The agents arrived in the middle of July. Dressed in camouflage and sporting body armor, they drove around Portland, Oregon, in unmarked vans and apprehended people who were protesting police brutality. They came seemingly at random, late at night, and patrolled far from the federal property that, ostensibly, they had been sent to protect. One protestor said that the agents pulled his beanie over his eyes after shoving him into the back of their van, making it impossible to see where he was being taken.
Conducted at the behest of Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, the arrests of the protestors prompted widespread condemnation from Oregon activists and politicians. “This is the stuff of fascist regimes,” Senator Ron Wyden said. The Portland City Council voted to ban local police forces from cooperating with DHS agents. The mayor, Ted Wheeler, told the DHS secretary that he was very concerned about the “violence federal officers brought to our streets”—and that he wanted them out of the city. At first, the Trump administration refused. But after mounting objections, it eventually gave in. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief. They had made it through what had perhaps been, to date, the scariest attack by Donald Trump against American democracy.
To date. On November 17, after cries of fraud from Trump and state GOP leaders, two Republican officials in Wayne County, Michigan, voted to not certify Detroit’s election results. The maneuver, if successful, would have disenfranchised an overwhelmingly Black city and stolen the state’s Electoral College votes from Biden. Trump and Michigan GOP officials cheered. But, once again, the party’s actions spurred outcry, both from national and local activists. After three hours, the officials gave in.
Though these efforts failed, they reveal something intrinsic about the GOP’s authoritarianism that, relative to its xenophobia, gerrymandering, and attacks on voting rights, hasn’t drawn much scrutiny: During their most autocratic moments, Republicans often target municipalities. During the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump sent the military into Washington, D.C. In addition to Portland, the president sent armed DHS officers to at least a dozen other municipalities. That included larger cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Kansas City, Missouri. It also included smaller ones like Port Huron, Michigan, and GOP-governed Pearland, Texas. The president called for swing states to toss out ballots not just from Detroit but from Philadelphia and Milwaukee as well.
In the public imagination, Republicans have traditionally been the party that promotes local choice and liberty, and the Democratic Party has been the one that regulates from on high. The latter earned this reputation in the 1960s, when it passed landmark legislation overturning state and local laws that mandated racial segregation and suppressed Black people’s voting rights. The party bolstered it in the 1970s, when Democrats in Congress drove the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, both of which imposed restrictions on local zoning and land use in service of protecting the natural world.
Though these and other proud liberal achievements were essential and validated as constitutional, they caused a massive political backlash that enabled the rise of movement conservatism. Ronald Reagan swept into power promising “to put an end to the merry-go-round where our money becomes Washington’s money, to be spent by the states and cities exactly the way the federal bureaucrats tell them to.” Ever since, the GOP has centered part of its brand on reverence for local decision-making. In his campaign platform, George W. Bush emphasized the need to provide “flexibility and control to states and local communities,” especially on education. While rolling back fair housing regulations, the Trump administration proclaimed that it was “protecting American communities from excessive Federal overreach and preserving local decision-making.” Republicans even smear as tyranny policies they had a hand in creating, including key parts of the environmental statutes of the 1970s (signed by then President Richard Nixon).
But, in truth, Republicans have never really cared about “local decision-making” as a principle. Reagan threatened to revoke highway funding from any state that didn’t raise its drinking age to 21. Under Bush, Republicans forced many municipalities to weaken regulations on consumer safety. Trump tried to withhold millions of dollars from localities that wouldn’t cooperate with federal immigration officers. Republicans, like Democrats, are quite happy to restrict communities when it suits their purposes. Yet rather than doing so to protect individual rights like voting, or defend against market externalities like pollution, Republicans tend to do so in service of social conservatism or what they see as economic rights—which in practice means the rights of large corporations.
