On cities’ ‘OK boomer’ face-off with state and national governments

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash
unsplash-logoDavid Beale

Let’s call it the infantilization of cities.

It’s more than a little ironic: as cities are handed ever more responsibility, and grow ever more assertive in the age of geo-urbanism, their biggest challenge may be the lingering Father-Knows-Best attitudes of so-called “senior” levels of government.

When those silly Austin voters, for example, decided in 2016 that Uber and Lyft could take their business elsewhere if they wouldn’t accept the same scrutiny of their drivers as imposed on taxicab companies, the sage state legislature stepped in to wisely correct the city’s unruly ways. More recently, Texas’ governor-as-elder had to lean as Austin naively relaxed ordinances on where the homeless could gather or camp.

It was the same state-as-paterfamilias who came to the rescue just to Austin’s north in 2014 after 60 percent of the ill-mannered voters in the Dallas suburb of Denton – population 140,000 – banned fracking within city limits. It was the first Texas city to do so and Lord knows this kind of juvenile rebellion could have gotten out of hand.

Thankfully, a few months later state lawmakers were falling over one another to introduce a bill to overrule the citizens of Denton. They soon did so, with a law known as HB 40.

“Local control is great in a lot of respects,” the wise Texas energy regulator, Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, told journalists at the time. “But I’m the expert on oil and gas. The city of Denton is not.”

Courts, meanwhile, sometimes have to step in to play the role of “senior” government. As when the Texas Supreme Court last year ruled unanimously that Austin, Laredo and a dozen other upstart cities had overstepped their waste disposal bounds by banning single use plastic bags. After all, what could cities possibly know about managing trash? Similar wisdom prevailed just in August when a Florida court issued a similar preemption of cities that might dare to regulate plastic bags.

Local efforts, ranging from rules on firearms storage to use of genetically modified seeds to the headline grabbing by sanctuary cities who fail to help federal agents round up illegal immigrants, have all met similar fates.

It’s not just cities, of course, that need to be brought to their civic senses from time to time. Consider the temerity of California, which since 1970 has had its own rules limiting automobile emissions. The state’s authority to do so was revoked just in September by the Trump Administration. Said Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency: “Federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation.” Why certainly not.

Raising the ceiling of local democracy

Less facetiously, though, there is a fair argument that society would be far worse off without the occasional intrusion of Father-Knows-Best-Governance. Exhibit A for that case would be President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision in 1957 to send the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine African-American students trying to enroll at all-white Little Rock High School. Much of the entire history of the civil rights movement is defined in historical imagination by preemption; Austin’s own history being a case in point. Let’s not forget that Austin schools remained segregated until 1971 when, again, the federal government finally said enough is enough.

But the reality was in many ways less federal preemption than federal reaction to many non-federal actors, including local courts and civil rights activists. The fundamental driver of change was at the level of the city, beginning in many ways in 1955 when a brave woman famously challenged the rules governing seating on city buses in Montgomery, Ala. Crucial to the movement’s success were the local churches, women’s clubs, local activists and business and city leaders who worked with federal allies over the next decade to defeat the evil of Jim Crow. Historians today note that Eisenhower was motivated less by any desire to end segregation than he was to deprive the Soviet Union of the propaganda value of the terrible events unfolding in Little Rock. He reacted with wisdom, but only after being pushed to do so by those close to events on the ground.

So it is a complex dilemma. But I found a philosopher to help me think this through. This was Adam Briggle, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas in Denton. It was Briggle who organized the ill-fated ballot initiative in Denton that (very briefly) banned fracking in the city.

The principle of preemption by so-called “senior” levels of government, Briggle suggested, should be to raise the level of democracy and civic engagement. “It should not be about lowering the floor.’’

But the trend may well be toward a lowered floor. In November, there were 149 city and county ballot measures before voters in 17 states, according to Ballotpedia, the non-partisan election monitoring think tank. Topics, monitored in cities larger than 100,000, ranged from transgender rights to consideration of environmental protection amid dozens of bond issues for school and roads. There were also measures on issues from rent, growth and short-term rentals control to minimum wages. A theme or trend in the issues is all but impossible to discern, said Josh Altic, who heads referenda research at Ballotpedia.

