Red State, Blue City

The United States is coming to resemble two countries, one rural and one urban. What happens when they go to war?

Stephan Schmitz

The United States now has its most metropolitan president in recent memory: a Queens-bred, skyscraper-building, apartment-dwelling Manhattanite. Yet it was rural America that carried Donald Trump to victory; the president got trounced in cities. Republican reliance on suburbs and the countryside isn’t new, of course, but in the presidential election, the gulf between urban and nonurban voters was wider than it had been in nearly a century. Hillary Clinton won 88 of the country’s 100 biggest counties, but still went down to defeat.

American cities seem to be cleaving from the rest of the country, and the temptation for liberals is to try to embrace that trend. With Republicans controlling the presidency, both houses of Congress, and most statehouses, Democrats are turning to local ordinances as their best hope on issues ranging from gun control to the minimum wage to transgender rights. Even before Inauguration Day, big-city mayors laid plans to nudge the new administration leftward, especially on immigration—and, should that fail, to join together in resisting its policies.

But if liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city. Recent events in red states where cities are pockets of liberalism are instructive, and cautionary. Over the past few years, city governments and state legislatures have fought each other in a series of battles involving preemption, the principle that state law trumps local regulation, just as federal law supersedes state law. It hasn’t gone well for the city dwellers.

Close observers of these clashes expect them to proliferate in the years to come, with similar results. “We are about to see a shit storm of state and federal preemption orders, of a magnitude greater than anything in history,” says Mark Pertschuk of Grassroots Change, which tracks such laws through an initiative called Preemption Watch. By the group’s count, at least 36 states introduced laws preempting cities in 2016.

State legislatures have put their oar in on issues ranging from the expansive to the eccentric. Common examples involve blocking local minimum-wage and sick-leave ordinances, which are opposed by business groups, and bans on plastic grocery bags, which arouse retailers’ ire. Some states have prohibited cities from enacting firearm regulations, frustrating leaders who say cities have different gun problems than do rural areas. Alabama and Arizona both passed bills targeting “sanctuary cities”—those that do not cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Even though courts threw out much of that legislation, other states have considered their own versions.

Arizona also made sure cities couldn’t ban the gifts in Happy Meals (cities elsewhere had talked about outlawing them, on the theory that they lure kids to McDonald’s), and when some of its cities cracked down on puppy mills, it barred local regulation of pet breeders, too. Cities in Oklahoma can’t regulate e-cigarettes. Mississippi decreed that towns can’t ban sugary drinks, and the beverage industry is expected to press other states to follow suit.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the March 2017 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

Most of these laws enforce conservative policy preferences. That’s partly because Republicans enjoy unprecedented control in state capitals—they hold 33 governorships and majorities in 32 state legislatures. The trend also reflects a broader shift: Americans are in the midst of what’s been called “the Big Sort,” as they flock together with people who share similar socioeconomic profiles and politics. In general, that means rural areas are becoming more conservative, and cities more liberal. Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within.

Nowhere has this tension been more dramatic than in North Carolina. The state made headlines last March when its GOP-dominated general assembly abruptly overturned a Charlotte ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT people (and stating, among other things, that transgender people could use the bathroom of their choice). Legislators didn’t just reverse Charlotte’s ordinance, though; the state law, HB2, also barred every city in the state from passing nondiscrimination regulations, and banned local minimum-wage laws, too.

North Carolina’s legislature wasn’t new to preemption—previously, it had banned sanctuary cities, prohibited towns from destroying guns confiscated by the police, and blocked local fracking regulations. It had restructured the Greensboro city council so as to dilute Democratic clout. In Wake County, home to Raleigh, it had redrawn the districts for both the school board and county commission, shifting power from urban to suburban voters. The state had seized Asheville’s airport and tried to seize its water system too. Lawmakers had also passed a bill wresting control of Charlotte’s airport from the city and handing it to a new commission.

HB2 was different, though—it set off a fierce nationwide backlash, including a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit and boycotts by businesses, sports leagues, and musicians. Since corporate expansions, conventions, and concerts tend to take place in cities, North Carolina’s cities have suffered the most. Within two months of HB2’s passage, Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce estimated that the city had lost nearly $285 million and 1,300 jobs—and that was before the NBA yanked its 2017 All-Star Game from the city. Asheville, a bohemian tourist magnet in the Blue Ridge Mountains, lost millions from canceled conferences alone.