This has become especially pronounced in the past decade, as Republicans have used their dominance of state governments to take away powers from communities at breakneck pace. Under the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a consortium of corporate lobbyists and right-wing state legislators, Republicans have made life easy for big businesses by making it difficult for localities. The vast majority of states with a Republican legislature and governor now have laws prohibiting, or “preempting,” municipalities from raising their minimum wage. Many, like Louisiana, bar towns from restricting oil drilling and gas fracking. At the behest of telecommunications monopolists, some GOP-run states, such as Mississippi, have started banning localities from setting up their own broadband internet networks. With the encouragement of religious conservatives, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina have killed local ordinances prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination. And last July, with the support of the state’s restaurant association, Republican Governor Brian Kemp blocked multiple cities in Georgia from implementing mask requirements.
Democrats are still happy to impose on cities and towns. In a 2017 study, the political scientists Mallory SoRelle and Alexis Walker found that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to pass preemption statutes at the federal level (though more recent research shows that state preemption statutes are much more likely to pass when Republicans have unified control of government than when Democrats do). But when Democrats preempt, they generally do so in a very different way. According to SoRelle and Walker, Democrats tend to restrict local authority by setting regulatory floors. Republicans do so by creating regulatory ceilings. The former is inherently less restrictive than the latter. For example, the Card Act of 2009, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, created baseline federal consumer protections for credit cards but left state and local governments free to go further. When the GOP caps minimum wages, it gives localities an extremely narrow band—or sometimes no band—in which to operate.
Indeed, if you look back far enough, it becomes clear that liberals have a long history of actively empowering municipalities. In the Progressive Era, Democrats used federal power to make upgrades for local governments, changes that are now largely forgotten but at the time were much appreciated. They established, for example, a federal Office of Markets in 1913 that offered direct assistance to struggling municipally run food bazaars, where most people shopped at the time. That tradition carried over into the New Deal era. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the ur-Democrat, may be best remembered for the Social Security Act, but his reforms consciously helped communities as distinct entities. To bring electricity to rural America, he created the Rural Electrification Administration, which offered loans to small towns that were cut off or price gouged by large electrical utilities. He and his successor, Harry Truman, also signed multiple antitrust laws, like the Celler-Kefauver Act, that protected local economies from being dominated by retailers in distant cities.
But it’s been decades since progressives have tapped this strategy of supporting localities. While they have reliably championed federal aid to local governments in times of emergency, Democrats have mostly focused their energies on nationwide projects directed and run from Washington, such as expanding health insurance. That’s true of Joe Biden’s policy vision, too, such as his plan for massive investments in green energy. These are important endeavors, worth working hard for—even if they will be extremely difficult to achieve without solid Democratic control of Congress.
Yet at a time when Republicans are openly trying to suppress the freedom of local communities to govern themselves, Biden and his party have an obligation to fight back. That won’t be easy without strong majorities in Congress. But by rediscovering the older progressive tradition of using the federal government to help cities and towns, Biden will find that there is quite a bit he can do by executive action.
Democrats will also discover that this strategy is not only good policy but also good politics. Poll after poll shows that local governments are far more trusted than the federal government. In 2020, for example, Gallup found that 71 percent of Americans—including 69 percent of Republicans—have at least a “fair amount” of trust in local governments, compared to 43 percent in the federal executive branch and 33 percent in Congress. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 69 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats have favorable opinions of their local governments, far above the 44 percent and 28 percent, respectively, who view the federal government positively. That dim view of Washington has long been a liability for Democrats, who must find ways to improve the public’s trust in our national government. Using federal power to help local communities could achieve that—and it might turn a liability into an advantage.
Public opinion might not stop GOP senators from voting down a Democratic-sponsored bill that, for example, gives towns the freedom to set up their own broadband networks rather than rely on the poor service of telecom monopolies. But when Republicans do so they will pay a reputational price, while burnishing the image of Democrats as the party of local freedom. Democrats will make even greater gains when, through Biden’s executive power, they fund public broadband providers anyway.
