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Progressive Mayors and Urban Social Movements

The challenges of implementing progressive urban agendas are both structural and political in nature. This series explores these long-standing tensions within the contemporary contexts of growing metropolitan inequality, increasingly fractured political and cultural divides, and social movements in response to these changes.

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Creating an urban governing coalition that vigorously pursues public policies that reduce inequalities in income and opportunity, raise the quality of urban life, and provide ample public goods and amenities faces a number of structural challenges. First and possibly foremost is the tension between promoting economic growth and taxing that growth to fund redistributive measures. In order just to provide the revenues necessary for basic municipal functions, much less expanding progressive policies, cities must have robust economies that they can tap for increasing revenues. Since the property tax remains the key city revenue source in the US, cities have a strong incentive to promote growth even if real-estate interests were not a central source of campaign financing. Yet growth often exacerbates inequalities, threatens to displace lower-income groups, and creates new public-service requirements.

On the other side of the equation, pro-growth interests resist reallocating municipal revenues from property-related expenditures to redistribution or equality-producing expenditures, and claim that too much redistribution will cause asset holders to flee (although the evidence supporting that claim is contested; see Schragger 2016). Certainly, some high-tax, high-social-spending jurisdictions, like New York City, have managed to have progressive tax systems and big social-service budgets while still attaining prosperity, but many cities also provide negative examples where capital has abandoned the burdens of the central city. A corollary to this challenge is that larger-scale processes and dynamics influence so much of what happens in local economies that city policymakers have limited influence (at best) on the outcomes. Technological changes or shifts in global supply chains (due to changes in trade or other larger-than-local policies) may make entire regions redundant. The productive advantages of a given city might still be great enough to allow some scope for progressive local action (although, as we discuss below, that is still a tall order), but progressive or leftist policies are still constrained by economic contexts that are often beyond their control.

A second challenge lies in the tension between taxing the city’s own revenue sources so as to maintain independence over spending priorities, on the one hand, and relying on higher levels of government for transfers to support redistributive spending, which come with strings, on the other. Fiscal experts recommend the latter course as a way to enable cities to feel less competitive pressures, but the price tag is that higher levels of government set the rules. European cities receive far more of their revenues from central governments than do US cities and have more generous social benefits, but that makes them more dependent on central-government policy mandates. And even in more federal systems, which structurally enable more policy freedom at the sub-national level than unitary governments, state or provincial governments still shape and constrain what their municipalities are able to do.

Progressive city-governing coalitions also face at least two large political challenges. One is the asymmetric influence exercised by the interests most attuned to what city governments do, which might be labelled “producer interests.” These insiders hold city jobs, get city contracts, receive favorable city regulatory decisions (for example, on zoning and development), or otherwise directly benefit from government. They tend to be cohesive, well organized, highly knowledgeable about the inner workings of the public sector, and keen political participants. Consumer interests—the clients, citizens, and residents who depend on city government in various ways to provide key services and a high quality of urban life—are much more disparate, fragmented, and weakly organized. Producer interests thus often have considerably more political influence than do consumer interests in fashioning governing coalitions and shaping what they decide to do.

Similarly, the social base of conservative elements in city politics also tends to be much more homogeneous and electorally cohesive than the social base of a potential progressive or insurgent new majority. The conservative base often contains white, Christian, home-owning, middle-class, small business–owning, and free market–oriented groups, while the components of the would-be progressive base are quite heterogeneous. In US settings, that may include racial and immigrant minority groups, workers in unorganized sectors of the labor market, university students and recent graduates, young white creative-class types, secular white professionals, and so on. It is not easy for progressive organizers to find the themes and leadership and organizational frameworks that can bring all these elements together. Certainly it can be done, and has been done, and the steady demographic tilting of cities away from the former group towards the latter groups undoubtedly helps, but a fundamental asymmetry persists between the cohesion of the right and the heterogeneity of the left.

Metropolitics launches a series of case studies of how urban efforts to construct progressive governing coalitions and adopt innovative new policies have played out in a variety of settings. With articles ranging from single case studies of progressive cities to thematic essays, the authors in this “special issue” all address the central questions for local progressive or leftist political action: what are the potential and limits of local efforts? How can and are such efforts being pursued? And what can we learn from such efforts?

Our first article, by Richard Schragger, details the institutional arrangements of US cities in the federalist system and how it inhibits the city’s ability to implement a progressive agenda. Subsequently, we will examine specific case studies of progressive agendas in the US and abroad. Jennifer Clark, Emma French, and Supraja Sudharsan will analyze the adoption and implementation of climate change across four southeastern US cities with varying levels of progressive mayors. In Brazil, Caio Teixeira describes the challenges progressive mayors and “leaderless” social movements both face in building coalitions and implementing progressive policy using the example of how São Paulo’s new progressive leadership engages with the country’s Free Fare Movement. In Bristol, in southwestern Engand, Robin Hambleton looks at the lessons that can be learned from the place-based leadership approach implemented by Mayor Marvin Rees. By contrast, H. Jacob Carlson, Marnie Brady, and Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s work on the Housing for All trans-local social movement addresses the shortcomings of the leaderless movement, while identifying new issues that can stymie the implementation of a progressive local agenda. Pierson Nettling’s research contrasts Montreal’s long-standing social-housing agenda and its role in the diversifying city with the growing xenophobic and white-supremacist faction within the city’s progressive parties. In Philadelphia, Mayor James Kenney’s left-leaning progressive agenda is contextualized by Richardson Dilworth’s analysis of Kenney’s conservative childhood, apprenticeship in the city’s Democratic machine, and “progressive turn” into politics during the height of the city’s conservative period of state-sanctioned austerity. Racial politics and progressive politics overlap far more than they diverge, and John Bentacur and Leonor Vanik’s article traces this dynamic over nearly eight decades in Chicago. William Holt addresses how the long civil-rights movement has yielded a distinctive type of progressive politics exemplified by Randall Woodfin—the new mayor of Birmingham, Alabama—and the cadre of young Black mayors that have been recently elected in the Deep South. None of these case studies offer definitive ways to resolve the constraints and tensions facing progressive urban politics, but they all give much food for thought.

Articles in this series:

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  • Schragger, Richard. 2016. City Power. Urban Governance in a Global Age, New York: Oxford University Press.

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To cite this article:

James DeFilippis & John Mollenkopf & Akira Drake Rodriguez, “Progressive Mayors and Urban Social Movements”, Metropolitics, 11 September 2018. URL :

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Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)