As a follow up to yesterday’s book review, I’d like to discuss whether a certain theory of federalism—that is, the interaction of state and federal government—applies with equal force to city and state interactions. That theory is “polyphonic federalism.”
Let me explain. “Polyphony”—a musical term describing independent voices singing together—was applied to federalism by Emory Professor Robert Schapiro in his 2009 book Polyphonic Federalism. Schapiro argues that federalism’s beauty lies in it enabling independent levels of governments to conflict or coordinate in route to achieving national goals. This interaction benefits America, he argues, by allowing the two levels of government to vigorously raise their voices and hash out important policies in a way that reflects both national and state concerns.
Is this theory useful to our understanding the relationship between city and state?
No, say some. In City Bound, Gerald Frug and David Barron criticize the concept of federalism as applied to cities and local autonomy. They argue that federalism (and its European Union cousin “subsidiarity”) provide “no clean way to divide matters into discrete ‘local’ and ‘central’ spheres” and thus “have been used to justify denying powers to localities.”
Yet while I agree that federalism is sometimes used this way, I also believe the concept is useful to empowering beneficial state and city interactions. Of course, state and city interactions can never be exactly the same as those between federal and state government because cities derive their power from the state, so interactions will always be weighted in favor of the state. But since most states have enacted some from of home-rule legislation—giving broad authority to cities over local concerns—the two systems (federal to state, and state to city) do model each other to some extent.
And to the extent they do model each other, I believe polyphony is a useful concept. States and cities, working together, can accomplish far more than either could accomplish alone. Cities have citizen engagement and can act as important laboratories of innovation. States, in turn, have the ability to regulate regional concerns—such as transportation, environmental concerns, and housing, among many other things—just as the federal government can step in an control matters of national concern. But can a city really push back at the state government? I think so, especially in states where a major city has a relatively large number of political delegates in the state government (as with Chicago) or where the state government is centered in the state’s major city (as with Atlanta). As Frug and Barron point out, Denver (and probably other cities) actually has the power to pass ordinances that override state law.
Is polyphony a useful concept to state and city interactions? Please send me your thoughts.