Limits of Municipalism in the Age of Trump

As a result of the November 8 election, the Republican Party has amassed more power in the federal government than at any time since the 1920s. It controls the entire U.S. executive branch, and in the Senate and House, Democrats have only minority roles. At the level of the states, 68 of the 99 legislative chambers and 34 of the 50 governorships are in the hands of Republicans. That includes 25 Republican trifectas, compared to only 6 Democratic ones.

But large cities, even in otherwise red states, skewed Democratic. They tend to be more progressive than their rural counterparts, as the phenomenon of “blue islands in a sea of red” is now well known. Clinton won 31 of the country’s 35 largest cities. It’s no small consideration, since cities are powerful in many respects. They are populous: a majority of Americans live in cities. About 80 percent of Americans live in census-designated urban areas, and one-third live in or around the ten largest U.S. cities. Cities have enormous economic power—counties representing a whopping two-thirds of the nation’s economy went for Clinton. As media centers, cities have great cultural power as well.

Cities are clearly going to be strongholds for the opposition to the Republican initiatives in the Trump administration. No sooner had the election results been announced than some prominent municipal officials threw down a gauntlet. New York mayor Bill De Blasio assured citizens that “we’re not going to take anything lying down” and that “we have a lot of tools at our disposal; we’re going to use them” to resist the Republican agenda. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed an eloquent resolution that affirmed the city’s commitment to furthering racial, gender, and LGBTQ rights, and to advancing economic justice, regardless of Trump’s threats: “We will not be bullied by threats to revoke our federal funding, nor will we sacrifice our values or members of our community for your dollar.”

And against Trump’s promise to deport undocumented immigrants from the United States, San Francisco reaffirmed its commitment to being a sanctuary city. It is one of some thirty-nine cities and 364 counties across the United States had already said they are sanctuary cities– that is, should federal immigration authorities request that they detain undocumented immigrants, they would limit the cooperation of local law enforcement. Officials in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have issued statements ranging from nonbinding resolutions to enforceable municipal ordinances. Trump has threatened to block federal funding to cities that follow through on this commitment.

Many organizations and networks are already in place ready to constitute a popular opposition to Trump’s policies and new ones are being formed very day, in the name of civil rights and gender equity and inclusiveness. Cities have long been out in front in the fight against climate change. Large cities including New York, Chicago, Atlanta have set emissions reduction goals of 80 percent or higher by 2050. And cities are home to growing experiments in a democratic economy. Gar Alperovitz of the impressive Next System Project points out that in cities across the country activists have been developing “local socialist” institutions like cooperative businesses owend by communities, worker-owned cooperatives, community-based land trusts, credit unions, publicly own broadband companies and networks, and electric utilities for conversion to sustainable energy. City governments in New York and Madison, WI, for example, are aiding the creation of worker cooperatives, while Cleveland, through a nonprofit corporation committed to broader community development, has created the the Evergreen Cooperatives group of worker-owned enterprises.


In the process of struggle against Trump and affirming an inclusive and hopeful America, the municipal democracy itself could be transformed. Some years ago the social theorist Murray Bookchin wrote that cities are potential place for a new public sphere grounded in institutions of face-to-face democracy—citizens’ assemblies. Bookchin offered a specific program, libertarian municipalism, for forming citizen’s assemblies in towns and city wards, confederating them into a dual power that could be pitted against the nation state. It was a revolutionary program urging a revolutionary confrontation against he nation-state and capitalism.

Since his death in 2006, Bookchin’s ideas about municipalism have become increasingly popular: even leftists who don’t necessarily share his kind of revolutionary anticapitalism are sympathetic to local democracy and recommended democratizing and radicalizing cities as a force against Trump. The Working Families Party, for one, considers cities to be “spaces in which we can talk about reclaiming popular sovereignty for a demos other than the nation.” Municipalities are “uniquely able to generate new, citizen-led and participatory models of politics that return a sense of agency and belonging to people’s lives.” The party calls for “a network of rebel cities” where progressive local elected officials “exchange policy ideas, develop joint strategies, and speak with a united voice on the national stage.” And in ROAR magazine, Alex Kolokotronis suggests that radicals create a municipalist movement in the United States to combat Trump.


