In their penultimate pre-election issue, the editors of The New Yorker wrote confidently: “On November 8, barring some astonishment, the people of the United States will, after two hundred and forty years, send a woman to the White House.” Yet two months later, Donald Trump is moving into the White House, while the American majority is left trembling in astonishment—an enervating astonishment that has, for the most part, generated only noisily ineffectual protest and self-lacerating despair.
Yet we do have a constructive political alternative to astonishment: We have cities. The American political map is not blue states versus red states, two multicultural liberal coasts flanking a homogenized heartland of rural/suburban conservatism. Rather, it’s a nationwide canvas of rural and exurban red, accented evenly right across the continent with splotches of blue. These blue clusters are blue cities, where people live because they believe in public goods, appreciate diversity, support creativity, and define their relationship to the interdependent planet in terms of cooperation rather than rivalry, networking rather than independence. They face forward, moving with history’s winds at their backs. They recognize that globalization cannot be rolled back but must be democratized. They look to bridges, not walls, as instruments of accommodation.
It is these cities and their denizens that offer us a progressive path forward, notwithstanding Trump or the rising reactionary European nationalists at war with the European Union. We need to focus less on who is in the White House and more on who is in City Hall. Urban district councils can count for more than the Senate. Congress may be bent on undermining democracy, but the metropolis is where the antidote—checks on abusive central-government power—can be found.
There is a potent vertical separation of powers implicit in the Ninth and 10th Amendments to the Constitution, and it can serve as both a check on the abuse of executive authority in the White House and a prompt to actions that can preserve and even advance the progressive agenda in dark times. Particularly when they act in concert, cities—home to nearly 63 percent of the US population—can secure and promote sustainability, immigrant rights, tolerance for diversity, and a struggle against terrorism that doesn’t become a war on Islam. More immediately, cities can shield their communities against assaults on the rights and civil liberties of immigrants, Muslims, minorities, women, and other people under threat from a xenophobic central government and nationalist politicians.
The vertical separation of powers isn’t just a theory; it’s a rationale for the resistance and action by cities already well under way. Jacques Derrida asked some 20 years ago, “Could the city, equipped with new rights and a greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility, previously undreamt of by international law?” The answer, clearly, is yes. And mayors, sensing the “new rights,” know it.