How the Left Fell in Love With Localism

The Trump presidency and the voids left by the right have many liberals reconsidering the small and the particular.

A celebration during a Ready to Work graduation at the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Nate Gowdy Photography/Seattle OIRA/Flickr

From New Jersey to California, state governors are defying President Trump on immigration. When the new administration pulled out of the Paris climate deal, some states said they’d follow it anyway. As the future of Obamacare hung in the balance, blue states raced to find ways to preserve it locally.

But it isn’t just militant federalism that’s newly in fashion on the left. So is localism.

Localism was once distinctive to the conservative lexicon—like custom, tradition, states’ rights, and human nature. Traditionalists have always defended the loveliness of the local community against the monstrous monolith of the state. It’s a strain of thinking that runs from Southern Agrarians to the present-day Benedict Option. It’s an insight at the heart of works like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Robert Nisbet’s modern classic The Quest for Community. From education to urban enterprise zones, conservative solutions to the days’ biggest public policy dilemmas often accentuate the role of the local over the federal and state.

But no more. Liberals have learned to love localism, too.

The transformation is most obvious in some of the hottest flash points of public policy disputes. First, there is the whole concept of the “sanctuary city”—diverse urban centers where local law enforcement are barred by federal immigration officers from cooperating. This was taken to brazen new levels earlier this year when Oakland’s mayor tipped off locals to impending deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.  

But it isn’t just the issue of immigration. About a decade ago, San Francisco instituted universal health care, beating the Obama administration to the punch. That city’s former mayor and current California gubernatorial hopeful Gavin Newsom recently touted the plan as a model for counties amid the uncertainty of Obamacare.

Income taxes—once the province of federal and state governments—are now on the rise in cities. According to the Tax Foundation, 170 municipalities tax income. Most are small, but 21 of them have at least 100,000 or more residents. Seattle recently took this approach one leap further by levying a per-employee tax on large corporations like Amazon, with the revenues supposedly intended to combat homelessness.

And when Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to rescind the Obama administration’s hands-off policy on marijuana enforcement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a statement bristling with sanctuary city-style rhetoric: “Our Seattle Police Department will not participate in any enforcement action related to legal businesses or small personal possession of marijuana by adults. Federal law enforcement will find no partner with Seattle to enforce the rollback of these provisions,” Durkan declared.

To be sure, conservatives are unlikely to cheer these outcomes (although libertarians might welcome how liberal localists have handled immigration and drug enforcement). That raises the question: is the liberal embrace of localism a cynical strategy—the last stronghold of a liberalism that has lost the three branches of the federal government and most of the gubernatorial seats? Or is there more to this trend?

There is evidence that a serious rethinking is occurring on the left. Recently, the Brookings Institution issued two separate short books promoting the idea of localism. The first was The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, which offers case studies of cities that are “on the vanguard of problem solving.” That was followed in March by Healing American Democracy: Going Local by Mike Hais, Doug Ross, and Morley Winograd, which reads as a sort of short, measured manifesto for the burgeoning movement, if it can be called that.

The authors of Healing American Democracy insist that their plan ahead must be more than a temporary Trump-era retrenchment of liberalism:

We argue that Constitutional Localism, by shifting more public decision-making to the community level, is more than just an expedient way to temporarily escape the enervating and potentially democracy-threatening deadlock in Washington, though we believe that this is an important near-term payoff for a country in urgent need of renewed confidence in democratic governance. We also advocate for it as a fundamental democratic adaptation for Americans who increasingly expect to be able to choose from among different social mores, life styles, political philosophies, and economic opportunities without sacrificing either self-government or membership in a great nation.

The basic idea is simple enough to grasp: Constitutional Localism shifts as much decision-making power over the economy, education, health care, and law enforcement from the federal level to the local level, which presumably entails cities, rural regions, counties, and the like. The Constitutional part emphasizes the authors’ conviction that localism cannot become a local opting out of the consensus on individual and civil rights protected under constitutional law.

