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.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans trust their local governments. And Congress? Just 40 percent trust our country’s legislative branch — the lowest of all major institutions in this country. It is also in these smaller governments located outside of Washington, D.C., where Americans perceive progress on the country’s major challenges. So why do we so often call on the distant reach of our capital to solve problems that are right in front of us?
Americans trust their local governments because they are tasked with doing things we want: keeping us safe, educating our children, cleaning the streets. And while we have some say in who our nationally elected leaders are and what they do, it is hardly the sort of choice offered by our nearly 36,000 local governments. At the local level, we may vote with our feet as well as our ballots.
It is time we gave local a chance once again. The people and places closest to us are where we tend to direct our care and our energy; they should enjoy the authority necessary for diverse citizens to pursue flourishing lives together. In the 21st century, localism should be the rallying cry for those who believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Local governments are a living tradition within the political order set out in the Constitution. The Founders recognized the municipality as a natural political entity arising from Americans’ associational life. Self-government depends on an active citizenry owning their own affairs. That is why American federalism, while formally two-tiered, is practically three-tiered. Local governments are constitutionally subordinate to states, but they reserve and preserve some legal and political autonomy, if not direct power.
People are the ultimate source of power in this country, and municipalities exercise their power closest to the people. In contrast to the top-down, centralized authorities higher up in the governmental food chain, local governments are decentralized bottom-up polities. In this way, municipalities, along with the states, help devolve authority away from the federal government and keep power from becoming too concentrated in Washington — or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Assigning responsibility to the smallest and lowest units of competent authority yields better governance, if not always better government. Embracing local government doesn’t eliminate all the challenges inherit in democratic governance, including disagreement, and even conflict and corruption. Nevertheless, local governments are better positioned than national governments to tackle particular challenges within their own contexts. Local knowledge is the feedstock of good governance, even if it does not always produce perfect policies. At the very least, being so close to a relatively small electorate — both in terms of decision making and revenue — helps elected leaders voice the tune of their constituency.
Citizens, in turn, feel a sense of empowerment from active participation in local government, which ideally leads to more civic engagement. This is how municipalities become schoolhouses of democracy. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “a nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have a spirit of liberty.” Self-government? Popular accountability? Limited government? These democratic concepts are birthed and nurtured locally.
The technocrats and bureaucrats, ideologues and advocates in our federal and state governments are jealous of local power. “A highly civilized community can hardly tolerate a local independence, is disgusted at its numerous blunders, and is apt to despair of success before the experiment is completed,” said Tocqueville. This is also true for the managerial class in local governments who covet deference by elected leaders often lacking expertise. Experts and elected leaders compete for political market share, just as cities and states do.
What about constitutional and individual liberties? Local governments are well-positioned to protect these rights, and states should defer to them — at least until localities fail these basic duties. Local governments are not immune to the temptation to gorge themselves on authority that is not theirs to claim. And when their hunger for power comes at the expense of citizens’ rights, states should step in. The Constitution is both the reason and limiting principle for preempting municipalities.
Cultivating America’s distributed genius starts by elevating local solutions. That does not necessarily mean devolving power to local governments; communities are greater than the sum of their political powers. Practically speaking, networks of local leaders and institutions, leveraging social, financial, and physical capital, provide the architecture of localism.
A renewed federalism would nevertheless involve an active and ongoing devolution by the federal government to states and localities on many policy decisions that directly affect citizens’ lives — including housing, education, welfare, and more. The decision to support a bill in Congress or not should depend on a community-based standard of whether its policies actively advance local institutions and local authority. For instance, the 2017 federal tax reform helped direct private investment to “opportunity zones” in economically distressed areas. Arguably, this empowered states and localities by allowing them to leverage local networks and know-how and was thus worthy of support on federalist grounds.
But federalism also demands that municipalities fulfill their obligations with maximal democratic authority within their spheres of governance. Self-empowering weak municipalities — say, through stronger mayors or by unifying city and county governments — must go hand-in-hand with greater democracy. This can be done, for instance, by devolving less scalable issues to neighborhood bodies. Housing policy may be best addressed at the metropolitan scale, while infrastructure maintenance is best handled at the hyper-local level. When it comes to providing quality public services to residents, local governments should aim for efficacy checked by democracy.
Cities and towns have always animated the American project, their local governments acting as the central nervous system of the body politic. Participation in matters of shared consequence can reinforce a sense of the common good, laying the foundation for communities in which citizens share the tasks of maintaining and improving the places where they live. Without functioning local governments, the larger political community is in danger of heart failure.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the American project today is apathy — the sense that no one in power listens to us or is trustworthy. Social media and other technologies intensify rather than quell these anxieties. Liberating ourselves from the local has not made us freer but rather placed us under the authority of a seemingly unaccountable central government along with an increasingly concentrated economy.
It is time we believed again in the power of local — local solutions, local opportunities, and local democracy. Our life together in community, from which local governments are born, should be the building blocks of the American project.
Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.