Other Voices

There’s a political war between cities and states across the U.S.

Labor groups rally for an increase in minimum wage in Los Angeles County, outside the county hall in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 21, 2015.
Labor groups rally for an increase in minimum wage in Los Angeles County, outside the county hall in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. TNS

Alabama was a battleground late last month for fundamentally opposed political forces.

Not the state’s presidential primaries, but the fight between Birmingham, whose City Council passed an ordinance establishing a minimum wage of $10.10, and the state Legislature, which responded by enacting a law forbidding cities from setting any wage standards at all.

This kind of struggle between cities and states is becoming routine in our politically and geographically polarized times.

Arizona passed draconian anti-immigrant laws while Phoenix directed its police not to hand over immigrant detainees to the feds for deportation.

Cities in Texas passed prohibitions on the use of plastic bags, which the Legislature endeavored to repeal.

Even in liberal California, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities have raised their minimum wage to $15, a bill increasing the state minimum to $13 has languished in the Legislature.

Never in America’s history have the local, state and national levels of government had such distinct political profiles.

Today, 27 of the nation’s 30 largest cities have Democratic mayors. Even cities in rock-solid Republican states have Democratic mayors.

In deep red Texas, Democrats govern Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso.

States, meanwhile, have seldom been more Republican. The GOP controls the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in 23 states, while Democrats can boast the same in just seven.

At the federal level, effective one-party control of the government has become a near-impossibility.

Since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, no party has simultaneously held the White House and the House of Representatives while enjoying a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate (save in the first few months of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the Democrats’ 60th vote was that of the mortally ill and understandably absent Edward M. Kennedy).

The rightward drift of states is chiefly a consequence of low voter participation by minorities and the young in mid-term elections, and the success of a well-funded conservative movement at winning control of the states.

The leftward movement of cities, in contrast, is the result of an epochal influx of minorities and liberal millennials.

From 1980 to 2010, the white share of the population of Los Angeles dropped from 48 percent to 29 percent; of New York, from 53 percent to 37 percent; of Dallas, from 57 percent to 29 percent; of Columbus, from 76 percent to 59 percent.

Twenty-five years ago, six of America’s dozen largest cities still had Republican mayors; today, Republicans preside in just one.

Not surprisingly, it’s only at the city level that many of Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s signature proposals — raising the minimum wage, mandating paid sick days, requiring utilities to shift to cleaner power sources — have been enacted.

Increasingly, however, it’s only in states where Republicans don’t rule that this kind of municipal power exists.

This tripartite division not just of government but also of fundamental ideological orientation is America’s new political reality, and it’s likely to be with us for some time.

It’s hard to imagine what could reverse the leftward movement of cities, and unless Democrats can devise ways to get more of their supporters to the polls in midterm elections, Republicans will continue to dominate the states.

The war between cities and states may be only just beginning.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect.