Is There Really a Red State War on Cities?

Image via Flickr/velkr0 CC-BY-2.0

Image via Flickr/velkr0 CC-BY-2.0

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about how states, particularly red states, are waging a war on cities. Much of this is in the form of complaints about state preemption laws, where state governments strip localities of control over various topics.

It’s easy to find examples.

Milwaukee passed a law mandating businesses give employees paid sick-leave days. The state legislature overturned it. Birmingham, Alabama raised its local minimum wage only to see the state override it. Denton, Texas banned fracking before the state stepped in. Kansas City banned the open carrying of guns, but the state overturned it. Bloomington, Indiana was considering a ban on plastic bags, but before it could pass it, the state legislature passed a law that banned the ban.

States argue that it isn’t right to create a patchwork quilt of regulations that vary from place to place in a region or state. Cities for their part argue that it usurps local control – the very thing state governments themselves ironically complain about the federal government doing to them.

But urban advocates complaining about state preemption laws tend to ignore – or even celebrate – this same type of local preemption when it involves blue state policies.

For example, is Gov. Andrew Cuomo giving western New York cities the right to decide for themselves to allow fracking? Absolutely not – he has banned it statewide.

Is California giving cities the flexibility to set a lower minimum wage than $15/hour that they feel would be more appropriate their economy and local governance strategies? No.

Does California’s pending statewide plastic bag ban allow localities to choose to permit stores to use plastic bags? No.

It’s the same story across the board.

When most urbanists talk about local control, what they really mean is local freedom to implement more progressive policies, but never the freedom to choose less progressive ones.  It’s another form of special pleading.

Red state politicians are doing nothing different from what the urban left would do if they had control of those states, and in fact is doing in the blue states they do control.

If the bag ban advocates in Bloomington were a majority in the Indiana General Assembly, would they hesitate for even a moment to pass a statewide ban? To ask this question is to answer it.

If we think about say a state legislator from my hometown of Laconia, Indiana, it’s perfectly rational why such a person would vote to override local bag bans. He can easily see from social media that the downtown crowd in Bloomington and Indianapolis holds him and his values in utter contempt. He knows full well that they will ever give a moment’s thought to his community’s economic success, but only their own.  (As even urban liberal Richard Longworth pointed out, “Globalization’s winners—have never spent 30 seconds worrying about globalization’s losers.”)  He also knows that they would do their utmost to damage what’s left of rural Indiana’s economy because they are hostile to both natural resources development and industrial agricultural practices.

For such a person there is absolutely nothing to be gained from supporting an urbanist agenda and potentially something to lose.

So long as American politics is dominated by a winner takes all dynamic, not just in red states but also in blue ones and in Washington, all I can say is that urbanites in these red states had better get used to it – or move to a more congenial locale where the state preempts localities the way they would prefer it to.


from Aaron M. Renn


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