Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Will Liberal Cities Leave the Rest of America Behind?

In Virginia the contrasts between liberal areas and ultra-conservative areas of the state are stark, with higher incomes and economic growth increasingly concentrated in urban and liberal areas such as Northern Virginia.  In sharp contrast, in conservative areas of Virginia - largely in Southwest Virginia, so-called Southside and parts of the Shenandoah Valley, unemployment is high and economic activity is either stagnant or declining.  Yet the Republican Party of Virginia continues to favor the policies backed by the conservative regions which would drag the Commonwealth as a whole backward in time and economic progress.  The phenomenon is not unique to Virginia and highlights the contrasts between the GOP policies of "no," obstructionism and reaction and efforts being made in liberal cities to move the working and middle classes forward.  A piece in the New York Times looks at the possibility that liberal cities will leave the rest of America in the dust economically and socially.  Here are column highlights:
The declining ability of the American political order to deliver a steadily rising standard of living to the vast middle and working classes began to show itself in the 1970s, well before most people grasped the significance of what was happening around them. Decades of globalization have been accompanied by diminishing opportunity for those in midlevel jobs; by stagnant wages, especially for men without college degrees; and by the virtual collapse of private-sector unionization.

Standing in opposition to these adverse trends, a wave of newly elected mayors from New York to Seattle has taken office committed to deploying the power of city government and aggressive wage and tax policies to attack inequality and revive social and economic mobility.

These outspoken mayors have generated a growing optimism on the Democratic left that local officials can restore support for government activism. Mayors and city councils, in this view, can lead the drive to improve the prospects and living conditions of those in the bottom third of the income distribution.

Harold Meyerson, the editor at large of The American Prospect, argues in “The Revolt of the Cities” that this insurgency is already in motion. Urban chief executives are raising minimum wages; requiring contractors to hire inner-city residents and to increase pay on municipal projects; backing local union organizing efforts; initiating or expanding pre-K schooling; extending public transit into poor neighborhoods; and requiring police to videotape contacts with citizens.

“They are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels,” Meyerson writes. “They also may be charting a new course for American liberalism.”

The political impetus behind this ideological development is the fact that American cities are on the cutting edge of the current demographic transformation of the United States into a majority-minority nation.

Minorities are significantly more liberal and more pro-government than whites, according to survey data from American National Election Studies.

While Meyerson’s political and demographic data is on target, and he accurately describes a movement toward more redistributive policies, there are reasons to be cautious. 

First and foremost, a number of the cities Meyerson points to have exceptional, built-in advantages: major research universities; financial and high-tech corporate centers; substantial and strong artistic and intellectual communities. 

Another way to look at this is that it takes money and resources to become a liberal city. “You can’t be a progressive without prosperity,” Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program, said in a phone interview.

In their book, “Toward a 21st Century City for All,” John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science and sociology at CUNY, and Brad Lander, a Brooklyn city councilman who represents Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Boro Park, acknowledge the disparity favoring already successful cities.

The larger question is whether the current left-leaning urban agenda is restricted to small elite of well-off municipalities with substantial resources. If so, the cities equipped to finance major enhancements will leave their less well-off counterparts sinking ever deeper in the hole.

Urban America is now on a reconnaissance mission for progressive politics. What we’re still waiting to find out is whether the policies and programs developed in the nation’s thriving urban core will prove to be broadly applicable. Can the new progressive mayors lay the groundwork for a national agenda, or will bold and innovative policy experiments that privilege New York and Seattle fail their disadvantaged cousins like Stockton, Detroit, Buffalo and Baltimore?

One thing that is certain is that the Virginia GOP's policies are not working and will only impede Virginia's progress.  To date, Virginia has moved forward in spite of, not because of the policies of today's GOP.


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