Blue cities in red states likely stand to gain the most from such policies, given that they have been the most aggressively manhandled by conservative legislators. But there are plenty of small towns in red America that would benefit as well, and their citizens would be surprised to see Democrats fighting on their side. The great debate in electoral politics on the left has long been whether to prioritize policies that energize the base or ones that have a chance of pulling in swing voters. Championing local empowerment allows Democrats to do both.
Perhaps the one area in which even hardened Washington insiders say there is room for the two parties to collaborate is infrastructure. Despite his talk about the need for new infrastructure spending, Trump had neither the desire nor the skills to pull off any kind of legislative compromise. But we can be sure that Biden will try.
His first address to a joint session of Congress would be the perfect time for Biden to announce that, as president, he is going to defend the interests of local communities. Transportation policy is a great opening foray. Under present law, roughly 70 percent of all federal transportation dollars are automatically routed through states. Biden should propose letting municipalities and regional government bodies, like those that build and manage mass transit systems, apply directly for almost all federal transportation funding. This would place local and regional entities on an equal footing with state transportation departments. That’s essential, because in many states, departments of transportation are effectively run by rural lawmakers who are exclusively interested in funding highways.
One small but telling example is how dollars from the federal government’s Transportation Alternatives Program get spent. Each year, the program sends $850 million to states for bike lanes, sidewalks, and other pedestrian improvement projects. It’s exactly the kind of funding that many municipalities, including downtowns in otherwise rural places, desperately want and need. But loopholes inserted by congressional Republicans allow governors to easily divert the money elsewhere. Between 2012 and 2017, roughly $635 million in TAP funding was moved out of the program, away from biking and pedestrian projects, and toward roadway upgrades. Tens of millions more was simply not spent, either returned to the federal government or disappearing from existence. (The GOP leads the vast majority of states where both the diversion and the wasting have taken place.) Letting localities apply to the federal government directly, rather than relying on states to do the right thing, would cut back on the leakage.
The obvious vehicle for putting localities and states on an equal footing is the next federal transportation bill, which Congress must craft and pass early in Biden’s term. Republicans will almost certainly refuse. Altering the funding rules could take years of negotiations, even with a heavily Democratic Congress. But in trying to fix this system, Biden would have at least signaled to cities and towns across the country whose side he is on.
He also has ways to act alone. Shortly before he left office, Obama signed legislation that expanded two investment programs in the federal Department of Transportation: TIFIA (named for its enabling legislation, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act); and the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, or RRIF. Together, the programs have billions of dollars to finance everything from bike lanes and sidewalks to light rail and train stations using long-term, low-interest loans. Localities can apply for funding without asking their states.
Trump ignored both programs entirely. Biden shouldn’t. Instead, he should direct his Department of Transportation to use them liberally, to loudly invite localities from across the country to apply, and to personally hand over the resources to local officials in Rose Garden ceremonies.
Biden could also make direct spending more local friendly. Right now, the Department of Transportation’s roadway advice—followed by many state transportation departments—is largely tailored to making traffic flow as quickly as possible, irrespective of where the traffic is. Federal guidance should instead explicitly tell state departments to ask communities what kinds of roads they want. Even very rural places prefer slower roads in their downtowns. The reasoning experts offer makes sense: In addition to being safer for pedestrians, slower traffic is more likely to lead people to stop, walk around, and patronize businesses.
These changes would help more American towns—and, by extension, the people who live in them—develop the kind of infrastructure they want and need. And if the tweaks came over strong Republican opposition, it would signal to towns both large and small that it is liberals who care about helping communities.
Environment and Energy
Biden made climate change a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. His $2 trillion plan, the most ambitious climate initiative ever released by a major-party presidential nominee, managed to win praise from both establishment environmentalists and younger, more progressive activists. Unfortunately, it could run into a brick wall—the Senate. But that shouldn’t deter him. If Democrats in Congress cannot break a filibuster or pass major climate legislation through reconciliation, the president-elect should tell Mitch McConnell (and maybe Joe Manchin) that he will do what his predecessor did when Congress wouldn’t fund the border wall: declare a national emergency.
