How the Left Fell in Love With Localism
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.