Why the City-State is Returning to Prominence

I live in Nevada which is in an interesting state driven largely by two main metropolitan areas: Las Vegas in Southern Nevada and Reno in Northern Nevada. States today are relying on dynamic cities in order to get things done and to jump-start their economies. In my home state, Las Vegas in a tourism driven town that has remained an attractive hub for people looking to get away, have a chance to win some money, and to escape into a desert paradise. Reno has begun to reinvent itself by serving as an extension of San Francisco/San Jose tech companies who need more space and cheaper labor than is available in the Bay Area. Our state is in a sense two city-states that make decisions, interact with private companies, and coordinate citizens for economic growth and development. Government at the state level doesn’t forget our rural communities, but seems to often focus on what can be done to make sure Las Vegas and Reno can continue to grow and develop in the best way possible.

 

One reason why the city-state is becoming a powerful engine in the United States is that the Federal Government is pulling back from is role in making overarching national policy. Part of this is a result of deliberate choice as one political party attempts to reduce the overall impact, size, and function of the Federal Government. As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write in The New Localism, “The stated aspiration of the Trump administration to deconstruct the administrative state is ironically elevating the city-state as the locus of problem-solving activity.”

 

The authors write that the city-state has risen in an ironic result of the Trump administration’s actions because the nation’s most dynamic metropolitan regions generally seems to oppose the policies of the Trump administration. In the 2016 election most major metropolitan areas voted in favor of Hilary Clinton and Democrat candidates for other offices. Republican’s who felt left behind in rural areas generally favored Trump and Republican candidates and wanted a federal policy that did not leave their areas behind while focusing on the growth and expansion of dynamic cities. However, by abdicating decision-making responsibility, the Federal Government may be doing exactly that.

 

Decreasing the role of the Federal Government in effect gives cities the green light to take the lead on issues ranging from climate change to biomedical research and we see cities passing ordinances to reduce carbon emissions and encourage more spending and development in technological advancements (in Boston it is biomedical research and in Reno it is battery development). Cities can move fast and offer attractive amenities, tax breaks, and living environments for companies and organizations that want to change the world, a big contrast to the Federal Government that is characterized by gridlock.

 

When the Federal Government takes a hands-off approach, it is American cities, where people live and innovative cities are taking hold, that are able to engage in place-making to develop new structures and institutions. These cities work out the solution to the challenges and problems our country is facing, and then export those solutions from one metropolitan region to another. It is a city driven model of federalism which brings even more irony to the table. The Republican party has long been the advocate of federalism (at a state level) encouraging states to be able to adopt policies without interference of the Federal Government. In the past, these were often policies that maintained traditionalist values, as opposed to the new policies we see from states that address problems that the Republican Party would rather ignore. Federalism has shifted from states to the cities and is spreading in a new way as the Trump Administration creates confusion and incoherence at the Federal Level.

Inflated Districts

Michelle Alexander looks at specific policies that have lead to greater incarceration rates in our nation and have exacerbated racial injustice in her book The New Jim Crow. One of the policies Alexander criticizes is the policy surrounding political representation of incarcerated individuals. After Alexander addresses the reality that our nation locks up minority black and brown men at rates far higher than white men, she addresses questions of voting and districting. Below, Alexander explains how incarcerated individuals are counted by the Census Bureau,

“Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60% of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.”

The presidential election of 2016 showed a powerful split in political preferences between rural and urban parts of the country. Metropolitan areas heavily favored the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, and rural areas overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump from the Republican party. Diving deeper into state politics and representation, we see the same phenomenon play out with state representatives. In my home state of Nevada, the two major population centers, the Las Vegas metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and the Reno MSA, vote democratic while the rural parts of the state vote republican. What the policy that Alexander discusses means is that the MSAs in my state end up loosing seats relative to the rural districts and counties because of the way we count individuals. While Nevada may be dominated by the two million Las Vegas MSA inhabitants and the half million Reno MSA inhabitants, the state likely does see a shift in political representation away from the urban centers toward the rural counties that house the state’s prisons.

It is unlikely that the rural representatives of those prisons favor policies that help improve the neighborhoods and living conditions in the urban communities our prisoners come from. Disturbingly, it is unlikely that our rural representatives favor a reduction in incarceration rates at all since their constituents likely rely on the prison for employment.

It is hard to determine residence and people in prison may be homeless, but nevertheless, we do have the ability today to better analyze and record where our individuals lived prior to being arrested and where they plan to return once released. How we choose count individuals who have short sentences versus life sentences is further in the weeds of the issue, but can be impactful when considering prison populations and the communities that house such prisons. Our nation’s constitution checks urban power by over-representing rural communities in congress, and many state constitutions follow the same suit. Emphasizing this distinction however, and providing greater clout to rural districts that house prisons may encourage a backlash against anti-incarceration movements and may make it less likely that the poor and over policied communities from which our prison population derives, is represented and able to advocate for changes that will improve their lives.