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The United States now has its most metropolitan president in recent memory: a Queens-bred, skyscraper-building, apartment-dwelling Manhattanite. Yet it was rural America that carried Donald Trump to victory; the president got trounced in cities. Republican reliance on suburbs and the countryside isn’t new, of course, but in the presidential election, the gulf between urban and nonurban voters was wider than it had been in nearly a century. Hillary Clinton won 88 of the country’s 100 biggest counties, but still went down to defeat.
American cities seem to be cleaving from the rest of the country, and the temptation for liberals is to try to embrace that trend. With Republicans controlling the presidency, both houses of Congress, and most statehouses, Democrats are turning to local ordinances as their best hope on issues ranging from gun control to the minimum wage to transgender rights. Even before Inauguration Day, big-city mayors laid plans to nudge the new administration leftward, especially on immigration—and, should that fail, to join together in resisting its policies.
But if liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city. Recent events in red states where cities are pockets of liberalism are instructive, and cautionary. Over the past few years, city governments and state legislatures have fought each other in a series of battles involving preemption, the principle that state law trumps local regulation, just as federal law supersedes state law. It hasn’t gone well for the city dwellers.
Close observers of these clashes expect them to proliferate in the years to come, with similar results. “We are about to see a shit storm of state and federal preemption orders, of a magnitude greater than anything in history,” says Mark Pertschuk of Grassroots Change, which tracks such laws through an initiative called Preemption Watch. By the group’s count, at least 36 states introduced laws preempting cities in 2016.