Who Lost Cities? Everybody did.

Kevin Williamson writes fairly regularly for the National Review, and unlike other columnnists over there, his pieces usually have actual reporting in them, steered towards his audience, sure, but actual reporting, unlike the general conservative celebrity writers who can just puff on about whatever they want. Here, however, I think Williamson is just wrong. He asks Who Lost the Cities? His major argument is that Democrats have failed cities. US cities are mess because Democrats run them. Mostly, he’s reacting to Jesse Jackson’s claims that social injustice in American regions has contributed to the conditions in Ferguson.

I made a comment, which prompted Williams to backpeddle a bit, and then made some conservatives get all snarky, but…I have enough friends. My problem is simply, that Ferguson is not really much of an example of urban governance, either way, and neither is the careless way Williamson conflates riots with governance failures–it’s equally as irresponsible as Jesse Jackson’s. We have multiple periods of urban riots going back to the early stages of migration, including nativist movements and anti-union riots, pro-labor riots…and a bunch more. The mayor of Ferguson is currently a Republican. I don’t think that proves much of anything, and it’s certainly not a better explanation than the connection between the police and white supremacy. That means it doesn’t matter who sits in the mayor’s office, Republicans or Democrats, if everybody is neglecting urban institutions.

It’s not clear to me that as a general phenomenon (not in Ferguson’s case) 1) whether the blow-up of rioting results from of specific types of bad governance, or a flashpoint that occurs after a long legacy of anger, that then correlate with particular urban political structures, let alone particular administrations, and 2) When we are talking about bad government across cities in the US, we are actually talking about vastly different forms and structures even in Williamson’s original list: Los Angeles, for example, doesn’t belong in the same grouping as Philly or Detroit or Chicago; you could elect Republican mayors in Los Angeles for the next 100 years and all they would do is cut ribbons in front of bike lanes….because that’s pretty much all they got. There’s no mayor strutting around LA bragging about how he reformed the LAPD because he’d be greeted with a horselaugh. It’s a weak mayor set up. All the juice is in the County Supervisors. I’m actually not entirely unsympathetic to Williamson’s overall point: the idea that cities are badly governed, or that Jesse Jackson is a self-interested press seeker, or that the idea of governing a city is chimerical…I just don’t think the attempts to hook it into riots hold much water, and it represents a rather cheesy way to agenda-set around a hot-news item, Ferguson.

Finally, the attempt that Williams makes between cities and social policy also strikes me as not particularly believable. Education policy, I can’t speak to, but it’s only been comparatively recently in very large cities where any real attempts have been made to shore up social insurance programs–Blasio, for example, is one of a very small truly center-left politicos running a city. It remains to be seen how Garcetti turns out. Despite being obviously bright and well-intentioned, he’ll run up against my comment about bike lanes and LA above. This is a weak mayor town, as are a lot of cities in the western US; however, he’s trying to do some ambitious things around homeless veterans, for example. We’ll see.

One thought on “Who Lost Cities? Everybody did.

  1. Thanks for the extended remarks and the kind words. I’d just reiterate my point that the question isn’t about the partisan affiliation of the mayor, but about the sorts of policies that are pursued; LA has deeper problems than what’s coming out of the mayor’s office, e.g. the more or less complete failure of its schools and its problematic economic policies, some of which is the result of local policy, some of which is the result of state policy, etc. The long-term directional drift of institutions tells the story.

    It’s important to disentangle the policy from who is putting the policy forward, e.g., Canada’s fiscal consolidation was a good policy, and a policy that conservatives could and should have supported (and mostly did), even though it was implemented by a center-left government. When the Democratic mayor of San Jose tried to push state legislators in the right direction on fiscal policy, I was in his corner — and the public-sector unions were against him. (Guess who’s winning?)

    If you look at the specifics of governance and policy in places like Detroit and Cleveland, you’ll see a more or less intact progressive platform broadly enacted.

    Best wishes.

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