The term “municipalist” is potentially misleading when it is applied as a political program. It raises the question of whether urban progressives to turn their backs on vulnerable people in rural areas, whose lives stand to be wrecked by Republican rule. I don’t think the authors mean for progressives to abandon the gay couple in rural Indiana, the black family in a southern state who get health care only through Medicaid, or the young woman in Texas with no abortion access. Surely most of us are eager to defend communities at risk both in cities and in the countryside. In my view, progressives in cities have the responsibility not to turn inward, but to cast their nets wider to bridge the divide between urban and rural.

After all, progressive people who live in cities are the base for action not only at the municipal level but at the state and federal levels as well. Were they to confine their efforts to the municipal level, then resistance to Trump at the other levels would all but disappear.

Finally, the progressive concentration in cities is in some respects a problem—as a kind of ghettoization. As liberal voters move to larger cities (or as they became more liberal while living there), the states where they tend to cluster tend to be those that already go blue. Far more productive politically, in terms of expanding the progressive base, would be for urbanites to move to rural areas.

The fact is that the U.S. system of governance is constitutionally tilted to favor rural areas. Both Wyoming (pop. 584,000) and California (pop. 38.8 million) have two senators, an acutely undemocratic arrangement. State governments tend to be based not in blue-leaning metropolises but in redder cities in more rural areas. In many state legislatures, representatives from progressive cities are outnumbered by more conservative rural representatives. For these and other reasons, state legislatures tend to be controlled by Republicans—something that will continue unless consciously resisted.


Cities’ governmental power is plagued by yet another constraint: their derivation from state government.

We tend to think of municipal democracy as somehow natural, as grounded in natural right. Cities are natural venues for democracy, by virtue of being closer to the people, They seem more responsive to local needs than federal or state systems. Thus their claims to a degree of autonomy and to democratic self-governance seem legitimate. And it’s been borne out by history: over the centuries, cities have democratically enacted laws and rules that govern many aspects of daily life.

But in legal technical terms, that is not the nature of our system. Local self-government actually derives from higher governmental structures, and legally state governments have preeminence over local governments. The principle, known as the Dillon Rule, was enunciated in an 1868 Iowa case: “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.” In 1907, in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted this primacy of state power over municipalities. It said that municipalities essentially possess the powers that the state legislature expressly grants them. Hundreds of U.S. court decisions have employed the Dillon Rule to determine the scope of municipal powers and rights. Some 40 of the 50 states follow the Dillon Rule in allocating power to localities.

To be sure, the Court did not prevent states from explicitly allowing localities to have home rule if they choose. That competing doctrine was expressed in 1871 by a Michigan Supreme Court judge Thomas M. Cooley stated, “local government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot take it away.” Today some ten states have variations on home rule.


The primacy of state governments mean they can exercise preemption over municipal and county authorities if they choose to do so. For much of American history, they did not necessarily choose to exercise that power and adhered to norms of local self-governance. But in the past few years Republican-dominated state legislatures have been breaking this norm and using the states’ material power to try to destroy the right of localities to enact laws, using the principle of preemption.

The right-wing organization known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) brings together state legislators and corporate lobbyists who develop model legislation, to wreck progressive local ordinances. They state legislators introduce the model bills into Republican-dominated chambers and thereby attempt to gut progressive laws on hundreds of issues, as Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, points out. These issues have notably included increased minimum wage, paid sick leave for workers, fracking, rent control, community broadband, plastic bag bans, gun safety laws, e-cigarettes, solar energy incentives, net metering, GMO restrictions, and more.