One of the main arguments in favor of this new localism is the abject failure of the federal government and the diversity and plurality of American society. At points, the authors’ language is nearly indistinguishable from what a conservative might say on the matter:  

Today, the perception of most Americans is that the national government cannot solve our most pressing problems. In this case, reality and perception are one. Rather than being a powerhouse of innovation and action, the federal government has descended into a paralysis that sustains an unsatisfactory status quo. Americans are looking for a new paradigm for how government should operate.

Within Healing American Democracy there are at least five discernible arguments in favor of localism. Besides the aforementioned failure of the federal government, there is a positive affirmation of local units as better suited—for a range of reasons, from demographics to the localized nature of the contemporary economy—to handle contemporary economic, financial, and other public policy challenges.

Three of the reasons are related to the social and psychological underpinnings of American democracy. Local government is in a better position to be more responsive to citizen needs. Such responsiveness, in turn, is expected to rebuild trust in the institutions of American democracy from the bottom up. Moreover, engagement at the local level, the authors believe, is more conducive to civility—trolls can’t hide behind the anonymity of the internet at school board meetings, so the thinking goes. (On the other hand, this former local news reporter can attest that some of the bitterest battles in all of politics happen between neighbors.)

What are conservatives to make of all this? The newfound liberal embrace of localism seems a rare chance to forge ideological agreement without compromise, in a way that bypasses all the shouting and tweeting in Washington. Yes, of course, liberal-flavored localism might not be amenable to conservative tastes, but this works both ways: while leftist enclaves flirt with instituting a universal basic income and levying a corporate head tax, right-leaning ones can indulge in their dreams of outsourcing almost all city services and privatizing roads.

It is also an opportunity for conservatives to rediscover their own tradition of localism. Most people don’t become conservative to make California or Texas great again. They are ranchers tired of being boxed in by federal lands or harried by relentless regulators. They are religious people who don’t think nuns should be forced to pay for contraceptive coverage. They are parents looking for alternatives to public schools. The constant rallying cry of all the conservative factions has always been, as Grover Norquist puts it, “Leave Us Alone!”

Though many modern conservatives idolize the individual as the anti-state iconoclast, traditional conservatism has always looked to the local—from Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” and Alexis de Tocqueville’s voluntary associations to the subsidiary organizations of Catholic social thought and the “mediating structures” conceptualized by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus. More recently, localism has been reimagined for a new generation by Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and, to some extent, Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic.

Their works come at a time when conservatism, at least at the movement level, is sorely in need of new ideas—any ideas, really. The Reagan revolution was built upon a multi-layered intellectual foundation decades in the making. Not so the current Republican ascendancy. Bannon and Breitbart are no substitute for Buckley and National Review. Fox News is little more than a fight factory. Most talk radio serves only as its amplifier. Disillusioned by Bush’s Iraq war and then driven deep into cultural retreat during the Obama years, the right has been reduced to fighting back on pure instinct, now personified by Donald Trump.

If ideas have consequences, as Richard Weaver famously said, then so does not having any ideas. We are already witnessing the beginnings of them now. One sees them in the implosion of the Obamacare repeal effort, the policy schizophrenia of the Trump administration, and the moral bankruptcy of a president who thinks he can pardon himself.

If liberals are talking about localism it’s only because they are filling the void vacated by thinkers on the right. The new localism, then, is not only an invitation but a challenge to the right, to reclaim its rightful intellectual heritage.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @bealenews.

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22 Responses to How the Left Fell in Love With Localism

  1. Rosita says:

    Bravo!!!

  2. joshua says:

    If liberals are allowed to break and flaunt the law then why must conservative states accept the obergefell ruling? Indeed, why shouldn’t a conservative state outlaw homosexuality?

  3. JohnT says:

    Holy moley, Stevie, you and your fellow “conservatives” put a well documented pathological liar and personification of a sociopath in our White House! And, yet, you insist on corrupting the very clear definitions of liberalism and conservatism required to have a rational conversation. Your intellectual heritage includes enshrining a draft dodging man who sold his friends to a lizard pretending to be a human, Roy Cohn; a US President who nearly destroyed our nation while so malignantly stupid he recorded his efforts; and last but not least a US Vice President who started a war in the Middle East sending young men and women to be butchered while he made himself and his fellow conspirators wealthier. To what intellectual heritage are you referring? Malignant rationalization?