The GOP won’t be moved for a variety of reasons. But if one is that they believe Biden is bluffing, the president-elect should prove them wrong. As Biden noted in his campaign platform, climate change is “an existential threat” where “the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale.” He therefore shouldn’t hesitate to act in a sweeping and dramatic fashion. Declaring an emergency under the National Emergencies Act would free Biden to redirect some military spending to renewable energy projects, like new solar power installations. That might seem like a gross misuse of Department of Defense spending, but the Pentagon and its senior officials have repeatedly referred to climate change as a serious national security threat. In 2018, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote that climate change causes “great devastation requiring humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, which the U.S. military certainly conducts routinely.” It’s entirely reasonable for Biden to use military money to address this unfolding crisis. The Pentagon already does.
But, critically, Biden could use the emergency powers to help local communities. Since 1991, more than 600 municipal governments have developed plans to control greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010 and 2011, more than 70 regional commissions created sustainability plans. Many of these initiatives were spurred by funding in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus package. Unfortunately, after taking control of Congress in 2011, the GOP refused to fund these local plans any further, rendering many of them nothing more than blueprints. But by using national emergency powers, Biden could provide loan guarantees to communities so they can complete, or at least further, their green initiatives. He could even use some of the military spending to fund these projects outright. That would be in stark contrast to Trump’s emergency declaration, which used military spending to build new fencing in border communities that vocally opposed it.
If Biden doesn’t want to declare a national emergency on his own, he could still use executive actions in ways that would help fight against climate change and liberate municipalities. This isn’t just for liberals. Even some conservative cities, like Denton, Texas, have tried to limit or ban fossil fuel extraction within their boundaries. Unfortunately, in the case of Denton, the GOP-controlled Texas legislature responded by prohibiting towns from regulating oil or fracking. Republicans in Oklahoma and North Carolina followed suit. The Biden administration might be able to stop these states, even without Congress’s help. Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has not just the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, but also a legal obligation to do so. The Obama administration mandated that each state reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to a certain target. Biden should consider bringing back state reduction targets. At a minimum, he should mandate that states let localities cut emissions on their own by invoking the federal government’s power to regulate carbon levels. (He should also allow California to again set its own air quality and gas mileage standards, a freedom Trump revoked.) Conservative judges might stop him. Yet the very act would signal that if you want your town to be more eco-friendly, it isn’t Democrats who object.
Local climate empowerment goes beyond just fighting against states. Biden could use the Rural Utilities Service to help rural electric cooperatives, which supply power to just over 10 percent of America’s population, switch away from coal. Right now, these cooperatives are highly dependent on aging fossil fuel power plants, many of which are far more expensive and less effective than greener sources of energy. Through executive action alone, Biden could instruct the Rural Utilities Service to purchase the defunct or unprofitable dirty power plants of any co-op that agreed to switch to solar or wind. Given how cheap the latter two energy sources are becoming, it would be an extremely generous offer, one that cleans the environment simply by giving communities a choice.
Finally, the president-elect should make good on one of his campaign promises: helping regions develop climate resilience plans “in partnership with local universities and national labs, for local access to the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.” This assistance will be especially valuable for the many cities and towns that don’t have climate plans not because they don’t want them, but because preparing for a warming world requires technical, environmental expertise that most cities simply cannot afford. The EPA can offer such expertise, alone and in partnership with other institutions. Biden should make sure they do.
High-speed internet is an essential service. Especially at a time when many jobs are, by epidemiological necessity, done online, it’s impossible for communities without broadband to attract various types of employers or workers. When school is virtual, kids in places without high-speed internet are seriously disadvantaged. Even before the pandemic, median household incomes, employment rates, and the number of firms all grew significantly faster in counties with broadband than in counties without it.
Unfortunately, there are many such counties. According to a recent report by the broadband consumer company Broadband Now, as many as 42 million Americans lack broadband access. The lack of access is particularly pervasive in rural areas, but it’s common in poorer urban neighborhoods as well. There are also tens of millions of people who could theoretically purchase broadband internet but cannot afford it.
This patchwork system is the product of major telecom companies, such as Comcast or Cox. These corporations have decided that providing broadband access to certain parts of America is not sufficiently profitable. To compensate, some communities have formed broadband cooperatives or companies of their own. The benefits have been enormous. When Chattanooga, Tennessee, set up its own broadband provider in 2007, it kickstarted a surge of entrepreneurism that ultimately created more than 500 businesses. A study from the University of Tennessee found that between 2011 and 2015, Chattanooga’s city-owned broadband provider generated $1 billion for the local economy.
But at least 22 states, a full half of which are under unified GOP control, have passed laws pushed by wealthy telecom companies that ban or severely limit municipal broadband. That includes Tennessee, where telecom monopolists were so spooked by Chattanooga’s success that they got the state legislature to make it impossible for other places to replicate what the city did.
As it happens, the Federal Communications Commission is empowered by statute to facilitate communications by “removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” If Biden obtains a majority on the FCC—it currently has a 2–2 split—the agency should go to court to challenge states’ preemption power in this area. Conservative judges might overrule the agency’s effort, as they did the one time FCC lawyers attempted this during the Obama administration. But there’s no reason the agency can’t try again if it has the opportunity. Just like with the EPA order, the very act, if cheered on by Biden, would signal to communities across America—and especially in rural areas—that his administration is on their side. (Legislation clarifying the FCC’s power might nonetheless be the ultimate answer.)
Meanwhile, if Democrats do get a majority on the FCC, there’s an easy, clear step the agency should take to support local broadband projects. Right now, the commission spends tens of billions of dollars annually to prop up major telecom companies, some of it for the express purpose of expanding broadband. It has not worked, and it’s time to try a different approach. Without any action from Congress, the commission could redirect most, if not all, of these billions to municipal and co-op projects. Doing so would allow these entities to bring high-speed internet to millions more Americans.
Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by loudly railing against immigration. He gave the issue far less emphasis during his 2020 race. Exactly why is anyone’s guess, but it may be because his nativist rhetoric and policies caused a huge backlash, including among GOP voters. According to Gallup, more than 70 percent of Americans now believe that immigration is “a good thing,” the highest level in at least 20 years. The shift is especially dramatic when it comes to refugees, thanks in large part to Republicans changing their minds. According to Pew, support for letting in refugees climbed among GOP voters from 40 percent in 2016 to an astonishing 58 percent in 2019.
The United States is still very much struggling with xenophobia. The public’s general attitude toward immigration may be highly positive, and support for letting in refugees may be quite high. But polling shows that support for increasing immigration writ large is at best a plurality—neck and neck with support for decreasing immigration and keeping levels the same. So as Biden overturns Trump’s policies and makes America more welcoming, as he’s promised to do, he will have to work hard to avoid having public opinion shift back.
There’s evidence that the president-elect understands this. His 2020 campaign platform called for an entirely new visa category allowing cities and counties “to petition for higher levels of immigrants to support their growth.” It’s a shrewd idea. In a 2016 quantitative study published in Political Psychology, several academics found that Americans’ “hostility toward immigration decreases” when citizens “feel that they, and/or their country, are more in control” of the process. Adding a strong local element to our immigration system could significantly bolster Americans’ sense of control over migration into the country and, with it, their desire to take in more people.
