The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World 
by Rahm Emanuel.
Knopf, 256 pp., £20.89, February 2020, 978 0 525 65638 8
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Somebooks appear at exactly the wrong moment, which only makes them more interesting. Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago between 2011 and 2019. In short order he has turned out a boastful and boosterish account of his time in office, which also serves as his manifesto for a new way of doing politics. Emanuel believes that the world’s hundred leading cities generate the economic, intellectual and cultural energy of the planet. As a result, he says, ‘Mayors effectively run the world now.’ Emanuel quit a high-flying career in Washington to return to his hometown of Chicago. He had been an adviser to Bill Clinton, then a leading congressman and finally Obama’s chief of staff. Some felt that he may have been headed for the White House in his own right. But he has no regrets. Who would want to be president these days? He thinks the federal government is where good ideas go to die. Cities like Chicago are where it’s at. It just takes mayors like him to make it happen.

The Nation City was published at the end of February, a few days before the US recorded its first Covid-19 fatality. Three months later, Chicago alone has seen around four thousand deaths and more than eighty thousand confirmed cases. Large parts of the city have shut down. No one can blame Emanuel for having failed to anticipate any of this. Still, the disease has left him looking a little foolish. His template for how to turn your city into a model of dynamic enterprise and liveable community is so very 2019. It comes with easy to follow instructions. First, focus on education, particularly in the early years, and make sure kids are in school as much as possible. This is a good idea, but hard to do at the moment. Second, encourage tourism, which is the great provider of new jobs. Third, invest heavily in the airport. Fourth, attract all the service industries you can, especially restaurants. Fifth, form partnerships wherever possible with universities and work to bring in more students. Finally, if you get stuck, ask Mike Bloomberg what to do next: he’ll know. You see the problem. At least Emanuel didn’t go all in on the cruise-ship business, though if Chicago were on the coast he might have done.

Let’s start with Bloomberg. It’s not Emanuel’s fault that his mayoral mentor’s political lustre has been tarnished by a lamentable late bid to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. Bloomberg achieved his primary goal, which was to stop Bernie Sanders. It cost him a lot – in money and personal humiliation – but at least his failure helped to focus minds on the alternatives: suddenly Joe Biden didn’t look so bad. But it was the way he failed. Bloomberg came across as such a mayor – patrician, managerial, used to getting his own way, impatient with the questions, preferring policy pronouncements to raw politics. He seemed to believe he was above it all: a technocrat among the politicos. Of course, Emanuel would say that this proves his point: mayors aren’t cut out to be president because they are problem-solvers, not grandstanders. But the kind of mayoral politics Emanuel champions has a tendency to look a little aloof when it moves outside its comfort zone. It wasn’t so much that Bloomberg was ill at ease on the national stage. It was that he thought it didn’t matter.

Not all mayors are like that. Boris Johnson, who was mayor of London, has made the move up from city to national government, in part by doing nothing to conceal his appetite to dominate the bigger stage. But Johnson’s growing discomfort as prime minister reflects his mayoral roots. In London he was used to coasting whenever he could and delegating the hard stuff. As PM he can’t. And we all pay the price. Bloomberg, by contrast, is much happier in his role as the man who brings mayors together. Since his tenure as mayor of New York ended in 2013 he has hosted regular gatherings for the leaders of America’s cities, and he sees himself as a conduit for good policy and good practice. Emanuel talks of ‘the brotherhood and sisterhood that exists among mayors’. Bloomberg is their paterfamilias. What Emanuel values in these mayoral get-togethers is the absence of speechmaking or a set agenda. It’s simply a way for overworked executives to kick back, share their problems and spark some creative thinking. Emanuel’s thesis is that these days the best political ideas move horizontally from city to city, rather than vertically from local to national government or back again. It’s a vision of politics that relies on a network of likeminded local leaders bypassing federal bureaucracy to get things done. Its attraction is that it is non-partisan – the mayors come from both sides of the political divide – and pragmatic. The downside is that it looks a lot like a private political club.

