This article was first posted at Medium.com.
“I want New Yorkers to know: we have a lot of tools at our disposal; we’re going to use them. And we’re not going to take anything lying down.” On the morning after Donald Trump was declared the victor in the U.S. presidential election, Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, wasted no time in signaling his intention to use the city government as a bulwark against the policy agenda of the President-Elect. The move made one thing very clear; with the Republican Party holding the House and Senate, and at least one Supreme Court nomination in the pipeline, it will fall to America’s cities and local leaders to act as the institutional frontline of resistance against the Trump administration.
However, cities can be more than just a last line of defense against the worst excesses of an authoritarian central government; they have huge, positive potential as spaces from which to radicalize democracy and build alternatives to the neoliberal economic model. The urgent questions that progressive activists in the States are now asking themselves are, not just how to fight back against Trump, but also how to harness the momentum of Bernie Sanders’ primary run to fight for the change he promised. As we consider potential strategies going forward, a look at the global context suggests that local politics may be the best place to start.
The election of Trump has not occurred in a vacuum. Across the West, we are witnessing a wholesale breakdown of the existing political order; the neoliberal project is broken, the center-left is vanishing, and the old left is at a loss for what to do. In many countries, it is the far right that is most successful in harnessing people’s desire to regain a sense of control over their lives. Where progressives have tried to beat the right at its own game by competing on the battleground of the nation state, they have fared extremely poorly, as recent elections and referenda across Europe have shown. Even where a progressive force has managed to win national office, as happened in Greece in 2015, the limits of this strategy have become abundantly clear, with global markets and transnational institutions quickly bullying the Syriza government into compliance.
In Spain, however, things are different. In 2014, activists in the country were wrestling with a similar conundrum to their counterparts in the U.S. today: how to harness the power of new social and political movements to transform institutional politics. For pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, they decided to start by standing in local elections; the so-called “municipalist wager.” The bet paid off; while citizen platforms led by activists from social movements won mayoralties in the largest cities across the country in May of 2015, their national allies, Unidos Podemos, stalled in third place at the general elections in December later that same year.
In Spain, this network of “rebel cities” has been putting up some of the most effective resistance to the conservative central government. While the state is bailing out the banks, refusing to take in refugees and implementing deep cuts in public services, cities like Barcelona and Madrid are investing in the cooperative economy, declaring themselves “refuge cities” and remunicipalizing public services. U.S. cities have a huge potential to play a similar role over the coming years.
Rebel cities in the USA
In fact, radical municipalism has a proud history in the U.S. One hundred years ago, the “sewer socialists” took over the city government of Milwaukee, Wis., and ran it for almost 50 years. They built parks, cleaned up waterways and, in contrast to the tolerated level of corruption in neighboring Chicago, the sewer socialists instilled into the civic culture an enduring sense that government is supposed to work for all the people, not just the wealthy and well-connected.
More recently, too, cities have been proving their ability to lead the national agenda. In the last few years alone, over 200 cities have introduced protections against employment discrimination based on gender-identity and 38 cities and counties have introduced local minimum wages after local “Fight for 15” campaigns.
Now we need a dual municipalist strategy that includes both supporting and putting pressure on existing progressive city governments from the streets, and standing new candidates with new policy platforms in upcoming local elections so that we can change institutional politics from within.
There are a number of reasons why city governments are particularly well-placed to lead resistance to Trumpism. Most obviously, much of the popular opposition to Trump is physically located in cities. With their younger, more ethnically diverse demographics, urban voters swung heavily against Trump and, in fact, played a large role in handing Hillary Clinton the majority of the national popular vote. Not only did Clinton win 31 of the nation’s 35 largest cities, but she beat Trump by 59% to 35% in all cities with populations of over 50,000. In most of urban America, then, there are progressive majorities that can be harnessed to challenge Trump’s toxic discourse and policy agenda.
But alternative policies will not be enough to create an effective challenge to Trump; different ways of doing politics will also be needed, and local politics has great potential in this regard. As the level of government closest to the people, municipalities are uniquely able to generate new, citizen-led and participatory models of politics that return a sense of agency and belonging to people’s lives. This new process must have feminism at its heart; it must recognize that the personal and the political are intimately connected, something that is clearer at the local level than at any other.
