Amid the throes of the summer’s heated and bitterly partisan debates over the federal debt, President Obama channeled the frustrations of most Americans when he remarked that they voted for divided government, not dysfunctional government. Since then, it appears this dysfunction is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
But it would be foolhardy to confuse the health of the debate in our nation’s capital with that of the country as a whole, or the vitality of our federal government with that of our federal republic.
In fact, we find America — or, more precisely, our states, cities and metropolitan areas — awash in leadership and increasingly governed by a Pragmatic Caucus of political, business, university and civic leaders. In sharp contrast to Beltway polarization, these leaders are acting decisively to grow jobs in the near term and retool their metropolitan economies for the long-haul.
The rise of a Pragmatic Caucus at a time of federal inaction reflects the genius of American democracy. The U.S. is not just the federal government. It is also a union of states, and perhaps more importantly, a network of cities and metropolitan areas.
States matter constitutionally, sharing responsibility for shaping the economy, safeguarding the environment and caring for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Cities and metros dominate economically as they concentrate and agglomerate the innovative firms, talented workers, risk-taking entrepreneurs and supportive ecosystems of universities, community colleges and business associations that drive modern economies.
Members of the Pragmatic Caucus share common ground even if they have different political or ideological leanings. They are close to the ground, and prize place over party, collaboration over conflict and solution over dogma. They form what Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter likes to call the “Get Stuff Done” party.
Mayors, not surprisingly, are charter members of the Pragmatic Caucus, since so many duties of local office — from providing basic services to regenerating blighted neighborhoods to preparing for and responding to natural disasters like Hurricane Irene — require practical rather than political solutions and demand leaders who are hungry for results and impatient with ideological grandstanding.
The current cast of U.S. mayors — both Republicans and Democrats — is one of the best in modern memory. But the Pragmatic Caucus extends far beyond elected officials to include enterprising presidents of major universities, major philanthropic leaders and the heads of influential metropolitan business organizations.
Governors, too, are getting the message about metropolitan power. Colorado, New York and Tennessee, for example, have all initiated state economic development strategies that intentionally build upon and align with the distinctive strategies of each state’s cities, counties and metropolitan areas. This is not surprising since the Governors of these states are all either former Mayors or individuals with deep experience with urban issues. Others, like Rick Snyder of Michigan, have brought deep business backgrounds and a focus on tangible results and short-term deliverables.
The Pragmatic Caucus has no formal manifesto or K Street address for lobbying activities. But a unifying philosophy can be discerned by what they are doing and how they are doing it.
Two things stand out.
First, the Pragmatic Caucus is focused on embracing a new economic growth model. The Caucus is not about recreating yesterday’s economies, but about building new ones that will be more resilient in providing jobs and in anticipating and meeting future needs. The blueprint calls for the U.S. to export more and waste less, to innovate in sectors that matter, to manufacture and deploy more of what we invent and, in short, to build an economy that actually works for working families.
Across the country, the Pragmatic Caucus is engaged in economic renewal.
While it took four years for Washington to finally pass a series of free trade agreements, metros such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Portland and Syracuse are reorienting their economic development strategies towards exports, foreign direct investment and skilled immigration.
While federal transport programs are in limbo, metros like Miami and Chicago, and states like Michigan, are restructuring and modernizing their air, rail and sea freight hubs to position themselves for an economy where growth is increasingly driven by global rather than just domestic demand.
While federal energy policy is in disarray, cities such as San Diego are building out their electric vehicle infrastructure, Seattle and Philadelphia are cementing niches in energy efficient technologies and the state of Connecticut is experimenting with Green Banks to help deploy clean technologies at scale.
What unites these disparate efforts is intentionality and purpose. After decades of pursuing fanciful illusions (becoming the next Silicon Valley) or engaging in copycat strategies, states and metros are deliberately and systematically analyzing, and then building, on their special assets, attributes and advantages using business planning techniques honed in the private sector.
Second, the Caucus has a distinct modus operandi. As Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper likes to say “collaboration is the new competition.” Neighboring cities and metros, long divided by petty differences, are now coming together to engage forcibly in the global market. For example, Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, once on opposite sides of a decades old college basketball rivalry, are now constructing a common platform for advanced manufacturing. In Northeast Ohio, the Fund for Our Economic Future, a non-profit intermediary, is leading a similar effort to retool and modernize small and medium sized manufacturing firms located across Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Youngstown.
The Pragmatic Caucus does not, of course, exist in all states and metropolitan communities. Many metros continue to be defined by division rather than unity. And, as Wisconsin’s battles with its labor unions showed earlier this year, partisanship hasn’t been repealed in states. But the dominant, driving trend at the state and local level is toward collaborative governance and no-nonsense results.
What can Washington learn from the leadership on display in our states and metro areas?
For a national economy stuck in first gear, the new metropolitan growth model offers the promise of more jobs (to resolve America’s employment deficit), better jobs (to make work pay) and more accessible jobs (to ensure people can actually get to work).
For a federal government desperate to do more with less, galvanizing the talents and energies of state and metropolitan leaders, with fewer federal prescriptions and more incentives, seems a sure shot for success.
And for a federal political class defined more often by behavior fitting of school yard bullies than the nation’s highest elected officials, the Pragmatic Caucus offers the potential to restore purpose to our politics and civility to our commons.
America’s entrepreneurialism and innovative spirit is alive and well in the work of tens of thousands of leaders across hundreds of cities and metropolitan areas and dozens of states. These leaders are making smart, strategic investments in the future of their communities, often with little federal support or encouragement.
If American history is any guide, the infectious dynamism and energy and innate common sense that defines this network of leaders, this Pragmatic Caucus, will ultimately prevail. This is bottom up innovation and nation re-building in the making, a silent affirmation of democratic principles and possibilities that should both inspire and humble the partisans bogged down in Washington DC.