There was another mayor running for the Democratic nomination this year: Pete Buttigieg, from South Bend, Indiana. He also features heavily in this book as an example of what makes mayors different. Buttigieg argues that mayors are far more connected with the lives of the people they represent than other politicians because they are much closer to the ground. City leaders can’t take time out from their jobs because the city never sleeps: something always needs fixing. Unlike national politicians, they have to live permanently in the places they run, and they have to respond to their constituents’ concerns in real time. ‘You can’t offer alternative facts,’ Buttigieg says. ‘If a road is in bad shape, you can’t point to it and say: “This is the greatest road in the history of roads.” People will call BS.’ What you can do is ‘be nimble and try different ideas and see what works and what doesn’t. And in a matter of a few years, you can literally see things actually working, people getting jobs and neighbourhoods rising.’ He calls it ‘the hardest and most rewarding job in the world’. It makes you wonder why Buttigieg wanted to be president. Still, there’s no question that in his case sounding like a mayor was a big part of his national appeal. More pragmatism, less BS. It’s the same argument Rory Stewart gave for quitting national politics in order to run for mayor of London, before the pandemic put a stop to that. Being mayor was the only way you could be sure you were making a difference to people’s lives.

Emanuel sums it up: city government is ‘immediate, intimate and impactful’. What creates the impact is not simply the proximity of the politicians to the people they govern. It’s the proximity of those people to each other. The density of city populations is what creates their energy as well as the need to find solutions in double quick time, before the system gets overwhelmed. As Emanuel points out, this has been the great shift in how we understand city life in recent decades. From the 1960s to the 1980s urban density was thought to be what pushed residents away: it was associated with crime, inefficiency and crumbling infrastructure. People moved out to the suburbs and beyond, looking for space and security. But then two things happened. First, crime rates started to fall dramatically in many big cities, for reasons that are still much debated (Emanuel attributes it in large part to innovative local policy initiatives). Second, the tech revolution, which was supposed to accelerate the move out of the cities, ended up having the opposite effect. In the 1990s it was assumed that digital communication would strengthen the impulse to get away: why live in the blighted city when you could work from home? But not only did people not much want to work from home, the tech revolution drove a desire for more human connection. In the age of the internet it turned out we wanted to rub up against each other as much as possible, in order to share ideas, services and experiences. The tech companies were no different. They didn’t want to be outside the city looking in. They wanted to be at the heart of it. Where the tech companies led, the rest followed.

A service economy puts a premium on physical proximity: restaurants near businesses, businesses near universities, universities near parks, parks near schools, schools near homes, homes near restaurants. If you can walk between them all, so much the better. And if you can’t, build cycle lanes. So begins the virtuous circle of bringing people together in order to produce new ways of cohabiting, which then allow more and more people to join. It’s not clear what comes first: the crowds or the solutions. ‘Did cities realise population increases because they became more liveable?’ Emanuel asks. ‘Or did they become more liveable because population increase demanded it?’ In the end it doesn’t much matter. What matters is what works. Emanuel’s blueprint for 21st-century city governance rests almost entirely on the assumption that this model is both progressive and sustainable. Bustling city life forces politicians to breach their ideological red lines; it forces citizens to drop their prejudices against each other; it forces businesses to notice the environment in which they are operating. Above all, it keeps supplying new ways of doing things, so nothing gets old. In cities, good ideas will drive out the bad. In national governments, bad ideas can drive out the good. That’s Emanuel’s pitch: bet on the city, because necessity is the mother of invention.

What​ he doesn’t say is that this is sustainable only if you assume that nothing will disrupt the benign relationship between population growth and innovation. But, as we’ve learned in recent months, any model of politics that relies on increased human density is intensely vulnerable to natural disruption. Bringing people together in ever larger numbers means that if something goes wrong, everyone suffers. Emanuel takes for granted that if we keep up the population pressure, human ingenuity will always stay one step ahead of natural risk. Ever since Malthus warned that population growth was bound to outpace food production this has been the technocrats’ response: not if we have anything to do with it! But in the 21st century, with the natural world changing faster than at any point in history and the danger escalating all the time, densely populated cities look very fragile. There are still plenty of things that can be done to mitigate the risks. But the sheer weight of human numbers might well create problems faster than solutions.

