The Multiple Political Orders That Drive Urban Political Development

By Timothy Weaver (University at Albany, SUNY)

In recent years, scholars and pundits alike have proclaimed the emergence of an urban-rural divide that now marks “America’s political fault line.” With this observation comes the apparently uncontroversial argument that, over the course of the past few decades, cities have become increasingly liberal in contrast to the deepening conservatism in the countryside. This observation seems to be confirmed by Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw who developed a ranking of American cities according to the policy preferences of their residents. They find that almost all cities over 250,000 are on the liberal side of the liberal-conservative spectrum, with San Francisco, Washington D.C., Seattle, Detroit, and New York City all being among the top ten “most liberal” cities in the U.S. In a related move, Clarence Stone has recently argued that the developmental “urban regimes” he famously wrote about in the 1980s, have been replaced by an “urban governing order” in which the distribution of power “more fluid.” This opens to door for new actors—potentially from historically marginalized populations—to push for more progressive policies.

My recent article offers a contrasting perspective to the idea that America’s cities are fundamentally “liberal” or “progressive” and challenges the claim that cities are becoming more so over time. For while it is indubitably true that cities have become more reliably Democratic over time, this does not mean that cities are unambiguously committed to egalitarian policymaking across the board. Rather than thinking in terms of an emergent liberal or progressive order than now characterizes American cities, I suggest instead that we should view American urban politics as animated by three multiple political orders—conservative, neoliberal, and egalitarian—whose clashes, or “intercurrence,” shape political change. We might think about political development, then, as driven by the operation of these political orders as they reshape the political terrain and/or as the result of the intercurrence among multiple orders, a point well made by Jack Lucas. Following the work of Desmond King and Rogers Smith, I suggest that political orders encompass political coalitions, ideas, and governing institutions and claim that any persuasive account of urban political development needs to identify, describe, and examine these orders and the relationships among them. One way to do this is to focus on key changes in governing institutions and connect these shifts to the political coalitions that drove them and the ideas deployed to build popular appeals in support of them.

The neoliberal, egalitarian, and conservative orders

The most obvious challenge to claims that cities are essentially liberal or progressive polities comes from the vast scholarship on neoliberalism, to which I’ve contributed in a number of venues, including in the Forum. After all, the very places often hailed as bastions of liberalism, such New York and San Francisco, have also seen privatization, deep cuts to the local welfare state, chronic housing shortages, staggering poverty, and spiraling inequality. Undergirding all these changes has been the transformation of the urban political economy though which footloose corporations and their political allies sought to accelerate economic growth by enhancing the exchange value of land, the proceeds of which flowed to the lucky few at the top. Indeed, cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit were forced by their respective state governments to submit to financial control boards that insulated unpopular fiscal decisions from popular resistance. Since the Great Recession of 2008, as Sara Hinkley and Rachel Weber have detailed, austerity measures have been applied in American cities with brutal effect. All these changes have been stimulated and justified by a set of neoliberal ideas that assailed the redistributive state and promoted the putative benefits of market forces.

The neoliberal political coalition includes “true believers” who championed the virtues of privatization (e.g. business elites, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis), those liberals who sought to make a virtue out of what they saw as the necessity of cuts (mayors such as New York’s Abraham Beame and Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell), and reluctant fellow travelers who adopted neoliberalism by default (e.g. mayors such as Wilson Goode) because of the political and economic constraints that confronted them. In this third group, we could include many of the black urban regimes who ended up adopting pro-growth developmental policies during the 1980s and 1990s. Alongside the political economic alliance at the heart of the neoliberal urban order are a range of organizations that play a supportive role: construction unions, local media, and some non-profit “anchor institutions” and philanthropy groups that saw advantage in the neoliberal, entrepreneurial reordering of the city.

But while the left suffered serious defeats, and many progressive institutions were destroyed or commodified by the neoliberal order, egalitarian politics was not fully vanquished. Labor and social movements organized, resisted, and fought back on multiple fronts. Sometimes they even emerged victorious, as happed, for instance with the Fight for $15 in Seattle. As Richard Schragger and David Imbroscio have shown, the scope for egalitarian, placemaking activities is far broader than the “city limits” trope would suggest. At the root of the egalitarian urban order are a set of ideas that place a premium on equality, social justice, and social citizenship. These ideas inform an exciting array of activities termed community wealth building. The coalition that provides the political foundation of the progressive urban order includes an alliance between labor unions and political actors on the left that may come from within the Democratic Party or that are affiliated with other parties or associations such as the Democratic Socialists of America. The progressive urban order is buttressed by organizations such New York Communities for Change, Jobs with Justice, Working America, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and Black Lives Matter. It is aided by progressive media such as very local alternative newspapers (e.g. the Village Voice in New York City) to national media, particularly that which has an emphasis on urban issues, such as Alternet, the Intercept, Common Dreams,, Jacobin, and Democracy Now. Hence, the progressive order rests on a broad electoral coalition—of working-class, multiethnic and multiracial, and supportive leftist middle classes—with deeply embedded institutional roots that connect street-level groups to national organizations.

In addition to the neoliberal and egalitarian orders, I suggest that conservatism represents the third key political order at work in American cities. Unlike many scholars who fuse conservatism and neoliberalism to capture the pro-market and authoritarian elements of contemporary politics, I maintain that it is useful to keep these tendencies as distinct, though they often are mutually reinforcing. At the heart of conservative though is a commitment to notions of a rooted, organic community undergirded by what Edmund Burke referred to as “chains of subordination.” Conservatism can take many forms. The most obvious are ascriptive hierarchies along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender, which have been at the fault lines of urban politics since the onset of urbanization itself. But conservatism also includes commitments to punitive politics that may not be in service of racist, nativist, or sexist purposes. I suggest that we see the various dimensions of conservative ideas on full display in the construction of the carceral sate, where we see a blend of retributive ideas converging around support for aggressive policing techniques and harsh punishment. Despite its reputation as a liberal haven, New York City led the way with the Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s and Rudy Giuliani’s stop-and-frisk policies of the 1990s. While the latter was unquestionably laced with racist assumptions and intent, the former, as Michael Javen Fortner points out, were supported by many Black New Yorkers, including those who supported egalitarian civil rights policies. But irrespective of whether racism or retributivism is at the heart of the matter, the key point is that the advance of national and local state power to engage in mass surveillance, social control, and imprisonment points to a conservative order in urban political development that has been central to urban political development since the 1970s.

American cities are riddled with contradictions. In the same city, we might see egalitarian policymaking in one arena (e.g. minimum wage ordinances), which collides with conservative practices in another domain (e.g. stop-and-frisk), with neoliberal ideas (e.g. about the virtues of property-led development) in play in yet a third dimension. Rather than seeing these phenomena as contradictory elements of the same order (or unitary whole), I argue that the key to understanding urban political development lies in charting the simultaneous interplay of overlapping, multiple urban orders that are the key engines of political conflict and social transformation.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Memories on 35mm on Unsplash

Author Biography

Timothy Weaver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is author of Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Urban Political Development in the United States and the United Kingdom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and co-editor, with Richardson Dilworth, of How Ideas Shape Urban Political Development (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020). He has published articles in the Labor Studies Journal, New Political Science, Studies in American Political Development, and Urban Studies. He is currently serving as President-Elect of the Urban and Local Politics Section of APSA and is an editorial board member of the Urban Affairs Review.