  4. Some people would call me a moral conservative and a social liberal, but, of those two titles, neither fits comfortably; I reject parts of both. At my core, politically speaking, I still have the sensibilities of my Kansas farm boy background, and of my acquaintance with Tocqueville in college and with the biblical prophets and apostles in seminary (and after). Mostly, I yearn to live more according to the faith and values of Jesus and the apostles.

    This desired lifestyle must be grounded not so much in secular politics and institutions, but in local faith communities (and missions organizations) that are serious about helping people follow Jesus more closely and to represent his presence in their social interactions (see David Fitch’s “Faithful Presence”). So my late-in-life dream is to be part of creating such communities. Some such communities may look like the Benedict Option; some won’t. What the various communities must have in common is a willingness to live their way into more Christlike faith and lifestyles. May it be so!

  5. connecticut farmer says:

    What goes around—-comes around.

    Tocqueville was right after all.

  6. James says:

    I don’t buy it one bit. There is a long history of the Left embracing localism, so long as it serves an immediate, short-term purpose, and then immediately chunking once it does not. This isn’t a principled rethink of anything. Its about Trump.

  7. JWM says:

    Can we please get beyond labels and related victim-mongering? The article starts with the left stealing localism from the right, makes some good and valid points in the middle, then ends with the left stealing localism from the right. Have you heard of community organizing? How about labor organizing? Anti-corporatist local economy movements? Left wing boogie men as viewed from the right but all about localization and around for several generations.

    Both the left and the right have promoted localism when convenient and opposed it when not. The left went after toxic localism in the form of Jim Crow, and that was a good thing. I can’t think of a similar example where the right went after localism for good and valid reasons. Too often, it’s conservatives attacking localism when it harms corporate profits or the right to pollute or limits some broader right like gun laws. Their local opponents weren’t leftists but citizens trying to protect their communities from crony capitalists and dictatorial anti-local special interests like the NRA.

    Seems to me localism is one area where the left has actually acted on theory or even based theory on practice while the right considers it some theoretical expression of mythical rugged individualism on a local level. W. Roepke is one of the few on the right who have gotten a proper handle on the issue, at least from an economic perspective. Where is the modern day Roepke?

    In my experience, left leaning localism is well intended but not always grounded in practical reality, especially economic reality. An exception is Michael Shuman and his writing and advocacy re local economies. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the community economics of Roepke and Shuman were wed to the community organizing of the left? That’s what we should focus on, getting beyond the labels that separate us and focusing on the economic and opportunity outcomes that should unite us.

  8. Slugger says:

    You guys are making me feel old. I remember “hippies.” They wanted to start “communes” that were epitomes of localism. They were opposed to the central government and especially the policies of conscription and foreign wars that the government was engaged in. Conservatives of that time tended to denounce them. This was in the Midwest which had a long history of these socialistic communes like the Amana colonies and others.

  9. PrairieDog says:

    Leftists like localism for the municipalities they safely control, but they will fight hard to deny any kind of meaningful local self-government to the (mostly rural) communities which they don’t control. It’s all about the political advantage, not about the principal.

  10. The SDS/New Left/Alinsyites/etc. were localists (perhaps even more than ciy-level, more neighborhood level)

  11. March Hare says:

    Localism is a strategy for keeping what you value about your way of life in the face of outside opposition, especially when the outsiders are winning. It’s a defense strategy against a geographically defined enemy. And it’s also a handy philosophy for ignoring the effects of your own actions on others, if they happen to live somewhere else.

    Southern conservatives were fond of it in the states’ rights sense, retaining in their “peculiar institutions” their ability to own slaves, and after that to preserve their “local” dominion over former slaves. It worked like a charm for many decades.
    Trent Lott was still using that argument in public up until a few years ago.