Emanuel insists that the intimate but vulnerable city is still a better bet than the nation-state, which suffers from being too remote and therefore not vulnerable enough. National politicians can afford to fiddle while the world burns because they are insulated from the immediate consequences of their actions. They can play partisan politics because doing nothing rarely costs anyone their job. It’s easier to block solutions at the national level than it is to come up with new ones. As a result, Emanuel remains convinced that cities are far more likely to make a difference to climate change than national governments. This is in part because they have all the urgency and the dynamism. But it’s also because they are responsible for most of the carbon emissions. Cities run most of the world’s transport; they use most of the world’s energy; and they contain most of the world’s buildings, especially the vast, overheated, incandescent ones. What’s more, they don’t need to wait on interminable international diplomacy to address these problems. What Emanuel calls ‘urban diplomacy’ – the global version of the Bloomberg network – makes it possible for mayors to pool ideas and learn best practice. Under many electoral systems – including those of the US and the UK – rural voters still get a decisive say in choosing national governments. But if cities do what they can it won’t matter, because doing what they can will be enough on its own.

Underpinning this argument about the future is a long-term perspective on the past. Emanuel points out that when the US federal government was created at the end of the 18th century it catered to a nation of around four million citizens, not so many more people than currently live in Chicago. A country of that size could be governed intimately. Today, with more than 300 million inhabitants, it can barely be governed at all. Cities are also a much more durable site of government than the nation-state. Cities have been around for more than ten thousand years. Rome has been governed as a city, in one form or another, for nearly three thousand years. We have had nation-states for barely four hundred years. Cities, for all their obvious artificiality, are more natural-seeming than nation-states. Nations are only ever imagined communities. Cities, Emanuel suggests, are real ones.

He is right to argue that cities are more than just mini states. What they offer is something quite different from national politics. They don’t police their borders, as states do. They don’t print their own money. They don’t run their own armies. They don’t fight wars. Of course, cities used to do all these things, and more. For much of the last three millennia, Rome has been a place of extreme political violence and near perpetual warfare. Until relatively recently, cities didn’t just have borders; they had walls and gates and guards to keep watch on who came in and who went out. Cities controlled commerce and regulated the money supply. To claim that cities have always done politics differently – shown how to make it more intimate, more liveable – is a little disingenuous. Cities used to be like nation-states, only smaller, more violent and less stable. The sort of city government Emanuel champions has only been made possible because the nation-state now exists to shoulder much of the burden of warfare and finance. It is one of the luxuries of the modern age. Mayors get to do Buttigieg-style bijou politics because states do the heavy lifting.

Cities are still responsible for policing their inhabitants and the possibility of extreme violence remains. Emanuel addresses Chicago’s notorious problem with gun violence and describes some of the steps he took to mitigate it. He advocates a mix of technological innovation – he is a big fan of the idea of predictive policing, which uses ‘data sets from the University of Chicago Crime Lab to help predict where a shooting may occur within a six-block radius’ – and tough community love. He is particularly proud of another University of Chicago-based programme called Becoming a Man, which uses relaxation and meditation techniques to teach young men how to deal with frustration. It’s something, but it does nothing to address inequalities in the city. As I write, Chicago is one of many American cities where riots have broken out following the killing of George Floyd by a city police officer in Minneapolis. An article in the Atlantic asked of the increasingly militarised response: ‘Are they police departments or armies?’ The governor of Illinois, like many of his counterparts, has called in the national guard. The protesters want a complete overhaul of the way the city polices its black citizens. If history is any guide, they are not going to get one.

Emanuel acknowledges that cities can’t replicate many of the functions of nation-states. As always, he tries to put a positive spin on it. He thinks cities benefit enormously from not being able to tinker with the money supply. Mayors have to run a tight ship, which makes for discipline. He quotes Buttigieg again: ‘There is no deficit spending in cities, no printing of money. By law I have to balance the budget every year. We spend down cash reserves some years and borrow money sometimes, but there’s no cheating on whether we have enough money to do what you say you’re going to do.’ Of course, some cities end up borrowing more than they can afford to and effectively go bust. The coronavirus crisis has left many facing financial ruin, as revenues dry up. The nation-state will have to bail them out, as it always does, no doubt extracting promises that they will run even tighter ships in future. Emanuel, like Buttigieg and Bloomberg, wants to present streamlined and efficient city government as a practical necessity rather than a political preference. He says it is the only way to get things done, now that federal government ‘is no longer a progressive entity’. Politicians of the centre-left effectively have a choice: waste time on national pipe dreams or work within their means at the city level to impact the lives of the poorest citizens. It’s the Stop Bernie project all over again.