Minimum wage: Dozens of cities have introduced local minimum wages in recent years. The campaigns have been very popular. But multiple states have adopted a model “Living Wage Preemption Act,” pushed by ALEC. In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin signed it into law it to prohibit cities from raising the minimum wage. When mostly black Birmingham, Alabama, tried to institute a modest increase in the minimum wage, the governor and the legislature preempted it.

Fracking: November 2014, the citizens of Denton, Texas, voted for a ballot measure to ban fracking. The state government responded by preempting local authority over public health and safety.

LGBTQ rights: As soon as the Charlotte, North Carolina, city council passed a measure to allow transsexuals to use restrooms based on gender identity, the governor and the legislature preempt it with a bill requiring restroom use based on birth certificate gender. The North Carolina legislature passed it with blinding speed, and it was signed into law, overturning Charlotte’s measure.

Paid sick leave: In Milwaukee over 70 percent of the voters voted to ensure that employers paid workers for sick days. But Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature passed a preemption bill making it impossible to enforce the Milwaukee measure. In other states where cities were considering or adopted paid sick leave, the National Restaurant Association has worked to ensure that the legislatures to preempt them. In Tempe, Arizona, city councilors were considering paid sick leave, but the Republican=dominated state legislature said if it did, the state would hold back funds for firefighters, for police. So now if a city in Arizona dares to go for paid sick leave, it will forfeit those services.

Voter suppression: State legislatures have notoriously gone after democracy itself by attempting to suppress voter participation, by passing photo ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements intended to disenfranchise voters.

The point is, in the current climate of preemption, municipal actions are at the mercy of the states.


The federal level, of course, preempts the state level. Based in great part on the superior federal power that the United States made progress in civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, inclusiveness, in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Roe v. Wade, the Fair Housing Act, gay marriage, and more. It has been the federal government that provides social insurance–the New Deal and the Great Society—on a scale that municipalities could not dream of providing. States had to submit and provide Medicare, Medicaid (until recently), and Social Security whether they wanted to or not.

I don’t believe municipalities have solutions for these matters equal to the US Supreme Court or the protections that the federal government can provide. I’m glad, as Working Families asserts, that “cities across the US have already started to mobilize to combat Islamophobia, … to tackle hate crimes against Muslims, including the monitoring of religious bullying in schools, intercultural education programmes, and council resolutions condemning Islamophobia and declaring support for Muslim communities.” Fine, but municipalities have nothing to offer on the scale that the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, can provide.

And even the resolutions of sanctuary cities are not entirely secure, as Alex Kotlowitz points out: “There is only so much protection that sanctuary cities can offer. There’s nothing to keep federal agents from, say, conducting a raid at a factory or an individual residence within a sanctuary city.”


Republicans, unlike many progressives, have no difficulty recognizing that levers of power exist in our institutions of government at all levels. They have no difficulty engaging in contests to achieve that power. While progressives too often turn their back on electoral contests for power, regarding them as sordid, or regarding the Democratic party as compromised, Republicans tend to put great energy into them. That is one reason why Democrats are now facing a future not only out of power in Washington, but with limited power at the state level. Democrats have lost almost 1,000 state-level representatives since 2008.

In 2018 the country will face midterm elections. After the census in 2020, electoral districts will be redrawn. Unless people who object take action, we are looking at Republican rule for a long time to come.

Movements and protests are vitally important, for political engagement and to pressure the system. I’m thrilled to read that the Working Families Party advocates the development “a new generation of local leaders, particularly women and people of color, who are prepared to take the leap from protest to electoral politics. … The search for new local leaders needs to be scaled up so that there is a pipeline of candidates to stand for school boards, zoning boards and local councils in 2017 and beyond..” But why in the world stop with school boards and zoning boards and councils?

“Municipalism” can become a problem if it limits progressive action to cities rather than working to it to rural areas and to state and federal levels of government. After all, those progressive people in cities are the base for power not only at the municipal level but at the state and federal levels as well. In the age of Trump, progressives must undertake an all out assault at all levels, wherever power is in play. Ironically, thanks to preemption, progressive must be sufficiently represented in state legislatures to ensure municipal democracy. To ignore politics at any level is to surrender to Republican rule.

