Alabama was a battleground late last month for fundamentally opposed political forces. I'm not referring to the state's presidential primaries, but to the fight between Birmingham, whose city council passed an ordinance establishing a minimum wage of $10.10, and the state Legislature, which responded by enacting a law, signed by the governor, forbidding cities from setting any wage standards at all.
This kind of struggle between cities and states is becoming routine in our politically and geographically polarized times. Arizona passed draconian anti-immigrant laws while Phoenix directed its police not to hand over immigrant detainees to the feds for deportation. Cities in Texas passed prohibitions on the use of plastic bags, which the Legislature endeavored to repeal. Even in liberal California, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities have raised their minimum wage to $15, a bill increasing the state minimum to $13 has languished in the Legislature.
Government in all countries is naturally divided among local, state and national jurisdictions, but never before in America's history have the three levels of government had such distinct political profiles.
Today, 27 of the nation's 30 largest cities have Democratic mayors — the greatest partisan imbalance since the advent of the party system in the age of Andrew Jackson. Even cities in rock-solid Republican states have Democratic mayors. In deep red Texas, Democrats govern Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso.
States, meanwhile, have seldom been more Republican. The GOP controls the governor's office and both houses of the legislature in 23 states, while Democrats can boast the same in just seven.
At the federal level, effective one-party control of the government has become a near-impossibility. Since Lyndon Johnson's presidency, no party has simultaneously held the White House and the House of Representatives while enjoying a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate (save in the first few months of Barack Obama's presidency, when the Democrats' 60th vote was that of the mortally ill and understandably absent Edward M. Kennedy). So long as both parties were willing to compromise, the divided federal government could still function. Lately, however, lawmaking has been relegated to increasingly conservative states and increasingly liberal cities.
The rightward drift of states is chiefly a consequence of low voter participation by minorities and the young in mid-term elections, and the success of a well-funded conservative movement at winning control of the states. The leftward movement of cities, in contrast, is the result of an epochal influx of minorities and liberal millennials. Just as the great wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe transformed early 20th century cities, so the immigrants of recent decades, coming from Latin America, Asia and Africa, have also flocked to cities — and radically altered their politics.
From 1980 to 2010, the white share of the population of Los Angeles dropped from 48% to 29%; of New York, from 53% to 37%; of Dallas, from 57% to 29%; of Columbus, from 76% to 59%. Nationally, Obama's share of the vote in the 2012 presidential election outpaced Walter Mondale's share in 1984 by 10.5 percentage points, but in Los Angeles, he outperformed Mondale by 26 points; in New York, by 20; in Dallas, by 24; in Columbus, by 27. Twenty-five years ago, six of America's dozen largest cities still had Republican mayors; today, Republicans preside in just one.
Not surprisingly, it's only at the city level that many of Obama's and the Democratic Party's signature proposals — raising the minimum wage, mandating paid sick days, requiring utilities to shift to cleaner power sources — have been enacted, and, in places such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, exceeded. Increasingly, however, it's only in states where Republicans don't rule that this kind of municipal power exists.
This tripartite division not just of government but also of fundamental ideological orientation is America's new political reality, and it's likely to be with us for some time. It's hard to imagine what could reverse the leftward movement of cities, and unless Democrats can devise ways to get more of their supporters to the polls in midterm elections, Republicans will continue to dominate the states. The war between cities and states may be only just beginning.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect.