Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The decline of the progressive city, demanded by Republicans, enabled by Democrats

In his article called "The Myth of the Progressive City," Denver resident David Sirota enumerates the ways that leaders of Democratic cities have sold out the once proud faith in progressive tenets that lie beyond the pale of  strictly social issues (wherein common ground is often found with Republicans):

Sure, two or three decades ago, there may have been some truth to the notion that the American city is a union-driven bastion of populist progressive economics. But today, while cities may still largely vote Democratic, they are increasingly embracing the economics of corporatism. The result is that urban areas are a driving force behind the widening intra-party rift between the corporatist, pro-privatization Wall Street Democrats and the traditional labor-progressive “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party ....

On spending issues, Democratic-voting cities across the country have simultaneously slashed social services while offering up huge taxpayer subsidies for stadiums, corporate office buildings and other private, for-profit projects.”

As true as this may be for other cities it is especially true in Nashville, Tennessee, where Democrats in charge here refuse to see any of the regressive practices in privatization and subsidizing corporate influence. We have a Mayor, a Democrat, who generally ignores democratic process, unless he is threatened with a tidal wave of popular backlash. He appoints corporate donors and friends to influential committees and task forces with agenda often predetermined due to influence from interest groups like the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Business Coalition.

In a recent slow-pitch interview with an ingratiating "All Things Considered" (NPR) reporter, Karl Dean donned the corporatist stripes of so many Democratic city officials:

RAZ: Now these aren't boomtowns .... But they're clearly doing something right or many things right .... Mayor Karl Dean ... says his city has historically been more resilient .... What can somebody like you, in your position as the mayor of a city, actually do to begin to turn things around given how deep this economic crisis is? Is there a whole lot somebody like you or any mayor can really do?

DEAN:  ...We've been very active in economic development. And I think, fundamentally, you have to continue to invest in yourself, and the two ways we've done it, I think, are the most important. Number one is, unlike other major cities, we have not cut our schools' budget .... That's the one thing Nashville has to get right. We've also invested in ourselves, most particularly in this new convention center ....

RAZ: So does it mean that you have to just think more creatively? You have to go to the private sector and maybe look for a sponsorship, look for private companies that are willing to pay for public projects or public spaces like parks or community centers ....

DEAN: ....we've put more funding into education, but I have and others have reached out to the private sector to help us bring Teach For American here, the New Teachers Project, Charter School Incubators. If we did not have the private sector, we would not have been able to do that. Because if you're going to be doing anything innovative in government right now, you've got to build partnerships. You just can't do it on your own.

Dean tag-teaming education reform with
Chamber of Commerce CEO Champions
Terms like "innovation" and "education reform" have been used as code words here to privatize school service workers (removing their union from the public school equation), to spend millions on charter schools (privatized public schools which sap government revenues from traditional public schools), to link teacher evaluations to student test results (causing low teacher morale) and to force business-models via "CEO Champions," backed by venture philanthropy, on Nashville's secondary schools (which gives the Chamber of Commerce even more influence with little accountability to parents or taxpayers).

I am seeing more frustrations expressed here at neighborhood gatherings, parent-teacher organization meetings, and even in the streets (with Occupy Nashville) about how little control people have over municipal policies that are supposed to be informed by the community. As more people question and dissent, corporatists trot out the backlash argument that the wealthy people like those the Mayor enlists are the ones who provide us our jobs (as if that justifies their greater influence in politics above and beyond letting the people decide). They may create the jobs, but the workers create the wealth. Democrats like Karl Dean seem to have forgotten that.

Cities should be places where progressive democracy materializes rather than standing as empty window dressing that hides the hard machinery of top-down power. Neither prominent Davidson County Democrats nor their champion, Mayor Karl Dean, have done much to make Nashville such a place. We live the myth of progressive cities, too.


  1. I read the article you are referring to. So glad you posted this. Dean is a sell-out when it comes to our city. Whatever happened to mayors being hands-on?

  2. I have always "joked" that if Nashville's "elites" (Chamber of Commerce, Belle Meade Country Club Crowd, etc.) could get sell Music Row to another city, they would. I have always thought, they think that ultimately, the "country music" aspect of Nashville "holds the city back" in the eyes of the nation and the world. Of course, in the past few years, as our "country music" city has evolved (and Belle Meaders realized that Brooks and Dunn make way more money than the HCA execs) this notion has changed slightly. (Witness, country stars regularly appearing in the pages on InFocus). Now Dean shakes hands with country singers for a photo op, but goes after the fairgrounds. I can't wait for the American Pickers guys to be invited to the Swan Ball. Dean and his Belle Meade buds may again change their tune.