This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
Abstract tribalism lies at the heart of today’s virulent identity politics and political divisiveness. Always clannish, we humans tend to seek “membership” in ideologically compatible alliances, however far removed from our daily lives they may be.
This placeless clan mentality is often accompanied by strong emotions, which the proliferation of social and digital media has served to expand and energize. But while ideological tribalism consumes so much of our energy, our daily happiness is more directly affected by mundane things much closer to home, such as family, friends, hobbies, and jobs. We may rant on Twitter about how bankers or Democrats or pro-lifers are ruining America, and yet enjoy time spent with our neighbors and coworkers who happen to be bankers or Democrats or pro-lifers. The closer something is to us, the more it defies narrow categorization.
Tacitly or explicitly, we all know that the unique particularities of our lived experience do not conform to the stereotypes that drive national controversies. It is thus unsurprising that localism appears ascendant in America.
Interest in localism is rooted in a two-fold recognition: that America has grown too big and complex for one-size-fits-all federal solutions to enduring problems; and that our civic culture is healthiest when our clannishness is channeled into communities that lie close to home.
Authors Michael Hais, Doug Ross, and Morley Winograd have argued for a “constitutional localism,” which would drive as many decisions to local communities as possible while respecting the diversity of outcomes such decisions would produce. Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak have documented a “new localism” in which policymaking takes inspiration from the successes and insights of urban areas. In his best-selling “Suicide of the West,” Jonah Goldberg argues that when we lose our tethers to the institutions that serve as a training ground for liberty and self-government, such as families, churches, and local communities, we revert to tribalism. And in “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin contends that America’s future success will depend on our ability to strengthen the mediating institutions of civil society.
These and other defenses of a renewed localism in America are a welcome response to ideological tribalism’s two most pernicious expressions.
The first is the tendency of the political party in power to use federal policy as a means for imposing narrow ideological objectives on the nation as a whole. The second is tribalism’s a priori hostility to pluralism.
If we are going to address these problems, we need to embark on a national effort to renew local dynamism in America. This renewal should focus on two main objectives: solving big problems by devolving the authority for solutions to the local level; and strengthening civic ties and social capital in communities everywhere.
The first point concerns policy reform. The goal is to effectively distribute responsibilities to the sub-national unit of government best-suited to solve a specific problem. Responsibility is the mother of both compassion and innovation, so the more of it we can hand over to those who can directly effect change, the better.
The second point concerns civic togetherness, if not unity. Creating more ways — and more places — for people to tackle problems together at the local level creates social capital that fosters a strong civic ethos. Moreover, as numerous studies have shown, it increases economic opportunity.
We live in an era of bigness, in which large companies increasingly account for a greater share of national GDP and a massive federal government exercises ever-expanding powers. In this context, it is worth remembering both that smaller-scale communities and units of government are associated with better economic growth and that confidence in local government surpasses that in the federal government. (See “Localism in America,” a volume I co-edited with Joel Kotkin.) For these reasons, a growing demand for localism is a good thing for America.
However, it is important not to overcorrect and ascribe a nostalgic sanctity to localism, which is not fully warranted. Such nostalgia usually takes two forms.
The first is an idealized view of devolution. Simply devolving power and resources to state and local governments does not always yield the kinds of outcomes we imagine. Cases in point are housing and schools. The high cost of housing in otherwise opportunity-rich cities around the country is driven far more by local land-use requirements than by regulations imposed by distant bureaucracies. And, as conservatives rightly discovered years ago, firm school-district boundaries are often bad for kids and their families. We cannot pursue devolution for its own sake without thoughtful regard for the liberties and opportunities of the people living in the relevant communities.
The second nostalgic temptation is to take an overly traditionalist view of communities. The “unchosen obligations” inherent in familial and communal bonds are indeed the bedrock of civil society. Without them, the cultivation and care of the individual falls to the state, which typically works far worse than the creators of “the life of Julia” imagine. But we have to be honest and recognize that unchosen obligations are not always healthy or good. Some stagnating and declining communities with concentrated levels of family breakdown, drug use, and vocational anomie may be so civically depleted that it would be better for young people to leave and seek opportunities — and form new obligations — elsewhere.
The question for localists is which combination of social and political responsibilities will most likely help non-affluent, middle-class, and low-income Americans to fairly pursue their potential. Vibrant and civically strong communities cannot be reserved for the highly educated and affluent. If, for instance, municipal land-use regulations make housing unaffordable for middle-class people and institutionalize NIMBYism, there may be a need for a supra-local mediating body to override such regulations, or at least require that the municipality bear the cost of its NIMBYism. Or if a declining industrial town or city is plagued with drug use, failing schools, and a depleted civic culture, it might make sense to provide resources for aspiring students and workers to relocate to other more promising places while business and civic leaders figure out how to reinvigorate the place.
None of this is to suggest that renewing a commitment to localism is wrong-headed. Quite the contrary. However, 21st -century localists must come to a renewed understanding of what self-government means for ordinary people in a nation characterized by overwhelming geographic inequality. More intra-regional diversity and competition for housing standards, education, and training options is a good place to start. So are complementary policies that make geographic mobility easier for people living in distressed communities.
But to do any of that, we need elected leaders at the federal and state level willing to listen and learn from local leaders and innovators. This initial hurdle may be the biggest of all.
Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.