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The Politics of Magical Thinking

The longterm decline in local government and civil associations is an important piece of the "why Trump?" puzzle.

James K.A. Smith made a valuable point on Twitter yesterday:

The longterm decline in participation in local government and civil associations is an important piece of the “why Trump?” puzzle. The less experience citizens have in the practical work of politics, the more mysterious it becomes to them. Rather than (mostly) honest people trying to do a tough job, politicians are seen as wizards who command dark and incomprehensible powers. If they fail, it is not due to the difficulty of  the task, but because they capriciously refuse to make full use of their abilities.

Social scientists have been debating the cause of declining civic participation for years. Contributing factors include residential mobility, the entry of women to the workforce, the decline of local news coverage.

But the deeper issue is the centralization of power. As Robert Nisbet wrote (quoting José Ortega y Gasset), people “do not come together to be together; they come together to do something together.” When the national government asserts its authority over an ever broader range of issues, ordinary citizens and the small duties they can discharge become irrelevant.

For the last century, progressives have been critics of local government and civil society. Not without justification, they’ve attacked the corruption, inefficiency, and injustice of political parties, town councils, private charities, and proposed national solutions to otherwise overwhelming problems. Conservatives bear responsibility, too. Dogmatic hostility to unions has helped marginalize the most effective form of association available to workers in large enterprises.

The problem is that national solutions have rarely been as easy or successful as promised, while purely individual efforts are impotent. Rather than qualified confidence in energetic politics, centralization promotes a vaguely schizophrenic combination of hope that government can do everything with the knowledge it’s failed in the past. Those are the conditions in which magical thinking thrives. It’s especially appealing when the institutions that once allowed citizens to exercise control over their common affairs are neutered or moribund.

Trump, in other words, is just a symptom. The disease is older, and also more frightening. Once we’ve lost our capacity for meaningful self-government it’s almost impossible to get it back. As Tocqueville foresaw nearly two hundred years ago:

It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity. I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.



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