Biden will need the support of Congress to create the new visa program. It’s a good bet that Republicans won’t provide it and will filibuster attempts to create it. But he should still push for the category because the politics are great. In fact, he should double down on the idea and apply it to an area in which presidents have near unilateral authority: determining how many refugees the U.S. accepts each year. Biden has already pledged to raise the refugee cap to 125,000—the highest level since 1993. But he should publicly commit to increasing refugee numbers even higher during his term if local governments want a greater influx. This would not be a radical change; traditionally, the federal government consults with state officials, local officials, and nonprofit resettlement agencies to determine each year’s refugee ceiling. But Biden should make sure local citizens are aware of and engaged in the decision by adding clearer public notifications to the process.
This would be in the proud liberal tradition of establishing floors, not ceilings. Local communities wouldn’t be able to say no to all refugees, but they could decide for themselves whether to welcome additional numbers. The more places that do, the higher the overall number of refugees the federal government would let in. In all likelihood, it would be a lot, because local officials and business leaders are well aware that refugees start businesses, take hard-to-fill jobs (such as in meat-packing plants), and revitalize depopulated towns and neighborhoods. “There are thousands of communities around the United States that are ready to say, ‘Please, send us refugees,’ ” says Mark Storella, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration from 2016 to 2018.
If you doubt him, consider what happened after Trump issued an executive order in 2019 giving governors the ability to block refugees from coming into their states. Only one governor, Greg Abbott of Texas, chose to exercise that power. And when he did, mayors across the Lone Star State, including conservatives such as Fort Worth’s Betsy Price, fought back. (A federal judge eventually issued an injunction against Trump’s executive order because of the administration’s typically sloppy legal craftsmanship.)
The policies above are just a few examples of how bolstering local power could help Biden politically. But there are plenty of other opportunities. The president-elect, for instance, should propose a federal jobs program for the millions of Americans who are unemployed because of the pandemic. But rather than have Washington heavily involved in managing the program, Biden should call for a radically decentralized approach in which the federal government issues qualified applicants vouchers they could use to get jobs at nonprofits chosen by state and local governments.
Vigorously enforcing anti-monopoly statutes, as Barry Lynn argues in “How Biden Can Transform America” (page 20), would also help distribute power in ways that revive communities. By breaking up Google and Facebook’s near-total control of digital advertising, for instance, Biden could give local newspapers back the revenue that once sustained them—and that they desperately need.
In advocating for local empowerment, Biden would be pushing on an open political door. There is growing grassroots energy and anger, particularly in blue cities within red states, about the ways conservatives have blocked off progressive policies. The Partnership for Working Families, for instance, was founded as a network of local activist groups fighting to advance progressive causes in their communities—from climate change to housing rights. The group’s chapters have become increasingly focused on the challenges preemption laws present. Protests by a variety of organizations over North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill,” which originated as a way to preempt Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance, eventually forced the state to repeal part of its law.
There is also some support for devolving power to local governments among center-right intellectuals. The New York Times columnist David Brooks and the National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, for example, have expressed deep concern for the civic health of local communities. These worries are well founded. Declining social capital has been relentlessly documented for years by social scientists revered by liberals, such as Robert Putnam. Brooks and Levin have both argued that giving more power to cities and towns might be a cure. “By putting more meaningful authority and power nearer to [the] level of the community,” Levin recently wrote, the U.S. stands “a better chance of drawing more citizens into the public arena, and so helping to mitigate the isolation that afflicts so many Americans.” His words suggest that in advancing an agenda of local empowerment, Democrats might find conservative allies.
As an institution, the Republican Party will not be one of them. Its authoritarian impulses lead it to attack municipalities whenever they deviate from its ideology or undermine its power. The GOP’s desire to constrain more urban areas of the country may even be explicitly designed to hurt political opponents. “Trump knows, like most Republicans, that the people who live in walkable, urban, dense places don’t vote for people like them,” says Chris Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University and the head of the school’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Development. “They would love to keep financing roads and keep moving people further and further out, because exurban households and rural households tend to vote Republican.”
It will be difficult for Democrats to entirely stop the GOP from restricting cities and towns without firm control of Congress. It will help if they win power in more states. But now that Joe Biden is president, the party is not powerless. By championing community governance, they can fight back.