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The Rise of Localist Politics

Friday, August 12th, 2011

In the latest issue of The New Atlantis, Brian Brown has an interesting article on “The Rise of Localist Politics.” In criticizing the top-down approach of an administrative state, he calls for citizens to take their citizenship seriously and become active members of their communities:

This “localist” trend is beginning to reshape American politics as well. Among its other flaws, the rational planning model was based on the mistaken notion that science could be substituted for the practical knowledge of ordinary citizens. But the social sciences have simply never come close to approaching the physical sciences in their explanatory or predictive power. They cannot grasp or manage some of the most basic variables in public policy, including the human need for ownership over our stake in society — that is, the needs for belonging and participation. As a 2009 report for the James Irvine Foundation puts it, people “want the opportunity to be more than passive audience members whose social activism is limited to writing a check.” And as Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone (2000), has documented, communities whose citizens feel a sense of local empowerment report (among other things) better local government, less crime, and faster economic growth. Many citizens are more inclined to participate even in the most basic act of civic life — voting — when a particular issue seems to directly affect them, and they are convinced they can affect it back.

American cities are catching on to the change. Whether in city design or problem-solving, more and more municipalities are trying solutions that involve multifaceted participation, as documented in a 2009 report for Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. Some, like Rochester, New York, have sought to improve their local governance by instituting neighborhood councils; this allows people to relate to the city from the vantage point of a smaller political unit they can see and understand firsthand. Boston, with its “Complete Streets” project, is experimenting with “new urbanism,” a mixed-use method of city design that makes neighborhoods more self-sufficient and friendly to social interaction. And cities from Colorado Springs to St. Petersburg, Florida are making headway against social problems through public-private partnerships and a thriving nonprofit sector. For public policy at the national or state level to succeed, it increasingly appears that it must find ways to empower, rather than hinder, local self-government — and in doing so, it has to resist the temptation to micromanage from afar.

The entire piece is worth reading.