In the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 electoral defeat, the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, published a wonderful rant. The editors looked at the red and blue election map, and pointed to the (visually obvious) fact that even in the reddest states, cities were bright blue. America’s urban areas comprised what they called an “urban archipelago” that reflected political values and attitudes vastly different from those of rural America.
Academic researchers have since confirmed that observation: virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a political culture starkly different from that of the less populous areas surrounding it. As I wrote in a post back then, the problem is, the people who live in densely populated cities have demonstrably less political voice than their country cousins. Most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voters are vastly overrepresented. State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas, and the people who populate state legislatures have gerrymandered voting districts to keep things that way.
Representative government wasn’t genuinely representative then, and in 2021, the situation hasn’t improved.
Earlier this month, Governing Magazine noted the same problem, in an article titled “Why Cities Have More People But Less Clout.”
Gun violence is on the rise in Philadelphia. In January, homicides jumped by a third over the same month in 2020, which itself had been the deadliest in three decades. Non-fatal shootings increased last month by 71 percent.
City officials, wanting to address the issue, have repeatedly come up with gun control measures they believe will save lives. Their efforts, however, have gone nowhere. Pennsylvania, along with more than 40 other states, blocks localities from passing their own firearms regulations.
Last fall, Philadelphia sued the state to end its gun pre-emption law. “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly refuses to do anything to help us protect our citizens,” said Darrell Clarke, the president of the Philadelphia city council, “then they should not have the right to prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we know we need to keep our residents safe from harm.”
Good luck with that. Courts have repeatedly upheld Pennsylvania’s power to block local gun control laws. Across the country, states have consistently pre-empted localities on a broad range of issues, from minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements to bans on plastic bags or removal of Confederate monuments.
Sounds pretty familiar to us Hoosiers…
The article reports what most of us know–that the majority of the nation’s economic growth has been concentrated in major cities that are the primary economic engines of their states. You would think that would make them deserving of support– but state officials pretty consistently opt to keep money flowing from those cities to rural, less prosperous areas of the state. Cities send far more tax dollars to the state that they receive back in spending.
As cities are prospering (or at least were, before the pandemic and the great migration out of downtown offices), they have been moving in an increasingly progressive direction. Only three of the nation’s 25 largest cities have Republican mayors. Meanwhile, a majority of state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. That creates a disconnect that leads to frequent pre-emption, particularly in Republican states in the South, Southwest and Midwest.
It isn’t just a partisan political gap; the urban/rural divide “reflects and is reinforced by other overlapping differences, including cultural attitudes, education levels, class and race.”
Democrats can compete and win statewide in states including Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin — and now Arizona and Georgia — but they’re shut out of power at the legislative level in all those places. Pennsylvania falls into this category as well.
The article acknowledges the a long tradition of outstate resentment of the dominant city–a resentment made stronger by the partisan split.
“They don’t have any reason to take into account the interest of the urban population in making legislation, and they have a lot of interest in not doing so,” says Schragger, the UVA law professor. “Particularly on cultural issues and fiscal issues, it pays for these legislators to resist giving cities more home-rule powers, because their constituents tend to be opposed even to local policies that are contrary to national conservative positions.”
The article is further evidence of America’s undemocratic move to minority rule, buttressed by giving every state two senators, irrespective of population count (the recent Republican Senate majority, which refused to rein in Trump’s abuses after his first impeachment, was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority), and
by the anti-majoritarian operation of the Electoral College.
How we give America’s urban majority at least an equal say with its rural minority is an increasingly critical question.