Tuesday Apr 07

Limitations of the New Localism: Prospects for Progressive Change from the Bottom and Top

Gridlock and hyperpartisanship at the national level have led many observers, from across the political spectrum, to look to local initiatives as the venue for pragmatic problem solving in recent years. In their book The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (2017) point to a “new localism” guided by pragmatism rather than ideology which they describe as “multisectoral networks that work together to solve problems” (p. 6, 10). New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (2018) asserts that “The country looks so much better from the bottom up.” His colleague David Brooks (2018) refers to this as “The localist revolution.” In the jacket cover of their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America James and Deborah Fallows (2018) assert that “At times of dysfunction on a national level, reform possibilities have often arisen from the local level.” This is not just a US phenomenon. Writing for the British newspaper The Guardian, columnist John Harris (2019) refers to a “local revolution” by residents who “are passionate about their community, know what the issues are – and are sick to death of party politics.”

There is much to be said for these local initiatives. At the same time, there is reason to be cautious about just how “revolutionary” they are. On their own, it is not clear they can lead to sustained institutional change. In conjunction with broader efforts to realize more permanent progress, they may be critical. But confronting the realities of climate change, inequities of the criminal justice system, conflicts surrounding immigration, gentrification, homelessness, shortages of affordable housing, job loss, persisting race and gender inequalities, environmental degradation and the many other challenges we face may be more complicated than the local advocates realize.

It is the case that progressive social change has almost always bubbled up from the bottom to the top. Abolition, the labor movement, civil rights advocacy, women’s rights, LGBTQ initiatives and more started at the local level before any meaningful action by the federal government. But despite current frustrations with gridlock at the federal level, and what might be termed the paralysis of ideological analysis, there remains a vital role at the top which is even acknowledged by many current champions of the new localism if such change is to be institutionalized.

As these historical examples indicate, recognition of the significance of local action is not particularly new. FDR may or may not have actually said to legendary labor and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph the often-quoted statement “I agree with you, now go out and make me do it.” But this story is a reflection of the longstanding recognition of the importance of local action. Milton Kotler’s (1969) provocative sixties treatise, Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life, EF Schumaker’s (1973) book in the next decade Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered and
Michael H. Shuman’s (1998) Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age are among the works that extended the attraction of the local. The current celebration of local initiatives is grounded in the frustration many people feel with the partisanship and gridlock that seems to be the primary product of the federal government. As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (2017) recently argued:

Federal and state governments, for the most part, are no longer in the problem-solving business, they have dealt themselves out of the equation through  a combination of dysfunction, incompetence, and hyperpartisanship. (225)

Similarly, in their commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report Fred Harris and Alan Curtis (2018) concluded:

At this point in the nation’s history, with gridlocked government in Washington, more and more significant decisions are made by state and local office holders. (112)

Legal scholar Richard Schragger (2016) offers an optimistic view of what can be done at the local level in his book City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age if cities reject the “decentralization-growth thesis” or simply the chase for mobile capital, and do what they can do best which is to provide critical city services.

Limitations of the Local

But there are important barriers to and limitations of local action. For one, it is not always progressive. The nation’s long struggle with race is illustrative. George Wallace energized racist sentiments in many local communities when he served as Alabama Governor and during his campaign for the presidency in the 1960s. Wallace is best remembered for his statement during his inaugural address in 1963 when he proclaimed “segregation today ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever.” Phyllis Schlafly tapped into similar sentiments in fighting the Boston school desegregation battles during those years. One could go back further to Ku Klux Klan activities and more recently to recent surges in hate crimes. Local activism can be quite predatory and exclusionary.