“But there is an interesting trend in repeal (of ballot measures) by state legislatures,” a swing that has been gathering steam since 2016 when South Dakota banned all local referenda, Altic said. In this sense, he added, direct democracy is getting more complicated rather than less: “The fact is that the legal arguments to overturn grow more complex, and so do the measures to combat the challenges of pushback.”

This tension between the lesser and greater levels of government may be rising, but it is hardly new. Jane Jacobs, the late doyenne of urban sociology, noted this in her final book published in 2004, Dark Age Ahead. That book explores, among other things, the principle of “subsidiarity,” the concept that government works best – most responsibly and responsively – when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses.

Evidence of the concept’s success traces back to antiquity, she argued. The Roman Empire arose in part on its cities’ advantages of local authority and control. But the empire’s collapse in 476 came about in significant measure due to Rome’s decision to deprive cities of these rights.

This occurred, she argued, “in the desperate years before the collapse, when the imperial treasury extorted from them as much as it could and dispersed the money for schemes and needs according to its own, frequently crazed, priorities.”

Cities’ bold if unsung march in to the federal breach

Is it too extreme to draw a parallel from Rome’s collapse amid feuding levels of government with our own dilemmas today? I don’t think so. Consider America’s 2016 election, waged in part over America’s deteriorating roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Who remembers the pledge of then-candidate Donald Trump to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure and the subsequent speculation by many that this would be the rare point of collaboration between Republicans and Democrats? When a plan did finally emerge last year, it proposed less than a fifth of that $1 trillion. And even that was part of a design to shift costs onto state and local governments. The bill was quickly declared dead on arrival.

But largely missing in the continuing debate over America’s disintegrating infrastructure is the fact that cities have stepped boldly into the breach left by the federal government. In that same 2016 election of ultimately empty national pledges, voters from Los Angeles to Seattle to Wake County, N.C., and on to Indianapolis, approved some $200 billion in additional taxes to spur ambitious transit and infrastructure development, noted Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, authors in 2017 of The New Localism – How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism. Austin voters endorsed $720 million in spending on road, bridge and transit improvements that same year.

Two years later – just as the federal infrastructure bill was declared DOA – Austin voters approved the following: $250 million for affordable housing; $128 million for libraries, museums and cultural facilities; $179 million for public parks rehabilitation and construction; $184 million to fund flood control, hiking and bike trails and swimming pools; $16 million for a low-income neighborhood health clinic; $38 million to build new fire stations and emergency medical facilities; and, $160 million for roads, streets, sidewalks and traffic signaling. That adds up to $955 million.

And it’s not just on infrastructure that cities will have to go it alone. From educational innovation to address of homelessness to confronting the effects of climate change, cities and local governments are, and will be, doing it for themselves – often with one hand tied behind their back by the grumpy superiors looking on.

As goes Austin, so do Sao Paulo, Barcelona, Istanbul and Hong Kong

Not just in Austin, Los Angeles or Seattle.

In Brazil, the Sao Paolo mayor is leading local and state governments in pledges to meet the country’s targets for the Paris Agreement on climate change despite President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the threat. In Spain, Barcelona’s mayor was re-elected earlier this year on a platform of “municipalist” government involving a coalition of Spanish cities seeking more local authority for energy production, affordable housing and health care. Just in November, Istanbul’s new mayor was in London seeking investors in a $500 million bond issue for metro and railway construction after state-run banks controlled by his political rival – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — denied him credit.

And at an order of magnitude many times greater than any of this, the same challenge by local citizens of national government paternalism is playing out vividly in Hong Kong. After months of protests over Beijing’s usurpation of local rights and autonomy, voters on Nov. 24 sent a resounding measure to Chinese President Xi Jinping when anti-Beijing parties seized control of 17 of the 18 districts that comprise the city’s local government. The 71 percent turnout was the highest in Hong Kong since the city was formally returned by Great Britain to China in 1997 – a handover that was supposed to preserve Hong Kong’s self-rule.

Nation states do and will continue to have power that cities will never have, from military and economic control to a commanding voice on the global stage. States are unlikely to surrender decision-making to cities and counties. But Father-Knows-Best-Governance is under assault.  “OK boomer” is not just a slogan of millennials. It could be the catchphrase of a new generation of active citizens, city councils and mayors as well.

“This mythology of national power has oriented problem-solving toward national level fixes when the answers lie instead at the local level,” wrote Katz and Novak.  “It rests with cities to use and organize the powers they have, rather than wait for powers they will never receive.”

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