Home/Daniel Larison/Decentralism


On a more serious note, there are several good articles in the new TAC that deserve your attention. In the first article from the issue now online, Jim Antle argues for a conservative revival with a paleo-friendly agenda that does not define itself with paleo labeling:

An objection is likely to enter even the minds of sympathetic readers. This sounds a lot like paleoconservatism, whose adherents are too quirky, too cantankerous, and too small in number to put together an effective political movement. But we needn’t call it “paleo” anything. It’s the ideas that matter. Not so long ago a platform along these lines—limited government, decentralism, a national interest-based foreign policy, and resistance to multiculturalism—would have been considered conservatism without the prefix [bold mine-DL]. And is it really that outlandish compared to the leading alternatives? Right now, Republicans are arguing about whether they want to remain the party that is in the minority now or go back to being the party that was in the minority for decades after the New Deal.

Broadly speaking, this is somewhat similar to what I was calling for last year, and obviously I agree with the agenda Jim is describing. I do think a paleo-populist direction makes more sense, I don’t much care what label we apply to it, and it is far more likely to meet with the approval of most conservatives than the agenda offered by the “reformers.” Over the last few months, I have annoyed quite a few readers (and Jim Antle) with my criticism of the mainstream conservative response to Obama’s agenda, because I have conceded the one key electoral insight that the “reformers” have, which is that voters do not respond to an agenda of reducing the size and scope of government in practice, however much they may claim to embrace its rhetoric and accept its slogans. One question I keep raising is this: are conservatives looking for an agenda that is going to be popular in the short to medium-term, or are they satisfied to advocate for policies that have limited appeal in the conviction that these are the right and necessary policies for the country? Is it really the case that it is the ideas that matter, or are we supposed to be concerned with producing electoral victories?

More to the point, how would such ideas win over an American public that has become steadily more dependent on the very policies and structures of government and corporations? To be brutally frank, what appeal do we really think political decentralism will have in a country in which people are conditioned to want to flee their homes and to adapt themselves to the demands of our megalopoleis? Toward what communities are we proposing to decentralize, and what political weight do they actually have? If people do not, or in some cases cannot, reject consolidation and centralism in everyday life and in economic affairs, why are they going to prefer it in government? In other words, having already lost much of the culture and actively collaborated in the economic dislocation ravaging many of these communities, what political remedy do conservatives think they can offer to counter the effects of all this? I am not saying this to be contrarian or difficult–these are the questions we have to be able to answer if we expect anyone to take our arguments seriously.

The conservatism Jim describes ought to serve Middle American interests, as these are the people who are its natural constituents. However, the social base for the conservatism Jim advocates has been weakening under the pressures of many of the policies that mainstream conservatives have supported. The point is not simply to repeat that mainstream conservatism is not serving the interests of its natural constituents, but to acknowledge that this has contributed to harming the social base on which any conservative political success has to be founded. Jeremy Beer reflects on the causes of Middle American decline, and identifies one of the most important ones:

And that is that fly-over country, by and large, has been hemorrhaging intellectual capital for decades. The most talented young men and women, the most able, the most intelligent and creative, have been leaving to go off to college — or have been lured off to college — only to return in ever-diminishing numbers.

Of course, it is not possible to isolate this drain of intellectual and social capital from the loss of economic capital (yet another reason why the dislocations of globalization are ruinous for local cultures and communities) from these regions of the country: poor states remain so because the most talented leave (indeed they are encouraged to leave and their ability to leave is celebrated), but these people leave because there are so few opportunities, and once-prosperous states begin to enter the same downward economic-demographic spiral as their local and regional economies are gutted in the name of efficiency and growth. Rather than a conservatism of place and stability, we have had the conservatism of meritocracy and opportunity, and partly as a result of this the places that have tended to produce conservative voters are dying off and their children are assimilating to the norms and adjusting to the realities of the megalopoleis. When people experience the effects of income inequality and social and economic stratification, they tend to be drawn to left-liberal politics and government remedies, and the conservative and neoliberal cry of solving these structural problems with more education and opportunity not only does not appeal to the megalopolitans, who see them as woefully lacking, but also adds insult to injury for those adversely affected by the upheaveals of rapid economic, technological and cultural change. More important than undermining the political prospects of the right, this pattern of upheaval and stratification is fundamentally unhealthy for the country and will create profound political instability and civil strife over the long term.

Responding to one of my posts on empire, James Poulos reasonably observed that there are many urban centers that absorb and concentrate Middle America’s intellectual and social capital and it is not the political center, Washington, that does this. That is largely true, but it also makes it that much more clear that focusing conservative efforts on the political center, while making few or no efforts to counteract centralizing and consolidating tendencies in the rest of the country, is rather futile if the goal is anything other than contesting for control over the central state as it exists. At the same time, to the extent that Middle Americans are sending any of their remaining most-talented people to Washington I submit that their time would be more productively spent back home.

One of the constants of much paleoconservative criticism of the pursuit of electoral victory is that the political path has been tried for decades and has in almost every respect failed to conserve much of anything that traditional conservatives want to conserve. Even though I enjoy political talk and strategizing as much as anyone, I find it hard to disagree with this. Part of what I proposed last year involved a practical decentralism, in which building up or shoring up local institutions and creating constituencies that then have a vested interest in devolving power take precedence over getting candidates elected who make the right noises about decentralization. Jim mentions that the agenda he describes would have been considered generic conservatism not that long ago. However, what that amounted to in practice domestically was that all of the rhetoric praising federalism and states’ rights, the demands for local control and condemnations of unfunded mandates had little or no meaningful effect, and before very long the GOP majority was offering up its own unfunded mandates with their intrusion into local and state education and doing nothing except to concentrate more power in Washington.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles