Progressives have not been so poorly positioned to guide public policy at the federal and state levels in decades. Both the White House and the Congress are controlled by conservative Republicans who are bent on rolling back the progress that was made during the twentieth century. Republican governors and legislatures, while not always as conservative as their Washington counterparts, dominate policy making at the state level. Even Democratic governors, they tend to be colorless managers rather than innovative thinkers or bold advocates.
But there is one level of government where progressives continue to be a powerful, and often definitive, force: The cities. Local officials — mostly Democrats and Greens, but even a few Republicans — are maintaining the faith that government should solve problems, rather than create them. This week, some of the most creative thinkers and doers from around the country will be gathering in Wisconsin to share ideas and, hopefully, to begin developing a coalition of “New Cities” that will suggest progressive alternatives to the reactionary policies being pushed at the federal and state levels of government.
It is notable that, at the same time that progressive forces have suffered electoral setbacks at the state and federal levels, they have experienced significant success at the local level. Cities such as Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Boulder, Madison, Missoula and San Francisco have long histories of left-leaning governance. But in recent years progressives — particularly environmental activists — have been winning mayoralties in unexpected locations such as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, the largest cities in two of the most conservative states in the country. In fact, one of the hottest political trends in the country is the takeover of local governments by progressives in western states.
Even where Republicans are in charge, they have governed differently than their compatriots at the federal and state levels. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have been elected as a Republican, and he is certainly not a progressive, but his positions on a host of social and tax issues place him well to the left of many national Democrats.
The tendency of voters to elect progressives at the local level is not entirely surprising. Urban residents tend to be a lot more liberal than suburbanites, as evidenced by the fact that President Bush and other Republican contenders fared extremely poorly in the nation’s cities while they were prevailing nationwide last November. And, with the federal and state governments cutting services at just about every turn, voters recognize that local government is the last line of defense for social services and the first line of offense in the struggle to expand basic freedoms.