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.