Localism and the grassroots versus democracy

My old LTIL colleague Boyce Upholt flagged up an interesting article by Jonathan Chait about the “myth of localism:” that is, the misguided belief that local, decentralized governments are by their nature closer to the people than consolidated, centralized bureaucracies. Pointing to Ferguson as a case study in what he calls “Big Small Government,” Chait chides conservatives for their axiomatic preference for local government against federal power, even in cases where it is obviously the latter which is guaranteeing personal liberties against the tyrannical intrusions committed by the former. He goes on to note:

It may seem intuitive that physical proximity makes a government more accountable. This is the image small-government acolytes conjure when they praise the virtues of local government against the distant capital. But even if it was once true that geographic space inhibited representation, back when a congressman’s journey to Washington consumed days of travel, it is certainly no longer. Who do you know more about: your senator or your state legislator? How about your city council member?

Indeed, the way we have twinned geographic centralization and political centralization in our public imagination does not always make very much sense. We assume that the larger a political entity becomes territorially, the greater must be the tension between core and periphery, and the more likely the scenario in which a federal power arrogates imperial powers to itself. To the contrary, political centralization, through the aggregation of smaller territories into a single federal unit, may in fact be the guarantor of a vigorous flourishing of local democracy—not its underminer.

There are plenty of examples of this dynamic playing out throughout global history. For a foreign example, see David Nugent’s “Building the State, Making the Nation: The Bases and Limits of State Centralization in ‘Modern’ Peru,” and Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson’s blog post on how Nugent’s research undermines James Scott’s influential “seeing like a state” thesis. But for a closer-to-home example, I can think of no better figure than Rexford Guy Tugwell, who was both the most extreme statist centralizer of Roosevelt's advisers and a committed believer in local democracy. Tugwell saw his Resettlement Administration as a federal program that could circumvent the petty-mindedness of local élites and return democratic sovereignty to local communities through wise bureaucratic intervention.

Tugwell wrote a 1950 article with E. C. Banfield reflecting on the Tennessee Valley Authority—a project which, in its first years, was the most ambitious project in national planning that the nation has ever seen. In it, Tugwell and Banfield argued that the TVA had suffered from a confusing co-option of centralized power.1 The TVA was conceived as a way to put the political power, technical expertise, and financial underwriting of the federal government in service of the revitalization of a “region” defined by its locally-contingent confluence of cultural and environmental forces. Benton MacKaye, one of TVA’s intellectual parents, promoted this idea of regional diversity expressed through the power of federal planning. He editorialized in favor of the project in a 1933 issue of Survey Graphic, writing that “half the task of statesmanship is to stimulate our culture. To preserve the source thereof (within our dwelling-place and land) is half the task of public works.”2

In Tugwell’s view—exposited through a review of Philip Selznick’s sociological study of the agency—the TVA ended up failing to serve those at the bottom of society specifically because it backed away from full-throated federal power. From the moment of TVA’s inception, local conservatives pushed back against it as a monstrous example of Roosevelt’s dream of a centralized authority. Sensitive to this criticism, the TVA administration went out of its way to promote its “grass-roots” initiatives and its responsiveness to local needs. In practice, however, this meant that local élites were able to seize the TVA for themselves, and the agency was never able to realize its radical democratic vision. Localism thus became, in Tugwell and Banfield’s compelling phrase, the rule of the “grass-tops.” Ever the centralist, Tugwell concluded:

If we look at the structure of American agriculture, we must see that grass-roots decisions are not likely to be democratic, i.e. to result from the participation of all concerned. To think of farmers as equal sons of toil is absurd. The class and caste differences which exist within most farming communities are very marked. In the South grass-roots democracy can only mean the exercise of the powers of government by the white planters; else- where it must mean control by and for the prosperous farmers who have hired men to do their work while they go to committee meetings. The plain fact is that if most farm communities are to have democratic administration they will have to import it from Washington.

The emphasis here is mine, for it is as clear from Tugwell’s point of view in 1950 as it is from Chait’s today that localism by itself does not always mean a better democratic process; to the contrary, it may very well mean a worse one.

Chait, though, would be horrified at Tugwell’s dream of a centrally planned nation—and that is because Chait uses urban planning as his chief counterexample to advance a pox-on-both-houses equivalence between right and left-wing politics. Planning, Chait argues, is the left’s version Small Big Government, a political power that is used to subtly protect enclaves of privilege, driving up housing prices in high-demand areas and throttling urban growth. In this opinion Chait is enthusiastically joined by his circle of New Centrists, for whom a celebration of market urbanism has become a way of demonstrating the reasonable, evidence-based, and unbeholden nature of their punditry (witness Matthew Yglesias, Josh Barro, and Dylan Matthews all arguing in favor of freer markets in urban housing as a cure-all for housing costs and labor immobility).

The conclusion is not entirely wrong—but its policy suggestions are ill-considered. Much of American planning does in fact play out as a kind of captured special-interest politics, exploited by those who live in comfortable neighborhoods in order to preserve their comfortableness. But Chait and his fellow-thinkers look at this and see over-regulation, arguing that private developers should be unleashed and allowed to follow demand as they please. Isn’t it just as easy to conclude that it is a case of under-regulation—that is, that local control of spatial planning, which tends to express itself in the form of exclusionary zoning laws, ought to be subordinated to a more fully centralized national planning policy? As I’ve argued before, deregulating the housing market in desirable cities is just as likely to result in spiral of landlords profiting royally from “prison cell” apartments as it is to result in arcologies, as apparently the market urbanists assume. What we need is not less planning but more planning—or rather, “real” planning, in contrast to self-serving and poorly-coordinated local laws such as zoning ordinances—in order to rebalance the American landscape such that millions of people are no longer competing for a few square miles of economic vibrancy tucked in amongst millions of square miles of voided opportunity.

Finally, Chait’s piece leaves one major question unspoken: if, as he argues, the federal government may be better at protecting certain democratic liberties than a local municipality, why stop there? Why couldn’t we move such policymaking to an international—or global—level? This is of course a political dead-letter in a nation which regularly treats the United Nations as an existential threat. But if Chait is right that “the government that actually oppresses us is that which is closest to us,” then perhaps we ought to think more seriously about how a libertarian concern with individual and community sovereignty might find common ground with world federalism.

Either way, we are staring once again at the problem of geographic units, and in order to think critically about how to guarantee the vibrancy and diversity of localities, we must move beyond the assumption that the complicated, interrelated binaries of local–distant, distributed–centralized, fragmented–unified, and democratic–bureaucratic are all merely synonyms of each other.

  1. Tugwell and Banfield, “Grass roots democracy—Myth or reality?” Public Administration Review 10 (no. 1, Winter, 1950), pp. 47-55.
  2. MacKaye, “Tennesse—Seed of a national plan,” Survey Graphic XXII (no. 5, May 1933); Reprinted in MacKaye, From geography to geotechnics (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1968).