The heartland spoke; the world listened. On April 5, 2006, hundreds of newspapers across the globe, from Italy’s Il Manifesto to the Los Angeles Times, shared a similar headline: “Wisconsin votes for troop pullout.”
One day earlier, citizens in 32 Wisconsin cities, towns, and villages had cast ballots for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Voters in tiny villages in the North Woods and the Door Peninsula, in the regional urban centers of Madison and La Crosse, and in the small cities that are the heart of the Badger State, sent a clear message. As Green Party activist Steve Burns told newspapers, the vote meant that “opposition to the war [has] become the majority sentiment,” winning over communities that had voted for George Bush only months earlier.
While peace advocates rejoiced over the events, the Bush administration was unresponsive to Wisconsin’s extraordinary display of democracy. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan attempted to downplay the Wisconsin vote, concluding that while “all Americans” wanted the troops home, they also understood the importance of the “mission in Iraq.”
The Wisconsin troop withdrawal votes were a best case example of “municipal foreign policy”—the practice of local communities and state governments taking on matters of national and global import. Wisconsinites revived their Progressive-era municipal direct legislation law—allowing citizens to initiate popular referenda on ordinances, resolutions, and other legislative matters—to put the war on the ballot.
Wisconsin has hardly been alone. In the prelude to invasion, over 200 city, town, and village councils voted against war with Iraq. In 2005, 40 Vermont communities voted in town meetings for Iraq withdrawal. In November of 2006, voters in 139 Massachusetts communities and a half dozen Midwestern cities followed Vermont and Wisconsin in casting ballots for withdrawal. Today more than half of all Americans live under local or state proclamations of opposition to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
As the federal government has increased troop deployments to Iraq, local and state officials are also upping their anti-war efforts. Lawmakers in Vermont have introduced legislation declaring that the original mission in Iraq is over and congressional authorization for deploying the National Guard has expired. If enacted, this legislation would be more than symbolic: it would end future Vermont Guard deployments to Iraq. Other states are following Vermont’s lead. Meanwhile, citizens around the country have launched new campaigns to enact municipal laws barring military recruitment of minors.
City and state opposition to the Iraq war is only one expression of a larger set of movements. People are turning to local governments for a voice in international affairs because they perceive the current federal government to be at best absent, at worst an obstacle. The Cities for Peace movement, which helped unite local action against the Iraq war, is now coordinating a growing number of cities that oppose a possible future attack on Iran. The climate change movement has found a voice in the more than 800 cities that have signed on to the principles of the Kyoto Protocol. Mayors for Peace, more than 2,100 members strong, works for the abolition of nuclear weapons. New “Sister City” relationships are forming all the time, often rekindling diplomatic ties with cities in nations spurned by the Bush administration—like Venezuela, Palestine, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
Into the Breach
What powers these municipal foreign policy efforts is not fuel, but a vacuum. Polling shows that public faith in each of the three branches of federal government is at an all-time low. This crisis in confidence extends beyond federal failures to heed the will of the people on matters of foreign policy, environment, and peace. When New Orleans’ levees were breached, Katrina exposed the depth of the divide between federal policies and local needs.
Now local governments are taking matters into their own hands. They are willing to do more than pass resolutions to pressure federal officials—they are enacting their own minimum wage ordinances, public universal health coverage, and sick leave laws; and establishing community wireless, community cable, public power, and municipal food utilities. A ballot measure in Humboldt County nullifies the doctrine of corporate constitutional rights. The sanctuary cities movement gives local protection to undocumented immigrants. And local governments have passed ordinances that direct local officials to respect the Bill of Rights before the Patriot Act.
Local governments have stepped into the breach—giving voice, services, and human rights protections to people, cities, towns, and counties, and becoming key agents of democratic change in America.
A Future for Municipal Foreign Policy
Challenges remain. Federal officials increasingly preempt local initiatives in international affairs, drug policy, health care, labor law, and telecommunications. But local people can and do push back. The new Local Democracy Network unites community organizers, local elected officials, and others to spread the good news about local innovation and develop strategies for strengthening local home rule.
Where is all this leading?
In the short term, expect to see the municipal foreign policy trend grow. While the November elections will produce some change in Congress and in the White House, a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq seems unlikely. So citizens will continue to use the levers of local government to impact U.S. foreign policy. In the mid-term, expect to see the federal government begin to respond to the bubbling up of local innovation and pressure. In the long-term, hope to see the triumph of greater local democracy and a more accountable federal government.
If, in the words of that most global of progressive happenings, the World Social Forum, “another world is possible,” it is mostly because the people in our cities, towns, and villages are making it so.