AuthorBlock, Daniel

The agents arrived in the middle of July. Dressed in camouflage and sporting body armor, they drove around Portland, Oregon, in unmarked vans and apprehended people who were protesting police brutality. They came seemingly at random, late at night, and patrolled far from the federal property that, ostensibly, they had been sent to protect. One protestor said that the agents pulled his beanie over his eyes after shoving him into the back of their van, making it impossible to see where he was being taken.

Conducted at the behest of Donald Trump's Department of Homeland Security, the arrests of the protestors prompted widespread condemnation from Oregon activists and politicians. "This is the stuff of fascist regimes," Senator Ron Wyden said. The Portland City Council voted to ban local police forces from cooperating with DHS agents. The mayor, Ted Wheeler, told the DHS secretary that he was very concerned about the "violence federal officers brought to our streets"--and that he wanted them out of the city. At first, the Trump administration refused. But after mounting objections, it eventually gave in. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief. They had made it through what had perhaps been, to date, the scariest attack by Donald Trump against American democracy.

To date. On November 17, after cries of fraud from Trump and state GOP leaders, two Republican officials in Wayne County, Michigan, voted to not certify Detroit's election results. The maneuver, if successful, would have disenfranchised an overwhelmingly Black city and stolen the state's Electoral College votes from Biden. Trump and Michigan GOP officials cheered. But, once again, the party's actions spurred outcry, both from national and local activists. After three hours, the officials gave in.

Though these efforts failed, they reveal something intrinsic about the GOP's authoritarianism that, relative to its xenophobia, gerrymandering, and attacks on voting rights, hasn't drawn much scrutiny: During their most autocratic moments, Republicans often target municipalities. During the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump sent the military into Washington, D.C. In addition to Portland, the president sent armed DHS officers to at least a dozen other municipalities. That included larger cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Kansas City, Missouri. It also included smaller ones like Port Huron, Michigan, and GOP-governed Pearland, Texas. The president called for swing states to toss out ballots not just from Detroit but from Philadelphia and Milwaukee as well.

In the public imagination, Republicans have traditionally been the party that promotes local choice and liberty, and the Democratic Party has been the one that regulates from on high. The latter earned this reputation in the 1960s, when it passed landmark legislation overturning state and local laws that mandated racial segregation and suppressed Black people's voting rights. The party bolstered it in the 1970s, when Democrats in Congress drove the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, both of which imposed restrictions on local zoning and land use in service of protecting the natural world.

Though these and other proud liberal achievements were essential and validated as constitutional, they caused a massive political backlash that enabled the rise of movement conservatism. Ronald Reagan swept into power promising "to put an end to the merry-go-round where our money becomes Washington's money, to be spent by the states and cities exactly the way the federal bureaucrats tell them to." Ever since, the GOP has centered part of its brand on reverence for local decision-making. In his campaign platform, George W. Bush emphasized the need to provide "flexibility and control to states and local communities," especially on education. While rolling back fair housing regulations, the Trump administration proclaimed that it was "protecting American communities from excessive Federal overreach and preserving local decision-making." Republicans even smear as tyranny policies they had a hand in creating, including key parts of the environmental statutes of the 1970s (signed by then President Richard Nixon).

But, in truth, Republicans have never really cared about "local decision-making" as a principle. Reagan threatened to revoke highway funding from any state that didn't raise its drinking age to 21. Under Bush, Republicans forced many municipalities to weaken regulations on consumer safety. Trump tried to withhold millions of dollars from localities that wouldn't cooperate with federal immigration officers. Republicans, like Democrats, are quite happy to restrict communities when it suits their purposes. Yet rather than doing so to protect individual rights like voting, or defend against market externalities like pollution, Republicans tend to do so in service of social conservatism or what they see as economic rights--which in practice means the rights of large corporations.

This has become especially pronounced in the past decade, as Republicans have used their dominance of state governments to take away powers from communities at breakneck pace. Under the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a consortium of corporate lobbyists and right-wing state legislators, Republicans have made life easy for big businesses by making it difficult for localities. The vast majority of states with a Republican legislature and governor now have laws prohibiting, or "preempting," municipalities from raising their minimum wage. Many, like Louisiana, bar towns from restricting oil drilling and gas fracking. At the behest of telecommunications monopolists, some GOP-run states, such as Mississippi, have started banning localities from setting up their own broadband internet networks. With the encouragement of religious conservatives, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina have killed local ordinances prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination. And last July, with the support of the state's restaurant association, Republican Governor Brian Kemp blocked multiple cities in Georgia from implementing mask requirements.

Democrats are still happy to impose on cities and towns. In a 2017 study, the political scientists Mallory SoRelle and Alexis Walker found that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to pass preemption statutes at the federal level (though more recent research shows that state preemption statutes are much more likely to pass when Republicans have unified control of government than when Democrats do). But when Democrats preempt, they generally do so in a very different way. According to SoRelle and Walker, Democrats tend to restrict local authority by setting regulatory...

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