Urban Politics Scholars Gather for Mini Conference at APSA 2017

By Clarence Stone (George Washington University)

As an integral part of the 2017 APSA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, September 2nd, the urban section made use of a new program format, an all-day mini-conference.  Titled “The New Urban Politics: Changing Cities and Fresh Perspectives,” the five-session program began at 8:00 a.m. and concluded at 5:30 p.m.  Words alone cannot capture the excitement and energy of the day.  Hailed as an extraordinary “happening,” the event achieved an intellectual intensity rarely seen even in individual panels.

The mini-conference title conveys a dual reality – that the urban condition itself has changed in fundamental ways and that particularly among younger scholars a wave of fresh perspectives and framings is emerging.  Several of the presenters drew on data sets that they created and will become a resource that the wider community of scholars will be able to draw on.  Though not possible here to capture all of the fresh ideas, perspectives, and framings that made an appearance, a brief and partial summary includes the following.

Like the broader field of American politics, urban political science has typically not treated race as the fundamentally important force that it exerts in the politics of the nation.  In an author-meets-critics session, Jessica Trounstine’s forthcoming book, Segregation by Design, focused a lively and far-reaching discussion.  “Critics” Lester Spence and Ryan Enos accented the issue of how to treat race in urban political analysis.  All concurred that the urban context is  central in the large part that race plays in the nation and especially in its politics.  Trounstine’s book gives the topic historical depth, a thorough coverage of secondary literature, a rich array of empirical data on service provision including the way it is organized and funded, and the many manifestations of racial exclusion in housing and in equal access to the quality of life enjoyed by the population in general.  Considerable discussion centered on the term “by design” and how well it covered the many forms of racism that have shaped the contemporary city.  A significant line of discussion was about the sensitivities and defensiveness that surrounds the label “racist” and the inability (or at least reluctance) of many people to recognize the workings of structural and systemic factors.  Of the many ways Trounstine’s book spotlights racism at work, a particularly striking instance is a key motivation behind white fight to the suburbs not simply to escape the diversity of the city but to find in the suburbs a body of jurisdictions in which the political domination of white homeowners could be preserved and perpetuated.  The racial theme ran through discussions in multiple sessions and was joined by a reminder that the workings of the market system in the U.S. interweave in powerful ways with race.

The changing intergovernmental politics of American Federalism came in for considerable discussion, for instance, in the session on regional inequality chaired by Luis Fraga with papers by Margaret Weir and Clayton Nall and commentary by Zack Taylor.   Jennifer Hochschild spotlighted the reversal of long-standing expectations that the federal government would be a firm defender of minority rights and a source of redistributive benefits to those systemically disadvantaged.  As she commented, today’s stark reality is that the federal government (along with many state governments) has become a source of threats to measures intended to protect the marginal and society’s most vulnerable. In the roundtable of younger scholars, drawing on his forthcoming book, Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, Domingo Morel pointed to a trend toward state takeovers of local school districts as a practice that entails risks and sometimes disempowers African American and Latino communities.

Recent events have thus turned many cities and local jurisdictions into a special source of support and energy behind a progressive agenda, but this is in a highly contested set of intergovernmental relationships. One speculation considered worthy of further thought was that cities with their diversity and density of population have become generative of a tendency toward progressive politics.

The carceral state came in for attention at various point, in part as an implication of the place of race in the American polity, but also as an area in need of further attention especially on policing and barriers to reform in law-enforcement.  Matt Thomas pointed out that the Reagan era War on Drugs made it virtually impossible to make progress on community policing.

The roundtable of younger scholars was especially rich as a source of fresh thinking.  For example, Jamila Michener has opened the civil-legal process as a fresh area of research to pursue.  With rules, actors, and institutions quite different from the criminal justice arena, Michener explained that it includes entities such as family court and issues such as domestic violence.  Many of these civil matters are of special concern to women, but are not adequately understood as an area of power, politics, and the quest for social equity.  Diane Wong held up back-to-the-city and nonresidential investment as a threat to traditional communities, such as Chinatowns.  She highlighted research on new patterns of resistance to such private action as a significant area of research.  For his part Ravi Perry included a reminder that the urban arena is a special locus for transgender and more generally queer politics. “In an ambitious project, Peter Buccianeri examines the rise of ideological conflict in urban politics, showing evidence of new progressive ideological coalitions in large cities and a shift towards new progressive policies that have largely been beyond the scope of city power until recently. He also suggests that these divides may stem from the increasing nationalization of local politics and the general lack of out-party competition in most metropolitan areas.