Sometimes it does take pressure from the top to address these issues. Even Katz and Nowak understand the continuing importance of national action when they acknowledge that:

The federal government must do things that only it can do, including safeguarding national security, providing a stronger social safety net than it presently does, providing guarantees of constitutional protections and civil rights, making smart national infrastructure investments, protecting natural resources, protecting the integrity of markets, and funding scientific research, innovation, and postsecondary education to keep the nation competitive. (11)

Schragger argues simply that “No doubt, the national government is still the main site for income redistribution.” (17):

Despite the many illustrations of thriving local initiatives, there is a question of scale. Are these examples sufficient to constitute a locally driven revolution. Again, Katz and Nowak, despite their celebration of the local, offer countervailing evidence when they acknowledge:

For every Pittsburgh there are dozens of cities still involved in traditional economy shaping efforts that subsidize simple consumption (such as major league sports stadia) rather than smart innovation…For every Copenhagen, there are dozens of cities that are creating value for the private sector and then failing to maximize it for the public good.(226)

The Occupy Wall Street movement certainly energized local action around the world forcing virtually all nonprofit, government, and business organizations to at least recognize if not effectively address the surging inequality of recent decades that Lester Thurow (1975) wrote about in the 1970s. But the failure (or perhaps its refusal) to identify any leadership, create a political agenda, and change institutional structures at the bottom or top limited the impact of these efforts. The Occupy movement may well have had the effect of “ingraining in the national conscience the idea that our extreme levels of inequality are politically untenable and morally unacceptable, and that eventually the 99 percent will demand better,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow (2013) asserted. But the long-term impacts of Occupy remain uncertain. The legacy of Occupy no doubt remains to be determined.

The relative absence of charismatic leadership within progressive movements constitutes another shortcoming today. There is nobody with the stature of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or John F. Kennedy who can pick up the mantle from diverse local initiatives to secure the institutionalization of changes initially proposed at the local level. This is not to say that Lincoln, FDR, and JFK did not have their critics. (And in JFK’s case it was his successor who finished what he started.) But they played a critical role in legitimizing local efforts to address key national problems. Such leadership does not appear to be on the scene today.

Whither the Local?

Still there are important roles for local initiatives and particularly for local activism, and reason to believe these efforts can become more effective.

Social media enhance communication about and dissemination of good ideas. If American society is more fragmented and polarized in recent years (not everyone gets their news from Walter Cronkite every night) there are more ways of sharing information and organizing bottom-up initiatives around the globe. Occupy would be one example. And it is difficult to believe that the US is more divided today than it was during the Viet Nam War or the Civil Rights Movement, to name just a few episodes in recent American history.

Arguably there is also greater urgency to at least some of the challenges facing communities today that nurture local activism. Climate change, for one, threatens the very existence of human life on the planet and many local communities have initiated a variety of efforts to avoid a potential ecological Armageddon. And the connections among seemingly diverse social problems are drawing more attention as the research, education, and organizing efforts of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), among others, illustrate in their efforts to address intersecting employment, housing, and environmental issues (Greenhouse 2019).

Perhaps most importantly there are many diverse actors who are engaged in pragmatic, problem solving public policy debates including government agencies, foundations, non-profit advocacy groups, civic organizations and others who are seeking solutions to the most critical and challenging problems. Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that the whole is less than the sum of the individual parts. Despite the proliferation of alternative facts and what often appears to be an evidence free Congress, there are many scholars who are bringing scientific knowledge to bear on these issues. For example, the Scholars Strategy Network is a collection of more than 1,400 scholars who are bringing social science expertise to the policymaking world by working with elected officials, writing op eds, and other actions.( https://scholars.org/) Another example is Campus Compact, a coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities which is “committed to the public purposes of higher education. We build democracy through civic education and community development.” (https://compact.org/who-we-are/) “Engaged scholarship” has become a buzzword in academia with many more coalitions, organizations, and individual scholars becoming involved (Warren et al. 2018, Nyden et al. 2012).

But the social sciences have long been viewed by at least some observers as having a vital role in addressing the nation’s greatest challenges. As Robert Lynd (1939) observed in his book Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Science in American Culture:

There is no other agency in our culture whose role it is to ask long-range and, if need be, abruptly irreverent questions of our democratic institutions; and to follow these questions with research and the systematic charting of the way ahead. The responsibility is to keep everlastingly challenging the present with the question: But what is it that we human beings want, and what things would have to be done, in what ways and in what sequence in order to change the present so as to achieve it?...With such research and planning, we may yet make real the claims of freedom and opportunity in America.(250).

