For at least a decade now, the far right has exploited its near-total domination of state government to clamp down on the mere possibility that progressive change could take root in the small specks of blue—the defiant, often Democratic cities—that hover in their midst. From Arkansas and Texas to Alabama and Missouri, reactionary legislatures and governors have used their power to roll back promising local legislation: minimum-wage ordinances, sanctuary-city laws, LGBTQ anti-discrimination regulations, and other achievements meant to better the lives of immigrants, people of color, the working class, and the queer community, among others.
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, for instance, signed an extraordinarily punitive bill in May that effectively bans sanctuary cities in the state and prohibits local elected officials from restricting police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. That same month, Missouri passed a law that voided St. Louis’s new $10-an-hour minimum wage, sending it back down to $7.70 and barring other cities from raising wages above that rock-bottom number. In 2016, in Alabama, the state government took a similar action, reversing a Birmingham ordinance that would have lifted the minimum wage to $10.10 in 2017. Then, of course, there’s the legislative monstrosity out of North Carolina, HB2, a 2016 law that eradicated the ability of cities there to pass LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances, wage regulations, and other progressive measures.
Together these maneuvers and others like them mark a startling rise in the use of preemption laws—laws that state authorities employ to usurp or erase the power of cities and other local communities. The Economic Policy Institute, in an August publication, found that 15 states have passed more than two dozen laws preempting local labor standards in the last year and a half alone. And the National League of Cities recently reported that 25 states currently limit or prohibit local regulation of minimum-wage standards; 19 states stymie local input on paid-leave policies; 17 states prevent or discourage cities from creating municipal broadband; and three have sought to quash local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances. Despite claims to the contrary, the Republicans who dominate state government in this country care little for local self-determination.
But civil society is getting wise to the perils of preemption—and pushing back. From Texas to Alabama to Missouri and beyond, coalitions of unions, churches, community groups, local governments, and legal organizations have sought to resist the growth of preemption laws by fighting in the state legislatures, marching in the streets, and arguing in the courts. Some of their struggles are ongoing; others have succeeded outright. All of them offer lessons about how to undermine right-wing control of the levers of power.