Introduction: The Promises and Limits of Progressive Cities

Introduction: The Promises and Limits of Progressive Cities

Inside a New York City subway car, 1973 (National Archives and Records Administration)

For liberal Democrats and their allies, this is the winter of their discontent—and foreboding. The most right-wing Congress elected since the 1920s has embarked on a mission to weaken or repeal federal programs that benefit neither its corporate funders nor its Tea Party base. A majority of justices on the Roberts court may ease that task by striking down the Affordable Care Act and several other laws they regard, clairvoyantly, as betrayals of the sacred wishes of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the other periwigged designers of the Constitution.

Barack Obama, whom Republicans attacked quite savagely and quite effectively as both tyrannical and inept, will protest some of what conservatives at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue say and do. He will probably back up his words with a handful of vetos and executive orders. The president will also retain the affection of millions of Americans, if not their confidence in his leadership. Indeed, his administration, after it’s gone, will probably not appear as futile as it does in the wake of the midterm debacle. But, for now, most of the media as well as elites in both parties have turned the page.

If Democrats did not have the possibility of another President Clinton to look forward to, they would not have much hope for 2016 at all. They would be wise, however, to temper their confidence with a bit of historical perspective: no unpopular president has ever been succeeded by a nominee of his own party. So those liberals who dread the immediate electoral future could well prove correct. Two years from now, the hour of that rough beast of a conservative movement in total control of the federal government may come round at last.

However, to dwell solely on the grim events in Washington is to neglect a more complicated and, potentially, a more hopeful reality. Just as Michael Harrington noted in the mid-1970s, the United States is “moving vigorously left, right and center, all at once.” Last fall, voters in the solidly Republican states of Alaska, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Nebraska enacted boosts in the minimum wage. Marriage equality is now the law in thirty-two states and the District of Columbia. The same country where a denier of climate change now chairs the Senate environment committee is also a country where the movement to stop environmental disaster can mobilize a march of 400,000 people and where student groups at hundreds of campuses have called on their colleges to divest from companies that produce fossil fuels. The same country where the Tea Party is the powerful and well-financed bulwark of the party that runs Congress is also a country where, despite the weakness of unions, increasing numbers of fast-food and Wal-Mart workers are demanding a living wage and where a growing number of people on both the right and left advocate humane alternatives to mass imprisonment.

Most promising of all, as this special section illustrates, a growing number of cities—mostly big, some small—have become lighthouses in the reactionary storm. They are places where progressives routinely win elections and have begun to use their power to help raise the living standards of working people—as well as to protect the rights of immigrants and to preserve the local environment.

Conventional wisdom has it that such victories are the inevitable consequence of demographic and cultural change. According to this view, polyracial metropolises in which hip millennials and people of all sexual orientations live pretty much as they please will naturally elect politicians who vow to promote equality in other spheres as well.

But this neglects an elementary political truth: to advance such a vision requires the smart and sustained mobilization of urban residents whose diversity would otherwise be a source of conflict as much as strength. And that is exactly what left organizers—with intermittent but essential aid from supportive officeholders—have been doing.

In Los Angeles, as Manuel Pastor explains, activists for immigrant rights have spearheaded coalitions dedicated to building unions as well as to help undocumented men and women gain legal status. In Seattle, as James Gregory describes, older networks created by labor insurgents and environmentalists undergirded the recent electoral victories of a string of progressive Democrats and one charismatic, unabashed socialist. Joshua Freeman argues that whatever good Mayor Bill de Blasio manages to accomplish in New York will depend both on the persistence and unity of his local base and on his administration’s ability to galvanize national support for what he is struggling to achieve. Sarah Jaffe offers a personal story, both anguished and hopeful, about tenants in one Brooklyn neighborhood who demanded a rent freeze from landlords who failed to heat their freezing apartments. Jennifer Klein examines the rise in New Haven of an alliance between organizers in the Latino community and their counterparts among health workers and Yale graduate students. This alliance helped elect progressives to run the city and is waging an innovative campaign to create more jobs that pay decent wages. Finally, in the impoverished city of Reading, Pennsylvania, Abby Scher discovers a black mayor and his band of talented advisors who are making a sophisticated effort to refashion a local economy that would be both just and green.

None of the authors of these pieces is naïve about the obstacles facing progressives even in such favorable milieus. Each article is steeped in a history that inspires caution as well as emulation. And each author recognizes the irony that the contemporary left tends to be most resurgent in places where the gulf between the rich and poor is greatest—where professionals with six-figure salaries who dine out several times a week vote for the same candidates as do the waiters, cooks, and dishwashers who serve them and earn little more than minimum wage. To alter these “tales of two cities” will necessarily be the work of more than one election victory or three.

What’s more, the gains of urban activists can only be partial and temporary unless and until they are matched across the nation. Most of the problems progressives struggle to solve are rooted in a shaky international economic order whose titans are largely impervious to democratic discontents. Critics of that order outside the liberal metropolises are neither as numerous, as articulate, or as mobilized as—given their economic woes—they ought to be. The perception that big-city progressives have nothing but scorn for hard-pressed inhabitants of small towns and strip-malled suburbs helps prevent the knitting of an alliance that could benefit them both. Only if that changes will the United States be able to move beyond what the historian Steve Fraser calls, in his new book, “the Age of Acquiescence.” But until then, look to cities where innovative policies are being made and vigorous coalitions are growing. Any fresh portside breeze that fills America’s sails will start blowing from there.


Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.