusion in communities. For example, duplication of social services in some poor neighborhoods results in some kids getting the same vaccinations four or five times from different agencies, while other kids are completely overlooked. Moreover, big bureaucracies seldom are responsive to local law-makers, making both the agencies and the elected leaders unaccountable and functionally corrupt, and rendering local democracy largely superfluous.

The current political climate and recent legislative trends--for example, recent "welfare-to-work" laws--make devolution of some government functions to the community level feasible. The legislation requires persons on welfare to find employment. Moving people off welfare (after creaming off the easy cases) will require intensive case management, accessing drug treatment, day care, medical assistance, education and training, and providing other services connecting the unemployed to employers. All of these services must be integrated to make the system work. Such hands-on management and system integration is beyond the capacity of mega-bureaucracies. Quality institutions are urgently needed at the community level. Moreover, to be effective, such local institutions have to connect themselves to regional businesses (and jobs) from the outset. Elected officials should be made accountable for the performance of these local agencies. If the agencies are situated in the community, local officials will have difficulty avoiding their responsibility.

I suggest these measures as a beginning for a renewed emphasis on local democracy that goes way beyond elections--to the creation of locally grounded, accessible, and accountable public institutions that can make a difference in the day to day lives of ordinary people. Such a vision is especially needed for African Americans, who fought so hard for the right to vote, and are now so disappointed with the results. African American elected officials, and other central-city legislators, can help lead the way to a metropolitan future. To do so, they need the help of school principals, police captains, welfare administrators, and housing managers who are fully accountable to community residents--through their locally elected officials. When local legislators are made substantively accountable for schools, police, housing, and other functions in communities, there will indeed be a politicizing of local policies led by those communities now least active in metropolitan politics. Those with the greatest stake in fundamental transformation must themselves show it is possible.


Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review



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