Where are the focal points of resistance to a near-takeover of national government by the right? Woody Woodruff argues that the existing institutional and governmental structure of states and especially cities are the most likely venues for progress, and notes that many other analysts concur.
The Washington Socialist <> December 2016
By Woody Woodruff
With the unhappy outcome of the election – not only Trump, but GOP majorities in both House and Senate and the prospect of a hostile majority on the high court – the search for loci of radical pushback is feeling a little desperate.
Much of the discussion on the progressive Left has suggested that street action, mass protest is the first recourse, and that’s essential. Large protest gatherings following Trump’s election have kept the public’s eye on his contradictions as well as the venality of his allies (as in D.C.’s Nov. 19 street action against the NPI alt-right meeting, with a good DSA contingent) despite his and his entourage’s practiced attempts at mass distraction .
It’s clear that the “march through the institutions” that might have seemed possible for the Left with a neoliberal Clinton II administration now appears more a circling of the wagons against hostile control of the federal level. But what institutions remain? Where on the state and local level can the Left find footing to sustain a redoubt against the reality of the next four years?
A quick look at where the street-level pushback is coming from helps orient us on this question. Most of those actions took place in cities, and not all of those cities are in Blue states.
A quick mental inventory indicates that there are many cities around the country – and some states, like California and West Coast states, Massachusetts and points north, and southern, urban New York despite Trump’s presence – that have the advantage of existing political institutions that can serve as a barrier against attempts to federalize behavior and status. Protests in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Oklahoma City indicate that there’s a classic metropole-periphery alignment that conforms to the politics of the present and immediate future. As discussed below, the relationship between cities and their nation-states may be altering as the nation-states lose identity cohesion under unanticipated new stresses.
DSA and its allies should focus on this. Cities, and of course states, have ready-made integral government structures that can formally resist some of Trump’s most virulent promises. The recent declarations by chiefs of several major police departments that they won’t do the work of ICE and ask detainees about their immigration status are just a start. Cities can push back against the feds and even their own states (Charlotte, N.C. for instance) to create a humane and safe space for those threatened by the Trump agenda. Cities, notes Arun Gupta, “are the one place where the left and progressives can exert real power.” Another op-ed asserted “Resistance movements need the support of permanent infrastructure.” And “should … embrace the potential for states and cities to become bastions of resistance.”
And as Western nations appear to be veering to the hard-right, “no matter the ascension of a certain brand of nationalist politics, the reality in much of the West is of countries that are becoming both more urban and more diverse,” notes Ishaan Tharoor, a blogger for the WaPo.
It is critical that DSA and its allies therefore work with, and into, the institutional framework of these cities and states to create and amplify these alternative conditions. Political work like this will not only strengthen the sustainability of these cities’ institutions and resolve during the time (let it be short!) that Trump triumphalism has its day. This kind of work also entrenches a left presence in the metropole, where its welcome is already eased, and enables the metropole to reach out to the periphery where (we believe) workers were deluded by Trump’s spectacle-building campaign into believing he could solve the problems that the neoliberal Democrats (and, yes, often the cities themselves) had ignored. DSA’s NPC statement, recognizing these remaining centers of countervailing power, exhorted members to “urge Democratic state and local governments to resist disastrous changes in Federal policy in whatever ways they can.” The NPC statement, almost humorously, laments the electoral college imbalance resulting because “the progressive, black and Latino electorates are heavily concentrated in strongly Democratic states (and mostly in urban and inner suburban areas)…” but the flipside of that, we note here, is that those are foci of resistance if we can recognize and take organizational advantage of it.
The NPC statement urges new organizing in smaller communities where Trump voters confounded the pollsters despite their working-class status. This should be undertaken wherever our capacity allows but we must recognize the cultural headwinds that face Left organizers in homogenous white communities compared to the opportunities offered by the diversity of cities and states. Of the “ten most progressive” smaller cities identified by Matador network, only three are in the Red Zone and two of those are college- or university-dominated towns.
