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Small-town life can be charming—and imperfect. But what do its virtues tell us about big-time national issues? (“The County Election,” by George Caleb Bingham, St. Louis Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons)
It’s been four weeks since the U.S. election day. Through most of that time I’ve been offline and underwater (or in the air), finishing one big project and beginning another. Starting this week, my wife Deb and I will be in the West for an extended period of American Futures reporting that fortunately coincides with the extended period known as “winter” in the East. To kick that off, a word about the connection between what we’re seeing town-by-town and the larger politics of the country as a whole.

Election Day brought a lot of results I was sorry about, from Maine to Florida to Colorado to Alaska, but also a few glimmers on the bright side:

  • Next year’s class of freshman representatives will include two mid-30s Democrats who scored upset wins. One is Pete Aguilar, the mayor of my ancestral home town of Redlands, California, whom we met and interviewed as part of our reporting in Redlands last year. Republicans have held this district for most of my lifetime, but Aguilar made it through on a big Republican night by a 51-49 margin. The other is Seth Moulton, who upset long-time incumbent Representative John Tierney (not our John Tierney) in the Democratic primary and then beat his Republican opponent easily in the general. You’ll hear more from Moulton, among others, in my magazine story next month.
  • Voters in Kanawha County, West Virginia, which includes the capital city of Charleston, approved by a 2-to-1 margin a tax increase, or levy, to support the local public library. This was only a year after a similar measure had gone down to a bad defeat. We were in Charleston on election day, and Deb Fallows explained why the library-funding fight mattered, for civic-culture reasons extending beyond the library itself. Editor Brad McIlhinny of the Charleston Daily Mail also wrote about some of the civic-culture questions we discussed with him and opinions editor Kelly Merritt.
  • Jerry Brown won in a walk for a fourth term as governor of California, which for reasons I explained early last year I view as a plus for the state and for the country as a whole. The benefit to the country, I argued in that earlier article, is what Brown’s longevity shows about the often-scorned craft of practical politics. Brown’s survival is also an obvious plus for his signature high-speed rail project in California, which I’ve examined in 14 pre-election installments and about which there’s one final episode to come.
  • My current “taxation without representation” home borough of D.C. passed a marijuana-legalization initiative by a mind-blowing huge margin. I voted yes (when we got back from Charleston before the polls closed), not because I wanted to relive the high times of the 1960s but because the police and penal activity devoted to this front of the War on Drugs is such a brutalizing dead loss. Now our seigneurs in the Congress, elected from somewhere else and representing exactly no one in D.C., will decide whether to allow the locally passed initiative to take effect.

On to the larger political theme: Through the past year Deb Fallows, (our) John Tierney, and I have tried to demonstrate that even as national-level politics comes closer to the devastating pointlessness of trench warfare in 1917, political life at the local and regional level can be impressively sane, practical-minded, and productive. This article from a few months ago is one example: We’ve had lots more, like this and this.

A few weeks ago a reader named John Kilian wrote in from North Carolina to say that I had correctly observed these promising signs from non-national-level politics, but that I was drawing the wrong conclusion from them. As he put it:

What you are discovering on your road trip is the genius of conservatism. A smart conservative could use your title, “national problems, local solutions” as a title for a fine book or lecture. Laboratories of democracy, etc. People know what is best for their own community, and they know best how to deal with local issues.

You can read his full argument here. Since then lots of readers wrote in to make the opposite case. Here is a sampling.

1) It’s all about scale. From a reader in New York state:

My wife and I watched Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts. It reminded me, as I’m sure it did many others, of how the scale and urgency of this country’s challenges can overwhelm the capacity of local solutions. And that at such times … Civil War, Reconstruction, the excesses of the Gilded Age when individuals’ power exceeded local or even national public ability to act, war …”local” takes on a different meaning.

What Mr. Kilian may not consider is that today’s global connectedness can make any country itself “local” but that local impact can be quickly global. I point to the current ebola scare/hysteria/crisis as just one example of that. Or go back to 9/11 as another historic marker of such local/global interplay. As Chalmers Johnson famously noted, “blowback” from seemingly remote actions can be seen as local impacting global ….

Your series highlights how innovation in all fields can and does emerge from small scale actions inside bigger systems. The real question as I see it is how does such innovation infiltrate and change the larger system in a symbiotic vs. cancerous relationship.

One can look at how we’re meeting (or not) our national energy demands as an example of how a mix of options (wind, solar, geothermal, bio-fuel, fossil) could be applied differently, reflecting local conditions. An energy mix that would work effectively in the Southwest would require a different mix in the Northeast.