It’s for this reason that the municipalist movement need not be limited to the largest cities. Though large cities will inevitably be strategic targets in any “bottom-up” strategy, given their economic and cultural power, all local politics has radical democratic potential. Indeed, some of the most innovative — and successful — examples of municipalism around the world are found in small towns and villages.
Bringing the political conversation back to the local level also has a particular advantage in the current context; the city provides a frame with which to challenge the rise of xenophobic nationalism. Cities are spaces in which we can talk about reclaiming popular sovereignty for a demos other than the nation, where we can reimagine identity and belonging based on participation in civic life rather than the passport we hold.
Why a network of rebel cities?
By working as a network, cities can turn what would have been isolated acts of resistance into a national movement with a multiplier effect. Networks like Local Progress, a network of progressive local elected officials, allow local leaders to exchange policy ideas, develop joint strategies, and speak with a united voice on the national stage.
On the issue of racial equity, an essential question given the racist nature of Trump’s campaign and policy platform, cities across the U.S. have already started to mobilize to combat Islamophobia, as part of the American Leaders Against Hate and Anti-Muslim Bigotry Campaign, a joint project of Local Progress and the Young Elected Officials Action Network. The campaign pushes for local policies to tackle hate crimes against Muslims, including the monitoring of religious bullying in schools, intercultural education programmes, and council resolutions condemning Islamophobia and declaring support for Muslim communities.
Climate change will be another contentious issue over the coming years. While much has been made of the policy implications of Trump’s claim that global warming was invented by the Chinese, it has been local administrations, rather than the federal government, that have led on the environmental agenda over recent years. Sixty two cities are already committed to meet or exceed the emissions targets announced by the federal government and many of the largest cities in the country, including New York, Chicago and Atlanta have set emissions reductions goals of 80 percent or higher by 2050. U.S. mayors must continue on this path, working with international networks of cities like ICLEI and UCLG to exchange good practices and to lobby for direct access to global climate funds in the absence of support from the federal government.
Even on issues that are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, like immigration, cities have some room for maneuver. For example, although Trump has pledged to deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S., 37 “sanctuary cities” across the U.S. are already limiting their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests to reduce deportations. The mayors of New York and Los Angeles have already pledged to continue with this practice, and De Blasio has promised New Yorkers that the city will protect the confidentiality of users of the city ID-card scheme and continue to ensure that police officers and city employees won’t inquire about residents’ immigration status, predicting that Trump will face “a deep, deep rift with all of urban America” if he does not re-evaluate his stance on sanctuary cities.
First we must push our allies who are already in office at local level, including self-identified “Sanders Democrats,” to use all available means to act against any attempt by the federal government to roll back civil liberties, cut services or sow division among communities. Such cities must work, not only to counteract the worst excesses of the Trump administration, but also to continue to move forward on issues like gay rights and climate change, as well as forging new ground by standing up to corporate interests, increasing citizen participation in decision-making, and promoting the social and cooperative economies.
But we also need a new generation of local leaders, particularly women and people of color, who are prepared to take the leap from protest to electoral politics. The recent announcement by Black Lives Matter activist, Nekima Levy-Pounds, that she will be standing for election as mayor of Minneapolis is an inspiring example of the kind of candidate that is needed; someone with real-world experience and an insider’s understanding of social movement politics. But the search for new local leaders needs to be scaled up so that there is a pipeline of candidates to stand for school boards, zoning boards and local councils in 2017 and beyond. This is something that the Working Families Party is already doing successfully in many states, as well as supporting these candidates in primary campaigns against Establishment Democrats.
Finally, we must undertake new ways of doing politics at the local level to prove that there is an alternative to corporate lobbying, secret donors and career politics. There is no reason why candidates should wait until taking office to invite people to participate in decision-making. Local candidates should open up their policy platforms to public participation, integrating demands from social movements and local residents. There is also no reason why elected officials should use only the most generous interpretation of the law to guide their conduct; in Spain, the citizen platforms drew up their own codes of ethics for their elected representatives, including salary and term limits and strict transparency requirements. By leading by example, local movements can send a very powerful message: there is another way.
A resurgence of rebel cities in the U.S. would tap into a long-forgotten American tradition of radical municipalism and align with a new and growing international network of municipalist movements. Now is the time for us to seize this opportunity and to reclaim democracy from the bottom up.