At the same time, concerned with what he was observing in 1939 Lynd warned that social scientists were in danger of “lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down,”(3) a sentiment he might offer if he were writing today.

In 1966 sociologist Gerhard Lenski posed what could be the most critical question today when he argued that the study of social inequality was the study of “who gets what and why.” One reason why local initiatives are celebrated is that it is simply easier to access local decision-makers than more distant officials all of whom are making various decisions about who gets what and why. As is often noted, “if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” It is easier to get a piece of the local pie.

In the immortal words of the Buffalo Springfield “There’s something happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” But we need to temper our celebration of the local pragmatists and continue to recognize that there are broader national if not international ideological and material divisions. There are important roles for actors at all levels and in all venues (public, private, non-profit). And there is much to be learned from this range of players. Again, it’s complicated.

Gregory D. Squires is a professor of Sociology and Public Policy & Public Administration at George Washington University.

End Notes

Blow, Charles. 2013. “Occupy Wall Street Legacy,” The New York Times. (Sept. 13). https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/blow-occupy-wall-street-legacy.html

Brooks, David. 2018. “The Localist Revolution” The New York Times. (July 19). https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/opinion/national-politics-localismpopulism. html

Fallows, James and Deborah Fallows. 2018. Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. New York: Pantheon Books.

Friedman, Thomas. 2018. “Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up.” The New York Times (July 3). https://www.nytimes.com/2018/0/03/opinion/community-revitalization-lancaster.html

Greenhouse, Steven. 2019. Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Harris, Fred and Alan Curtis 2018. Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Harris, John. 2019. “How to take over your town: the inside story of a local revolution.” The Guardian (June 12). https://www.theguardian.com/societ/2019/jun/12/how-to-take-over-your-town-the-inside-story-of-a-localrevolution

Katz, Bruce and Jeremy Nowak. 2017. The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Kotler, Milton. 1969. Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill.Company.

Lenski, Gerhard. 1966. Power and Privilege: A theory of Social Stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Lynd, Robert. 1939. Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Science in American Culture Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nyden, Philip, Leslie Hossfeld, and Gwendoln Nyden (eds) 2012. Public Sociology: Research, Action, and Change. Los Angeles: Sage.

Schragger, Richard. 2016. City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schumacher, EF. 1973. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Blond & Briggs

Shuman, Michael H. 1998. Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age. New York: The Free Press.

Warren, Mark R., Jose Calderon, Luke Aubry Kupscsnk, Gregory Squires, and Celina Su. 2018. Is Collaborative, Community-Engaged Scholarship More Rigorous Than Traditional Scholarship? On Advocacy, Bias, and Social Science Research. Urban Education 53(4): 445-472.

This article grows out of my participation in a three-year University Seminar on bottom-up politics initiated by George Washington University. Other participants include Hilary Silver and Clarence Stone at George Washington, Blair Ruble and Allison Garland with the Woodrow Wilson Center, Derek Hyra at American University and Tom Kingsley with the Urban Institute who passed away in 2018. Two forums were held at the Wilson Center with a third scheduled for this Spring. Scholars and activists from around the country have participated in discussions on a variety of topics including criminal justice reform, health care, community reinvestment and more. For summaries of the forums see; Hilary Silver, Gregory Squires, and Clarence Stone “Urban Gathering Addresses Bottom-Up Politics,” Urban Affairs Forum, May 21, 2018. https://urbanaffairsreview.com/2018/05/21/urbangathering- addresses-bottom-up-politics/ and Clarence Stone and Gregory Squires.“Beyond Bottom-Up Politics: The Potential, the Limitations, and the Unknown” Urban Affairs Forum, March 16, 2019. https://urbanaffairsreview.com/2019/05/16/beyond-bottom-up-politics-thepotential-the-limitations-and-the-unknown/ While I have benefited considerably from these discussions the ideas expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University Seminar.

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