For Asheville residents, the series of preemption bills felt like bullying. “People are furious. They’re confused,” Esther Manheimer, Asheville’s mayor, told me as her city battled to retain control of its water system. “We’re a very desirable city to live in. We’re on all the top-10 lists. How would anyone have an issue with the way Asheville is running its city, or the things that the people of Asheville value?”

National mythology cherishes the New England town-hall meeting as the foundation of American democracy, and once upon a time, it was. But the Constitution doesn’t mention cities at all, and since the late 19th century, courts have accepted that cities are creatures of the state.

Some states delegate certain powers to cities, but states remain the higher authority, even if city dwellers don’t realize it. “Most people think, We have an election here, we elect a mayor and our city council, we organize our democracy—we should have a right to control our own city in our own way,” says Gerald Frug, a Harvard Law professor and an expert on local government. “You go to any place in America and ask, ‘Do you think this city can control its own destiny?’ ‘Of course it can!’ The popular conception of what cities do runs in direct conflict with the legal reality.”

The path to the doctrine of state supremacy was rocky. In 1857, when New York State snatched some of New York City’s powers—including its police force—riots followed. But after the Civil War, the tide of public and legal opinion turned against local government. Following rapid urban growth, fueled in part by immigration, cities came to be seen as dens of licentiousness and subversive politics. Moreover, many municipalities brought trouble on themselves, spending profligately to lure railroads through town. Unable to make good on their debts, some towns and cities dissolved, leaving states holding the bag and inspiring laws that barred cities from independently issuing bonds. In an 1868 decision, the jurist John Forrest Dillon declared that cities were entirely beholden to their state legislature: “It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.”

Today’s clampdowns on cities echo 19th-century anxieties about urban progressivism, demographics, and insolvency. Many of the southern cities that have been targeted for preemption are seen as magnets for out-of-state interlopers. Republican officeholders have blasted nondiscrimination ordinances like Charlotte’s as contravening nature and Christian morality. They’ve argued that a patchwork of wage and sick-leave laws will drive away businesses, and that fracking bans will stifle the economy.

Yet the economic reality that underpinned rural-urban distrust in the 19th century is now inverted: In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities, from Austin to Atlanta, from Birmingham to Chicago.

In this context of increasing rural-urban division, people on both sides of the political aisle have warmed to positions typically associated with their adversaries. The GOP has long viewed itself as the party of decentralization, criticizing Democrats for trying to dictate to local communities from Capitol Hill, but now Republicans are the ones preempting local government. Meanwhile, after years of seeing Democratic reforms overturned by preemption, the party of big government finds itself championing decentralized power.

Both sides may find their new positions unexpectedly difficult. As North Carolina’s experience shows, preemption-happy state governments have a tendency to overreach: The state supreme court ruled the attempted takeover of Asheville’s water system unconstitutional. Federal courts struck down the redistricting efforts in Greensboro and Wake County. The takeover of Charlotte’s airport foundered when the FAA pointed out that the state didn’t have the authority to transfer the airport’s certification. In November, voters ousted Governor Pat McCrory, in part because of HB2’s deep unpopularity.

In a particularly odd twist, last summer Republicans in the North Carolina statehouse joined Democrats in rejecting a bill, offered by a powerful outgoing Republican senator, to redistrict Asheville’s city council. In a heated debate, Representative Michael Speciale, a Republican, mocked his colleagues for suddenly acting as if they knew better than the people of Asheville. “We may not agree ideologically with the citizens of Asheville or the city council of Asheville,” he said. “I’m sorry, but we don’t need to agree with them, because we don’t live there.”

By and large, though, cities hold the weaker hand. It makes sense that these areas, finding themselves economically vital, increasingly progressive, and politically disempowered, would want to use local ordinances as a bulwark against conservative state and federal policies. But this gambit is likely to backfire. Insofar as states have sometimes granted cities leeway to enact policy in the past, that forbearance has been the result of political norms, not legal structures. Once those norms crumble, and state legislatures decide to assert their authority, cities will have very little recourse.

An important lesson of last year’s presidential election is that American political norms are much weaker than they had appeared, allowing a scandal-plagued, unpopular candidate to triumph—in part because voters outside of cities objected to the pace of cultural change. Another lesson is that the United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban.

Only one of them, at present, appears entitled to self-determination.