Conservatives, Go Local
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.
It was a liberal Democrat, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who issued the famous line, “All politics is local.” But it’s a truth that conservatives should reflect on today, when so many Americans have become weary of our hyper-nationalized politics, which thrives on outrage and animosity. Conservatives should embrace the quieter yet undeniably American tradition of localism.
For American conservatives, localism ought to be as fundamental as the ideals of limited government and free enterprise. It is rooted in the American principle of federalism as well as the basic attachments we feel to those places we call home. Even — perhaps especially — in an age of globalization, our closest and deepest associations tend to be local: our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, houses of worship, the businesses we patronize, the charities we support. These are what conservatives should seek to conserve, first and foremost.
The seeds of localism were planted within the American conservative movement early on, especially in the writings of sociologists Robert Nisbet and Peter Berger and religious scholar Richard John Neuhaus. (See, especially, Nisbet’s 1953 “The Quest for Community” and Neuhaus and Berger’s 1977 “To Empower People: From State to Civil Society.”)
On the political front, Ronald Reagan sometimes spoke like a localist. As he put it to a Chicago audience in 1975:
I am calling for … a return to the human scale — the scale that human beings can understand and copy; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church congregation, the block club, the farm bureau. It is the locally owned factory, the small businessman who personally deals with his customers and stands behind his product, the farm and consumer cooperative, the town or neighborhood bank that invests in the community, the union local. In government, the human scale is the town council, the board of selectmen, and the precinct captain. It is this activity on a small human scale that creates the fabric of community, a framework for the creation of abundance and liberty.
Civil society became an area of focus for scholars and commentators across the political spectrum during and especially after the Reagan era, with some calling themselves “communitarians.” An updated version of “To Empower People” appeared in 1996, featuring entries from Catholic writer and diplomat Michael Novak, National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise founder Robert Woodson, journalist and author Marvin Olasky, and philanthropy leaders William Schambra and Michael Joyce.
As Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out in a recent forum for the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, the 1990s was a time of fruitful work focused on strengthening civil society through public housing reforms, community policing, and moving Americans from welfare to work. The historic welfare reform of 1996 resulted in a flurry of activities around poverty reduction at the local level. Seeing the importance of local and faith-based entities in tackling poverty, President George W. Bush spoke of “compassionate conservatism,” and launched a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2001.
But these policy initiatives failed to make localism the driving force of the conservative movement, much less American politics in general. Localism became neither the basis for the conservative political coalition nor the focus of its public policy platform. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat described the challenge of transforming localism into policy in his introduction to a 2010 edition of Nisbet’s “Quest for Community.” The problem, wrote Douthat, is that Nisbet’s ideas proved “easier to state in theory … than to actually apply to modern politics.” “Many politicians and pundits have grasped (or half-grasped) Robert Nisbet’s insight. Fewer have successfully put it into practice.”
Some have certainly tried. For instance, as the Republican candidate for vice president in 2012 and later Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan promoted a policy framework focused on communities, following in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Congressman and Housing Secretary Jack Kemp. Yet, as Ryan himself admitted, while many conservatives have “a vision for making our communities stronger,” they “don't always do a good job of laying out that vision.”
This situation did not change markedly in the years after 2012, despite important efforts by conservative scholars such as Yuval Levin and Patrick Deneen (among others) to craft a conservatism communitarianism. In the years leading up to the election of Donald Trump, the Republican Party preferred to stick to inadequate bromides such as “economic growth.” But, as Rod Dreher wrote in his 2006 book “Crunchy Cons,” “does anybody really believe we can grow our way out of our problems? Is another tax cut … going to save marriages, restore children to their parents, heal the land, renew the commonweal? Come on.”
Into this void of inadequate conservatism came Donald Trump, appealing to Americans who felt left behind by a shifting economy, stifled by a tide of political correctness, and repeatedly let down by the political status quo. Trump spoke to deep frustrations in a large part of America’s body politic. Unfortunately, however, the movement he led was built on his own personality, rather than a long-term governing majority. What’s more, the president’s penchant for picking fights and denigrating others only magnified the country’s divisions. Yet, there is reason for hope.
Amid the noise of recent years, some Republicans have emerged as articulate spokesmen for a conservatism based on local and community attachments. Of particular note are Senators Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Mike Lee of Utah (who launched the Social Capital Project to study the nation’s “associational life”). Think tank programs sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, and Manhattan Institute. among others, are exploring ways to transform conservative localism into public policy. For instance, in 2018, Joel Kotkin of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute published a collection of essays entitled “Localism in America: Why We Should Tackle Our Big Challenges at the Local Level.” Finally, the American Project, housed at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, has sparked a number of vibrant discussions about a pathway toward a more communitarian conservatism.
Could these efforts reinvigorate the conservative movement? Or do they amount to just another “gimmicky … scheme,” a “glorious program the Republican Party promises will call down the New Jerusalem,” as Rod Dreher put it, describing the GOP platform before Trump? Such pessimism might be warranted were the tradition of localism not so deeply rooted in our country’s history, habits, and institutions. And it is conserving this tradition — more than any particular policy proposal — that is essential to American conservatism.
In this moment marked by division and alienation, conservatives should seek to build a political movement on the universal impulse to connect and relate to one’s fellow citizens at the local level. For it is through these attachments that Americans can and do care for one another and the communities to which they belong. Conservatives, it’s time to recommit to localism.
Hans Zeiger is member of the Pierce County Council in Washington State and previously served three terms in the state House of Representatives and a term in the State Senate.