However, there are forces of big systems … in this example, the Big Energy corporate entities … that work hard politically to maintain their position of economic power. So, Mr. Kilian’s apparent focus on the deficiencies of “big gummint” overlooks or avoids the reality of other big powers that transcend and can determine outcomes in our social system.

2) “I had to laugh.” From a reader in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota:

I had to laugh after reading the comments from Mr. Kilian …. He seems to have confused the notion of political alliances and parties with the notion of practicality.

Your tour of smaller cities throughout the nation has demonstrated that local governments and local interests create practical solutions for the issues they face. Neither national party has a really focused capacity to address these types of local issues, but local groups need and want to fix whatever ails them. This is simple, obvious, and practical—but frankly has nothing whatsoever to do with either a progressive or conservative sensibility.

Practicality is indeed a very “American” characteristic, and we find it wherever we travel in the USA. Mr. Kilian seems to feel his own party has a greater claim on practicality—without any really compelling justification.

I would argue that both major parties have found themselves increasingly distant from the issues and concerns of everyday citizens who are simply trying to make life meaningful, safe, and productive. In fact, the policies of both parties are now more closely associated with large donor groups (Wall Street, big oil, big insurance, military contractors, arms suppliers) than with any of the issues and concerns of most everyday working Americans.

This is arguably one of the main reasons why local governments find that they must solve their own problems. The most important discretionary parts of our national budget have been spent on completely failed wars serving nobody but the contractors and military suppliers.

If such spending ($3 to 5 trillion by most estimates—mostly off budget, while schools, bridges, roads, and other critical infrastructure is failing in very dangerous ways) is what Mr. Kilian means by fiscally and socially conservative policy, I would enjoy the chance to hear his rationale—but I am not holding my breath.

Knox White (foreground), mayor of Greenville, S.C., and city director of economic development Nancy Whitworth, from our story about city governments that work.  (Peter Frank Edwards)

3) “It’s the equivalent of shutting down all the hospitals, paying prayer groups to heal people, and then proclaiming victory when someone recovers from the flu.” From a 30-something reader on the East Coast:

Mr. Kilian’s points would be great had he raised them 30 years ago, but now they seem hopelessly out of touch. Sure, “National problems, local solutions” would be a title for a conservative text nowadays, but that text would be filled with rants about judicial activism, the national war against babies, and the urgent need to keep Mexicans from using Ebola as part of their alliance with ISIM.

The idea of states as laboratories is largely unused now, with the notable exception of marijuana legalization (and I can’t imagine a Republican president from the current flock that would have held the DEA back as much as we’ve seen under our president).

Yes, local solutions are helping, but when he refers to the “vacuum caused by the lack of federal action,” I had to laugh. That same lack of action is the very hallmark of modern conservatism. The GOP’s entire strategy has not been “reasoned debate about localizing government;” rather it’s been “obstruct, obstruct, and obstruct.” His points are the equivalent of shutting down all the hospitals, paying prayer groups to heal people, and then proclaiming victory when someone recovers from the flu. Sure, local action is better than no action, and no action is what we often see at the federal level, but that hardly supports the idea of being a conservative nowadays.

Maybe he means simply being a reasonable, small-government conservative, but he may as well ask you to become a dragon-slaying knight as well. Or he may as well ask Obama to show Rooseveltian fortitude and threaten to pack the Supreme Court through sheer will. We deal in the politics we have, not the politics we wish to have (or the politics Aaron Sorkin puts on TV).

Certainly, local problems can benefit greatly from localized solutions. But one thing that goes unnoticed by Mr. Kilian, I believe, is that those local solutions are largely liberal ideas as well.  He says the HSR project is a local solution? Ask any conservatives in California if it’s local, and I suspect they’ll complain about the tyranny of Governor Brown and the need for county level solutions … [JF note: This suspicion is correct.]

4) It’s all about scale, in a different way. From a reader in the Pacific Northwest:

I am a big believer in localism. But I don’t think the argument for becoming a conservative as a result of observing the benefits of localism really works, unless and until localism actually deals successfully with the big national problems that affect the great bulk of the population (particularly the minority communities) that live in huge cities—and even bigger national problems such as air pollution, water pollution, climate change, immigration, etc.

To me, this is a missing piece of the overall picture. I don’t know the solutions. But not using the federal government to tackle these problems that really can’t be tackled completely or successfully locally—no matter what—is why the thrill of localism, which I share, doesn’t make me a political conservative.

5) “When the market works, we are happy.” From a reader whose whereabouts I don’t really know:

Your correspondent gets to his point thusly:

“And yet the Democratic Party, and most liberals, are wedded to the notion of top-down, big national projects that we vote for and pursue because we want to get it done.”

Once again, this is a profoundly inaccurate description of liberal political and economic policies. What we want is to make the systems work. And when the market works, we are happy. When distortions or incentives serve to make market based solutions unworkable, we very happily champion government interventions. In some (actually, fairly rare) cases, those problems are national, and require federal-government intervention—Social Security, veterans health, Medicare, universal healthcare overage—but there is nothing in the liberal agenda that desires “top down, big national projects.” Just making use of the community leadership at whatever level appropriate to produce outcomes that are fair, just, and beneficial to the community as a whole, not just the leadership or the merchant class.

But I suppose they’ll never stop mischaracterizing these simple policy positions, because to do so would require them to admit that there are times when intervention in community affairs is the right answer …

6) The federal government doesn’t work, but that’s no accident. Another reader:

While I believe that there are many areas that are well-suited for state and local initiatives, your correspondent seems to me to be missing the real reasons that state and local governments are currently more effective than the federal government, which are the structural differences between them.

The most obvious one is that most state governments have no equivalent to the filibuster, which has evolved to make the U.S. Senate incapable of action most of the time. [JF note: Jerry Brown very strongly made this same point to me, as noted here.] Also, the Supreme Court and the 14th Amendment have made it impossible for the states to have the kind of ridiculous imbalances between their Senate districts that result in the massive unrepresentativeness of the U.S. Senate, and at least partly as a result both houses of a state legislature are generally controlled by the same party, as currently only five legislatures of the fifty are split. Of the 45 with unified control, 38 have a governor of the same party. Compare that to the frequency of divided government at the federal level.

While it is true that in the past the federal government was able to function despite this, it is pretty clear that is no longer the case with partisan division at levels resembling those of the 1850s. It is useful to remember that the federal government was not functional then either, and many obviously desirable projects had to wait for the Southern legislators to absent themselves before they could be enacted ….

In my view, the only solution to federal dysfunction is to replace or substantially revise the Constitution. I don’t expect that in the foreseeable future. [JF note: I agree with these first two sentences of the paragraph.] So if we want stuff done, I would suggest pushing for much more substantial and consistent federal revenue sharing, in the hope that state and local governments could accomplish more if they had the resources. I am not of the opinion that whatever regard Republicans have for the virtues of local government is likely to trump their dislike of taxes on the rich, but I imagine it is more likely than major constitutional change.

7) If cities are succeeding, the national government deserves part of the credit. From a reader in Washington, D.C.:

My first thought in response to [Kilian’s note] was millions in block grants made to organizations like Main Streets that have done SOOO much to enhance the downtowns and promote business in small town America; Small Business Administration loans, HUD HOME loans for affordable housing, etc.  

Then in the course of my daily activities, I ran across this list of the government and other agencies helping to promote Dorchester County, Md. It speaks for itself.

I am a card-carrying Democrat and could never change, but I consider myself a conservative in essential ways—ways that are often not recognized. I want to conserve the environment, historic buildings, good jobs with middle-class wages, education at a reasonable price for the masses, sustainable businesses, etc.

8) The theory-reality gap bites the conservatives too. Another reader:

As a person long involved in government reform who worked on performance improvement in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, I take issue with the person who is using your series to justify the conservative approach.

The problem is that the theory is fine, but the reality has not worked. Conservatives have in recent times used their small-government notions to slash budgets, but they have not been able to fill the void with private-sector alternatives in ways that improve the lives of average people on a large scale. The result is the current record gap, for modern times, between rich and poor, and the deterioration of quality of life for mainstream Americans. Your examples are inspiring, but they are isolated examples. If they spread nationwide, we would have a different situation.

The best “liberal” approaches create a platform for the laboratories of democracy to function, allowing a great deal of experimentation, a variety of ways to reach common goals such as improved health, decent housing, thriving children and effective schools. But they do not allow the choice of opting out entirely, and that, unfortunately, is what too often happens if government is not a major player. The current push to repeal Obamacare, with only token mention of “replacing” it without specifying how, is a perfect example.

We all know local solutions are best. But the climate surrounding them must provide incentives to improve lives, waivers from regulations that raise barriers to progress, and a healthy dose of idealism so people can do the hard work of constructive change. Modern conservatism, as translated into politics, has not met this test.

9) The time for an Urbanist Tea Party has arrived. Finally, from reader Jarrett Walker, whose name I use since he’s linking to one of his articles. He sent this from the U.S. West Coast but he has lived and worked extensively in Australia:

The tragedy is that an emerging urbanist left agrees totally with John Kilian, but in this polarized world they’ll never be introduced.

Start here (my article covering last year’s Atlantic/Aspen Citylab event): “Time for an Urbanist Tea Party?”

Thanks to all readers. Road reports are about to resume.