In undertaking this work, too, DSA and its allies should recognize that some cities retain neglected peripheries within the metropole – ethnic minority enclaves enchained by poverty and gathered over the years by longstanding official and individual practices of residential segregation. The severe inequalities that persist in public education stand out as severe problems in urban areas that are otherwise prime terrain for progressive/left organizing. Without a strategic of inclusion here, from Chicago to Birmingham, the organizing project will fall well short of what conditions demand. The revitalization of urban life of recent decades has improved cities’ financial condition but introduced systematic gentrification (as we have seen in the District of Columbia) that is exacerbating this, particularly as regards intra-ethnic class issues as well as in the shifting geography of these metropoles.
But structural advances that have been made, even though imperfect, can be defended structurally. Despite the threatened attack on the Affordable Care Act, instances where it has survived and stayed popular despite its cobbled-together design and kowtowing to the whims of big corporate providers are fertile ground for pathways like that proposed by Alan Barber at a post-election Institute for Policy Studies panel: public options at the state level to meliorate price hikes. The DSA NPC post-election statement echoed this notion: “the Left must campaign for state single-payer systems as the best alternative for expanding equitable and affordable health care coverage.”
Cities and the declining nation-state
Behind this notion of rebuilding a Left in the metropole is another, more long-term analysis. The identity-based nation-state that has dominated the last two centuries is beginning to disaggregate both as populace and “mentalitė” as this metropole/periphery relationship gets both starker and more pronounced.
Examples of this are increasingly prominent and have startled analysts on both left and right by the speed with which this apparently settled feature of modern history is skewing toward change. At the root of it, of course, is the mobility of the modern era coupled with the catastrophic human-rights outcomes of modern wars waged in less-than-modern societies. The dissolving of strong national identity ties in Britain, France, Germany and other European countries, the revanchist and resentment-based substitution of national identity for the consolations of a functioning economy in Russia, the cleavage along ethnic/confessional (yoked with class) lines in China, India, Myanmar/Burma and other non-Western nation-states – all are emblematic of insecurity about national, personal and class identity in an era when borders are increasingly permeable whether so desired or not.
The WaPo blogger Tharoor quotes urban-studies scholar Benjamin Barber: “Increasingly, nation-states look parochial and backward, and cities are actually cosmopolitan and much more broad in their understanding.” In reference to Trump and other right-wing politicians seemingly gaining traction in the West, he quotes Barber again: “These reactionaries are the last wave in a series of political attempts to pretend that sovereign states still work.” The nation-state isn't about to disappear, he cautions. But Barber envisions a future where there'll be a “rebalancing of the relationship” between nations and cities that will enable greater local governance across the world for the benefit of all.
As these old national borders fray, a new conformation is likely to develop. It is too much to suggest that “city-states” of the post-feudal sort will become the new normal because peripheries are too strong themselves and too intercommunicative with the metropole to subside. But those new political centers of influence and power may emerge as conurbations, making state lines less dispositive.
For many years Gar Alperovitz and others have called for a conscious realignment of US political institutions and boundaries that would conform to the nation’s resources and production ecosystem instead of the state lines arbitrarily established (mostly) a century and a half or more ago. Their argument is sustained today in the face of the Trump agenda: “build great strength at the regional level.” That new alignment, of course, may happen less as a conscious act by a conscious public and more as a jangling series of mini-collapses of old institutions and identities. Cities, as the distinct powerhouses of finance and entrepots of exchange, may well absorb more political power to match.
And there’s more than a resistance against outside interference that could be on the table. The major Blue cities and states are already net losers in the redistribution of federal tax revenue, disproportionately handed to the Red states because of the poverty resulting from their draconian policies. Cities and states may find political ways to institutionally retain some of that capital at the expense of the recipient Red states. The progressive left should be on the ground floor of that realignment of economic autonomy and make it clear, analytically, who benefits and why that retained capital should be expended on public provision.
In the short term the Trump era registers as one of considerable uncertainty, as he begins (at this writing) to back away from some of the positions that won him the allegiance of the blow-it-up voters. But the specter of a unified GOP government, however erratic the hood ornament, will require a strong regional resistance grounded in the cities and their own institutional and governance unities, and DSA and allies need to be as engaged as possible at that level for both immediate and long-term reasons.
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