The shifting composition of local electorates, especially in education, with many contingencies and frames of analysis opened another arena of under-explored research, as shown in the work and data base introduced by Vlad Kogan, with an additional frame of analysis proposed by Sarah Anzia.  Using the New Orleans experience as a case in point, Celeste Lay to significant forms of practice in this understudied and still changing area of urban policy.  Although gender is an under-researched area, Mirya Holman drew on her book Women in Politics in the American City to remind us that the Women’s March could build on an important legacy.  Clayton Nall drew on his new book, The Road to Inequality, to show how transportation policy has evolved in an increasingly partisan direction, reversing a traditional pattern of bipartisanship. The mini-conference offered many takes on inequality.  In her paper on regional differences in the way that the “delegated state” has unfolded, Margaret Weir provided new insights into how the European immigration experience, differences in when urbanization occurred, varying religious traditions in charitable work, and (again) race as factors converged historically to establish a basis for two distinct worlds of welfare—a civic-public model and a religious-private model. Civil society differences play a very large part in inequalities in regional capacity for-profit/nonprofit divide is of major importance.

As another strand of regional inequality, Luis Fraga pointed out that the experience of Mexican Americans in south Texas replicated in many ways the segregated experience of African Americans in the Southeast.  But, he added, the Latino experience ranges widely in important particulars as one looks over the urban landscape from Miami, the Southwest, California, and onto newly settled Latino populations in the Midwest.  Regional variation is a deeply embedded factor in the nation’s political history and development.

One of the highlighted data sets involves detailed information about local housing hearings in MA.  A team headed by Kathleen Einstein has begun analysis while continuing to accumulate further data.  This important work shows multiple biases, including toward men, property owners, members of the legal profession, and the educated more generally.  The Nimbyism tendency in local hearings has dimensions in need of further analysis.

In a morning panel Michael J. Fortner made a case for the city’s capacity to govern as a lens for looking at the right to the city and for thinking about dependencies as a potentially surmountable barrier to justice.  The closing paper by Steve McGovern continued the governing capacity theme by developing a mobilization-governance framework.  In doing so he laid out missing pieces in the focus of regime analysis on elites and their strategic moves. McGovern made a strong case for keeping the full dimensions of the second and third faces of power with their elements of culture, consciousness, and awareness.  For his part McGovern’s discussant, Josh Sapotichne, challenged his presenter to break totally free of regime thinking and embrace other considerations, a theme picked up by Michael Jones-Correa in the closing town hall where he reminded the mini-conference attendees of the physicality of the city, that is, its spatial dimension as something very particular to an urban perspective.

As a full day devoted to a single theme, the mini-conference is a fresh format with significant advantages.  One is that it offers flexibility.  For example, another new format is the “30-minuter” devoted to a single paper and one discussant. Three such presentations opened the urban mini-conference.  Within that format Michael Fortner and Amy Bridges introduced a further innovation by doing their presentation (Michael’s paper had been circulated in advance) as an interview-dialogue between Michael as the author and Amy as interviewer interspersing an occasional comment.  As a micro-innovation in format, the presentation went smoothly, offering itself as a model that might be used on other occasions.  Unrehearsed, it had a special freshness to it.  The mini-conference also used a “30-minuter” (Steve McGovern presenter and Josh Sapotichne discussant) to open the final session of the day, culminating in a town hall discussion and reflection on the state of the new urban politics.

Overall the mini-conference featured power, change, and the nature of the city as big themes in urban political analysis.  It engaged the many ways that race, economy, and politics intermingle.  Participants took up an arresting array of particulars, including several fresh topics, but they did so fully aware of a backdrop of themes including representation, inequality, and recurring problems of exclusion and displacement.

Author Biography

Clarence Stone (Ph.D., Duke University, 1963) is Research Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at George Washington University and Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland. He is author of many articles and books including Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988.  His teaching interests center on urban politics and comparative local politics. His research interests include the theory and practice of local democracy, urban education, and the local agenda-setting process.


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