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.

From San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to help gays and lesbians marry to Madison, Wisconsin’s innovative living wage ordinance, cities are taking the lead. They are not limiting themselves to local debates. More than 140 communities, including Madison, endorsed “Cities for Peace” resolutions opposing the rush to war with Iraq in 2003, and more than 350 communities have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act’s assaults on civil liberties. Many of the cities that are protesting the Patriot Act have put their dissent into action with initiatives to prevent federal investigators from spying on what citizens are reading.

Across the country, municipal activists are examining new steps that can be taken to put power in the hands of the people rather than multinational corporations. Cities are taking steps to expand access to the internet and beat down cable rates. They are developing “buy local” initiatives that help farmers and small businesses thrive. They are lobbying against free-trade pacts that shutter factories and threaten environmental protection laws, and they are expanding the boundaries of democracy with electoral reforms such as Instant Runoff Voting.

Unfortunately, national groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are behind the curve. Many of them are so closely tied to the same corporations that warp policy- making at the federal and state levels that they discourage the sort of progressive innovation that has made the nation’s cities into the laboratories of democracy that states such as Wisconsin and Oregon were in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.

Concerned about the failure of the US Conference of Mayors to embrace and encourage progressive policy making, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz began working with the University of Wisconsin’s Center on Wisconsin Strategies and other groups to develop a new vehicle to get progressive mayors talking with one another and working together.

Beginning Thursday, roughly a dozen mayors from around the country — including top officials from Anchorage, Alaska; Burlington, Vermont; and Salt Lake City — will huddle with some of the nation’s top urban policy thinkers at Wisconsin’s Wingspread Conference Center. The three-day gathering represents an important stride for urban leaders. Cities are already in the forefront of progressive policy making. But organized cities could be the alternative to the drift to the right at the state and national levels.

It’s a new century. Isn’t it about time for a new Progressive Era with cities as the laboratories of democracy?


John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) will be published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.”