    The political shoe’s on the other foot now. Largely urban, bicoastal liberals feel under assault for a host of issues where they disagree with those “flyover country” heathens. Their issues are nowhere near as compelling as slavery, or even 1960s civil rights issues, but they can make them sound that way as a rallying cry to their local constituencies.

    For example, much of what people really value about the environmental movement can be framed in an “us vs them” mindset, where the “them” is a distant corporation, or a larger unit of government that is doing something unpopular in one specific place. But with truly global issues, this approach often fails with people who value “localism” because the local effects of some issues (say, climate change in Pruitt’s Oklahoma which is not threatened by coastal flooding) are relatively minor, and the people most affected are people that the locals don’t care about. But everybody’s an environmentalist, everybody’s a NIMBY, everybody’s a localist when Walmart wants to build a warehouse in their back yard.

    There’s something to be said for the concept, despite its historic and contemporary abuses. I love the ability to shop for locally grown food, listen to local musicians playing in small venues, and generally rub elbows with people who share my love for my little corner of nowheresville. I’ve lived all over the world, and chose to return to my roots.

    But we have to be aware of how much bigotry, how much willfully maintained ignorance and mean spiritedness can be hidden under the label of “localism”.

  12. LouisM says:

    There is a meeting place here but its hard to really see where they intersect because I can only think in terms of some aspects of left / right.

    For instance, I don’t see preservationists, the concept for historic districts and tax credits for historic restoration. I could list democrats who sold out historic buildings for demolition and I can list democrats who saved great buildings. I can list republicans who demolished great buildings only to result in an ugly skyscraper or an unbuilt shovel ready parking site….and I can list republicans who went to great lengths to finance historic restorations.

    What was once a beatnik/hippie/counter culture back to earth movement evolved into a back to the farm movement, urban farms, organic foods, heirloom fruits and veg’s…

    But you also have a movement on the right against globalism and imports and immigration. More local manufacturing. More local tradesmen, arts, crafts, skills, etc. More local builders and farmers.

    There is a meeting place were localism meets nationalism and populism. A meeting place where localism stands opposed to globalism which is why this doesn’t seem like a left right issue. Its just a left right issue because both the left and the right had the same idea but approached it differently and now they are slowly intertwining.

  13. Thaomas says:

    The key issue is who is more competent at what? Programs that aim to redistribute income in a big way have to rely on the Federal taxing power. Likewise with respect to the management of externalities that cross state likes and many air and water pollution issues do and health and safety standard setting for good that enter interstate commerce: one FDA is enough. But how to draw the line of how to protect LGBT people in local transactions could be left to the States and states and localities have to be free to withhold cooperation on federal officials enforcing policies that they do not agree with as with deportation of immigrants and recreational drug use and commerce.

    However lovers of liberty should bear in mind that most to the bureaucratic interference with daily life such as occupational licensing, restrictive zoning and land use restrictions and rent controls originates at the state and local level.

  14. Thrice A Viking says:

    Stephen Beale, the National Review is still with us, albeit without William F. Buckley. What do you believe he brought to the journal that it now lacks?

    Slugger, the Midwest did indeed have a long history of socialistic communes scattered across the prairie. The region also had considerable experience with these communes going belly up. Perhaps that was the key to their disgust with the hippies, seeing them as advocates for the same old failed ideas. And wasn’t it a town in The Prairie State that threw the polygamous Mormons out? I believe a number of other communes faced resistance from the locals for advocating that marital practice.

    Prairie Dog, you might well be right. I guess we’ll have to see. One thing that interests me is the issue of states’ vs. local rights. That is, if California declares itself a sanctuary state (they may have already done so), how will they treat towns and cities which aren’t “down” with that movement?

  15. Chuckles in WA says:

    Localism revives among progressive and lefty communities when federal and state governments wield control by conservatives.

    Localism revives among conservative and righty communities when federal and state governments wield control by progressive/liberals.

    The laws of physics sometimes bleed into politics.

  16. Stephen Beale says:

    Thank you for you comments.

    Slugger you are right to bring up communes, that is part of the history of this. LouisM thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

    JohnT: Why on earth would you assume I am a Trump supporter. Look at the other articles I have written.

    Thrice A Viking: the comparison was between Bannon and Buckley. Which is to say there is none.

  17. Rob G says:

    “There is a long history of the Left embracing localism, so long as it serves an immediate, short-term purpose, and then immediately chunking once it does not. This isn’t a principled rethink of anything. Its about Trump.”

    Depends on what type of “leftist” you’re talking about. There are true “decentralist leftists,” like some of the folks at Front Porch Republic, for instance, but they are pretty different from the ones who are just your typical progressive Democrats who happen to read Wendell Berry sometimes.

    You can tell pretty quickly who the real localists are vs. those who approach localism as just another hammer in the progressive toolbox.

    A similar logic applies to conservative localists as well, although it plays out somewhat differently. Some conservative localism is merely anti-statism in Cracker Barrel drag.

    In my experience a true localist is generally suspicious of both Big Government and Big Business.

  18. I’m going to agree with Miguel and Slugger; left-leaning localists have been around for a long time, and while they have never dominated the left in the U.S., they’ve never gone away either.

  19. Stephen Reynolds says:

    John T. complains that Stephen Beale is “corrupting the very clear definitions of liberalism and conservatism required to have a rational conversation.” Maybe it is those very clear, hypersimplistic, historically uninformed definitions that have prevented us from having a rational conversation for many years now.

  20. Wizard says:

    Big government and big business are joined at the hip and long have been, Rob G. Any rational person who is suspicious of either should be suspicious of both.

    National Review is a very different and vastly inferior thing without Buckley, Thrice a Viking. Buckley certainly had his own vision and stayed true to it, but he always had time for nuance and a willingness to ask even uncomfortable questions. While I still find something there worth reading every once in a while, their current content strikes me as ever more shrill and dogmatic. Buckley’s NR helped bring me into conservatism; the current incarnation explains why I left.

    “Sanctuary cities” aren’t breaking the law, joshua. (BTW, I’m pretty sure you mean “flout”. “Flaunt” means to display ostentatiously. Sorry, but that’s a pet peeve of mine.) The federal government has no authority to compel state or local officials to enforce federal laws. They similarly have no legal authority to compel states to pass laws. (The feds usually convince states to do their bidding by bribing them with magic federal tax money. That’s how we got a de facto national minimum drinking age and the late, unlamented double nickel, just for a couple of examples.) State/local officials could face arrest and prosecution if they actively interfere with federal agents enforcing federal laws, but they’re under no obligation to enforce those laws themselves, or to aid the feds in enforcing them.

  21. Thrice A Viking says:

    Stephen Beale: OK, so are you saying that Breitbart is a more powerful force in the GOP than The National Review? I could see your saying that Fox News is stronger than NR, but Breitbart? I’m not so sure about that one.

  22. Rick says:

    Localism is an old liberal ideology. It’s nothing new.

    But conservatives have themselves to blame for the enthusiasm of the localist movement in the left today.

    They said govt. couldn’t work then didn’t govern well. A cynical self fulfillment.

    He last Republican coandidate for the Presidency I could have voted for was Bob Dole.

    That was 22 years ago.

    But in the end we are too big of a country to govern centrally anymore. We have roughly double the amount of people we had when the last reasonably functioning Fed. govt. was in office — Eisenhower into the first 2 years of the Johnson Presidency.

    It’s been an ideological s#%t show since. My entire adult life.

    We are too politically, ideologically, sociologically and economically divided to function anymore.

    We cannot fix this. It is over.

    We need to break up this failed Republic into regions of affinity and be done with it.

    The experiment has failed. We may have 25 or so years left — max.

    The truth is most folks in Texas, Louisiana, or Mississippi could give a damn about the needs of those in Oregon, Massachusetts or New York and vice verse.

    And Florida? Nobody wants to claim that state of vapid lunatics and those who have to endure them by circumstance.

    It’s over. Let’s end this BS and get on with our lives.

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