To Obama-era veterans like Emanuel, Sanders is the utopian, with his wishful, something-for-nothing schemes. But there is something utopian about the Emanuel project too, wishing away whole swathes of public life. By writing off national government as a site for progressive politics, Emanuel treats cities as sufficient for what needs to be done: just let the mayors get on with it! But national government doesn’t go away just because you are no longer interested in it. It retains its power. It has the capacity both to restore order and to unleash chaos. Cities are not immune when things go wrong. Indeed, because most people live in cities, they are right in the firing line. ‘It would behoove progressives now,’ Emanuel writes, ‘given their dominance in urban areas, to concentrate on local government, not to think of policies going from top down or bottom up but instead to think of them flowing horizontally, across the country and across the world, from city to city to city.’ It’s all there: the assumption that politics means policy; the reliance on electoral capture of urban constituencies; the globalist grandiosity; that oh-so-mayorly word ‘behoove’. What’s missing is the question of what happens to the national government while the mayors are keeping busy.

Emanuel​ barely mentions the many people who live in rural areas rather than cities, let alone all those who live in the middle grounds we still call ‘towns’. He assumes that towns are just mini cities, despite the fact that many – especially in former industrial areas – are increasingly depopulated and suffering the fate that was anticipated for cities in the 1980s: as people leave, other people have less reason to stay, unless they have no choice. In the UK, as in the US, towns don’t necessarily vote the way cities do – it was the towns of the Midlands and the North, along with rural areas, that gave Boris Johnson his electoral victory last year. The population of towns tends to be older than the population of cities. Many towns don’t have a university, which is the strongest indicator of voting preference (or progressive capture). This makes it very hard for them to participate in the kind of university-philanthropy-innovation nexus that lies at the heart of Emanuel’s project. (There are exceptions, of course – the US has plenty of college towns, like Buttigieg’s South Bend, home of Notre Dame.) This year is not a propitious time to start building new universities, with much higher education migrating online, perhaps never to return. At the back of Emanuel’s mind appears to be a belief that is often implicit in technocratic policymaking: people simply need to move to where the action is.

Many people who live outside cities, however, will not move, especially not now. Just because the predictions that a home-working revolution was on the way in the 1990s were proved wrong doesn’t mean they will be wrong this time. It seems likely that we are about to enter a new phase of city life. If the 1960s-80s were the emptying out, and the 1990s-2010s were the return, the 2020s-40s could well be the time of urban uncertainty, with some going one way, some the other, depending on forces beyond their control. National governments, on which city governments still rely to underpin their finances and to secure their authority, are likely to reflect this uncertainty in their makeup. It would be a mistake for progressives to think they can win through cities without restoring their fortunes at the national level as well. It would be an even bigger mistake to assume that all the people who don’t live in cities will be so grateful for the progress being made in them that they will eventually jump on the progressive bandwagon. Surely Trump’s America and Johnson’s Britain are proof against that.

Emanuel borrows a phrase from the early 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, one of the architects of the New Deal, who said that the American states were the ‘laboratories of democracy’. That title, Emanuel claims, now belongs to the cities. What he means is that cities can try out new policy ideas to see what sticks. But he has almost nothing to say about trying out new forms of democracy. Why not experiment with different ways of making democratic decisions, rather than simply having the mayors decide? Emanuel is not much interested in participatory budgeting, or citizens’ assemblies, or direct action, or even electoral reform, despite pointing out that by 2040 almost three-quarters of Americans will live in just 15 states (where the biggest cities are), meaning 30 per cent of voters will choose 70 per cent of senators. He just shrugs – what can you expect from a legislative system that is no longer fit for purpose? His is a conservative vision of progressive politics. The nation-state is broken and needs to be left alone in the hope that it won’t cause too much trouble. The city, where the demographics more or less guarantee that the right people will win, can be relied on to carry the torch. But the nation-state can still cause plenty of trouble. And the city can’t be relied on. Progress is not guaranteed, and it can come in a wide variety of forms. Three months is a long time in politics.

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