And what is the vehicle by which progressives can achieve power across different populations and parts of the country?


It is a painful conclusion, but the “winner take all” system of determining electoral outcomes in this country means that the US system is almost irretrievably binary. Whether we like it or not, we have the Republican Party and then we have … the other party.

But the Democratic Party, as is well known, has abandoned its erstwhile working-class base and become little more than an elite fundraising machine, oriented toward pleasing donors. The only solution that comes to mind is the one that Robert Reich recently offered: the Democratic Party must be transformed from a money-raising operation to a progressive movement.

To that end, progressives must treat the Democratic Party the way certain Republicans treat their party. When Republicans don’t like their leadership, they try to change it, calling them RINOs, primarying them. They try to remake the party according to their likes. Progressive Democrats have to do the same. They must remake the Democratic Party into their vehicle and not rest until it becomes the party of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, and Jamie Raskin.

It’s excellent for progressives to get politically engaged at the municipal level. But defining progressive action in cities as “municipalist” must not lead to ignoring the need for progressive action at the other levels. Engagement and the state and federal levels is equally necessary, even for the viability of municipal action itself. Those who dream of the Paris Commune of 1871 must remember how that urban experiment ended: in a bloodbath at the hands of a military force made up of soldiers from rural France.




  1. 3 thoughts on “Limits of Municipalism in the Age of Trump

    Janet, thanks for this piece. I don’t have to be in 100% agreement to appreciate the importance of what you have written here. As an old autonomous Marxist who has swung around to Democratic Confederalism, and discovered in the past few years especially the writings of Bookchin and Ocalan to be a source of wisdom, hope and strength, who looks these days to Rojava as an inspiration for what we can do and be, I much appreciate your efforts as well [whew, that last sentence cannot possibly be grammatically correct. However, I have often said grammar and spelling are bourgeois ploys…lol].

  2. 3 thoughts on “Limits of Municipalism in the Age of Trump

    Janet, thanks for this piece. I don’t have to be in 100% agreement to appreciate the importance of what you have written here. As an old autonomous Marxist who has swung around to Democratic Confederalism, and discovered in the past few years especially the writings of Bookchin and Ocalan to be a source of wisdom, hope and strength, who looks these days to Rojava as an inspiration for what we can do and be, I much appreciate your efforts as well [whew, that last sentence cannot possibly be grammatically correct. However, I have often said grammar and spelling are bourgeois ploys…lol].

  3. 3 thoughts on “Limits of Municipalism in the Age of Trump

    Hello Janet,

    Loved the article. Very timely in this day and age, but as terrible as things seem, I think this election presents a terrific opportunity towards a mass refocusing of political attention all across the left, from the liberal to the radical and (and perhaps even beyond “the left”).

    I have also read the Roar Magazine piece on Municipalism in the USA, and I think it presents a feasible vision and a rousing call to action. I say feasible because I know of several campaigns which began mere days after the election (full disclosure: one of which I helped to found) proposing the formation of neighborhood councils to begin building a decentralized, democratic resistance effort in at least two major Pacific Northwest cities (Seattle and Portland). So far the Seattle campaign, calling itself the Neighborhood Action Coalition, has had tremendous turnout (probably 1,200 people in total) for two large community assembly events, and is now in the process of forming distinct neighborhood councils in each of the City Council districts and beyond.

    Something I have been pondering (as one of the initial theorists and organizers), is how we might 1) help councils develop without interfering in their autonomy, while preserving the values we need for success and preventing them turning into sterile NIMBY neighborhood groups, and 2) Continuing to foster targeted political resistance around the direct threat of the Trump administration while advocating for a shift to a more holistic municipalist approach (essentially, helping folks make the shift from resistance to autonomy).

    Again, excellent blog post. Would love to hear your thoughts on these matters.

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