Our View of Localism – Part 1

Since 2016, conservatives and liberals alike have championed the promise of “New Localism” or “Localism.” David Brooks, Stephen Goldsmith, Richard Florida, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, to name a few, have extolled its virtues.

What is it? The New Localism (also Localism) is a practical data-driven strategy for solving civic problems from the ground up. It recognizes that many of our civic challenges defy top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions, and that local experimentation often yields great ideas. In short, localism is a collaborative, action-oriented philosophy for achieving tangible (even if small-scale, incremental) results.

Why is the concept of Localism garnering so much attention? There are many reasons.

First, as David Brooks has observed, the concentration of wealth, talent and clout in a few large metro areas has nationalized our lives. And, as Daniel Hopkins has written in The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Politics Nationalized, other trends are nationalizing our politics. National media conglomerates tailor their political coverage to national groups. Political mega-donors from a few metro areas drive our national party agendas (77% of federal campaign funds come from only 5% of zip codes).

Second, federal and state governments have become more interventionist—under both parties. When controlled by Democrats, they often impose favored policies on lower levels of governments (e.g., wage requirements) and, when controlled by Republicans, they often use a similar playbook (e.g., preemption laws to preclude local gun controls). Whether federal and state governments are fueled by ideology or paralyzed by gridlock, local governments may be better positioned to address many tough civic issues.

Third, we trust our local governments to get things done. More and more, we see national politics as dysfunctional, federal agencies as bureaucratic and state governments as unreliable. But, nearly ¾ of us trust local government, viewing it as responsive, capable and pragmatic. Moreover, as Richard Florida has noted, except for issues with strong national cues—like guns—we are surprisingly harmonious on local issues (e.g., business incentives, job training, higher education, public services and accountability).

Fourth, localities are becoming more agile, creative and adept at tackling problems long addressed by federal and state governments. All too often, federal government lacks the fiscal capacity, political will or common sense to make over-due investments in people and infrastructure. In contrast, emerging local civic networks are exploring new ways to confront problems, devise strategies, unlock public assets, tap private wealth, build consensus and mobilize resources around shared goals.

Fifth, localism at least partially filters the political contaminants from our dialogue. At the national and state levels, candidates and their operatives find more electoral success in demonizing opponents than offering thoughtful solutions. But our localities cannot delegate intractable challenges (e.g., competitiveness, inequity and climate change) to lower levels of government. They understand that interminable debates are no substitute for action. Localism means setting aside partisan differences, thinking as individuals and acting as part of a broader community.

Localism is no panacea. Its skeptics persuasively argue that a fair, competent federal government is vital—to preserve fundamental rights, maintain our safety net (e.g., social security, Medicare and Medicaid), tackle national challenges (e.g., global competitiveness, climate change, pollution and inequity), oversee large corporations and galvanize local initiatives. They remind us of historic local vices like parochialism, NIMBYism, fragmentation, racism and corruption. Joe Cortright of the City Observatory has argued that the “clarion call to act locally diverts our political attention from the national stage” and the need for a “competent, generous, fair and functional” national government.

But do we really face a binary choice between federalism and Localism? Localism is not, nor should it be, a demand to supplant federalism or weaken federal and state government. By design, our federal system works best with effective national, state and local governments. Scrapping the entire system or decentralizing too much power too fast could impede innovation, facilitate balkanization and threaten vital rights. But, conceding the virtues of federalism should not mean rejecting the tenants of Localism.

Instead, we should embrace Localism for what it offers us, an opportunity to modernize the federal system and regain control of our local destinies. We should reexamine and realign the federal system with the dynamic challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. We should seriously assess bold ideas for restructuring federal and state governments, strengthening governmental partnerships and improving our ability to do the work that needs to be done.

What about closer to home? Localism can inspire us to take responsibility for our communities. It can drive us to build agile networks across diverse constituencies (e.g., businesses, workers, local governments, philanthropies, universities, nonprofits and civic groups). It can enable us to transcend partisanship and coalesce around shared goals and tangible results. It can spur experimentation that yields customized solutions and best practices. It can free cities to leverage their unique resources to assess, plan, improve and compete, without prescriptive federal or state intervention.

Is Localism an antidote to the nationalization of our politics? In some respects, it may fall short of filling that prescription. It alone cannot make our federal and state governments fiscally healthy, politically functional or effective. But, in other ways, Localism is just what the doctor ordered. As an attitude, it can help us become better informed and more resilient. As an outlook, it can help us restore our hopes and control our destinies. As a governing philosophy, it is right for our times.