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A Renaissance of Localism

The movement, once as small as the things it appreciates, is finding traction in our frenzied age.
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People are at last beginning to pay attention to localism.

The idea behind the term is old—ancient even—but it appears to be “having a moment,” so to speak, in this fractured and divisive era. In their recently released book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak argue for city-centric growth and governance, touting a more decentralized mode of leadership and problem solving. Both the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute have recently argued that localism could offer more accountability and empowerment to needy communities. David Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times in July arguing that localism might constitute a “coming wave” in U.S. politics and culture. And Duke Law School professor Joseph Blocher argued for Vox this spring that “firearm localism” might provide a path forward for gun control and gun rights advocates.

It’s worthwhile, amid all this attention, to revisit the work of those who have been touting the benefits of localism for a decade or more. The Front Porch Republic was founded in response to the 2008 financial crisis, as founding editors Mark Mitchell, Jeremy Beer, and Patrick Deneen recognized the profound inability of both political parties to respond to our nation’s needs. They created an online magazine that offered an alternate view, one not so much “Democratic” or “Republican” as bipartisan and prudential. Their contributing team includes many scholars and professors—such as Hope College political science professor Jeff Polet, Spring Arbor University English professor Jeffrey Bilbro, and Notre Dame architecture professor Philip Bess—but has also featured the dynamic writing and humor of The American Conservative’s Bill Kauffman and Manhattan native Susannah Black.

Now, Mark Mitchell and Jason Peters have reassembled the FPR team to craft a new volume of essays titled Localism in the Mass Age. The essays cover a broad array of topics—from homecoming to foreign policy, urbanism to economics, agrarianism to the hookup culture. But as always, a uniting set of principles bind the contributions together: the authors all highlight the importance of limits—geographic, economic, and political—alongside the necessity of cultural and personal virtue. The essays are not about an idealistic or nostalgic return to village living, nor do they contain tribalistic or nationalistic tendencies. Rather, the authors here remind us that localism is most often discarded because it forces us to confront the imperfections and sins in our midst, as well as those of our neighbors. It is much easier to leave a place than it is to reform it. And it is far easier to prescribe solutions for far-off terrains than it is to serve our neighbor, as Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan so aptly demonstrates.

Localism suggests we must remove the planks from our own eyes before setting out to fix our brothers’. Thus, Jeremy Beer’s essay on “philanthrolocalism” is a fascinating and important addition that considers the perils of big philanthropy and attempts at “global change.” Michael P. Federici argues for a more restrained and virtuous foreign policy in his essay on “modest republicanism,” one that would make prudence “the paramount principle,” thus “resisting the temptation to transform the world or act as its policeman.” On a more practical and personal level, in her essay “Birthright,” Katharine Dalton reminds us that “if you are going to love your neighbor, you must know your neighbor, and to know your neighbor you have to stick around.”

The topics covered in this volume are varied and surprising. Many see Front Porch Republic’s writings as a nostalgic appeal to agrarianism or a curmudgeonly denunciation of progressivism and technology. But in a fascinating essay titled “Do-It-Ourselves Citizenship,” Pete Peterson chronicles a resurgence of municipal activity and empowerment, noting the role technology is taking. “The ‘pleasure of citizenship’…is what we’re seeing across America in response to a fiscal crisis and the increasing presence of technology,” he writes. In at least this instance, technology is helping bind communities together and empowering citizens to serve.

In her essay on port cities, Susannah Black praises the communal solidarity and culture of the waterfront, a space one might not automatically associate with localist enthusiasm, but one which promotes and preserves tradition, vocation, and a profound sense of place. “[T]he type of conservatism that rejects Sailortown because of its messiness, its instability, is a type that seeks perfection in this world,” Black argues. “It is not a measured recognition of the provisional nature of our cities here, the impermanence of all things of this age. Rather, in its hunger for stability—itself a good hunger—it seeks that stability in the quasi-mythical stable communities of the past, the small towns to which the bad city provides the necessary rhetorical foil.”

On the other hand, Black writes,

The conservatism that can love a port city is one that allows cities here to be temporary; it is not threatened by the instability of the water’s edge. The conservatism that can love an imperfect community is one that knows that we are, or are called to be, citizens of the city of God first; that we are exiles here. But there is a second bit to the conservatism that embraces a port city: it is a conservatism that sees the New Jerusalem as it really is: a multiethnic exuberant rejection of all apartheid, a city full of people from all the nations and, moreover, a city with more Ashkenazim in it than ever were in the tenements of the Lower East Side.

Localism must never become an excuse to dislike or judge the “other.” That’s why it is so important that localism not be a rural or Republican or nationalistic movement, but rather a principle of charity and empowerment applied to all peoples and places. Black’s essay rightly highlights this.

There are some topics I’d love to see these authors cover in more depth—such as growing economic inequality and a nationwide opioid crisis, both of which have put many communities in peril. Should people “stick” in places that are dangerous or distressing? What if there are no jobs to be had? How do we foster localism in places that have gone for years without being really loved? Many of the essays in Localism in the Mass Age are very scholastic, oriented towards big-picture philosophical arguments. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if localism continues to be a topic of conversation in coming months and years, it will be necessary to present some further thoughts on how to practically cultivate community and fight off the debilitating “bigness” of our age. Mark Mitchell’s essay on the painful yet rewarding work of agrarianism is just one such example of how this can be done. The growth of Millennial “nones,” need for vibrant local churches, death of the local press, and growing foster care crisis are a few other important topics that could be covered.

If the past few years are any indication, our national atmosphere is only going to grow in rancor and partisanship. We can respond to that by pressing into the muck and mire, fighting for “our side” (if we have one)—or we can seek a third way. For the past decade, Front Porch Republic’s authors have sought to present that third way. Hopefully their vision will continue to flourish and grow in days to come.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.