We’ve tried liberalism and conservatism and now we’re trying populism. Maybe the next era of public life will be defined by a resurgence of localism.
Localism is the belief that power should be wielded as much as possible at the neighborhood, city and state levels. Localism is thriving — as a philosophy and a way of doing things — because the national government is dysfunctional while many towns are reviving. Politicians in Washington are miserable, hurling ideological abstractions at one another, but mayors and governors are fulfilled, producing tangible results.
Localism is also thriving these days because many cities have more coherent identities than the nation as a whole. It is thriving because while national politics takes place through the filter of the media circus, local politics by and large does not. It is thriving because we’re in an era of low social trust. People really have faith only in the relationships right around them, the change agents who are right on the ground.
Since it will probably be the coming wave, I thought it might be useful to make a few notes on localism:
Localism is truly a revolution. It literally means flipping the power structure. For the past several decades, money, talent and power have flowed to the centers of national power. Politicians tried to ascend to national office as they advanced their careers. Smart young people flocked to national universities, and then to New York and D.C. The federal government assumed greater and greater control of American life.
But under localism, the crucial power center is at the tip of the shovel, where the actual work is being done. Expertise is not in the think tanks but among those who have local knowledge, those with a feel for how things work in a specific place and an awareness of who gets stuff done. Success is not measured by how big you can scale, but by how deeply you can connect.
Under localism, national politicians are regarded like generals in Tolstoy novels. They move pieces around the board, but the actual battle is nothing like what they imagine. Wise young people leave the centers for towns where they can make a visible difference.
Localism is not federal power wielded on a smaller scale. It’s a different kind of power.The first difference is epistemological. The federal policymaker asks, “What can we do about homelessness?” The local person asks Fred or Mary what they need in order to have a home. These different questions yield different results.
The federal person sees things that can be reduced to data. The local person sees things that can be reduced to data but also things that cannot.
The second difference is relational. Federal power is impersonal, uniform, abstract and rule-oriented. Local power is personalistic, relational, affectionate, irregular and based on a shared history of reciprocity and trust. A national system rewards rational intelligence. A local system requires emotional intelligence, too.
Change happens differently. Federal change often means big shifts quickly, such as when a big law is passed after a long debate, like Obamacare or tax reform. Local change happens more gradually, more iteratively. There’s a legacy system, like a public school, a grocery story or an investment fund. Somebody breaks free from the system and creates an innovative alternative, like a charter school, an organic farm market or a crowdsource campaign. As Leo Linbeck of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism describes, the new innovators “announce the availability of the upgrade and then allow users to choose when to make the switch.” There’s a conversation between the legacy system and the innovator, as the former learns from and adapts to the alternative. Change happens through the conversation between old and new.
There is a different division of labor for making change. As impact investor Deborah Frieze put it in a 2015 TEDx talk, change is led by Walk Outs. These are people who leave the legacy system and pioneer new alternatives. Then there are Illuminators. These are people who analyze and bring attention to the change that is now available.
I’d highlight two other social roles. Elders are the city mothers and fathers who hold sway in the town because of their established positions. The Elders support the Walk Outs, make room for them and reform old systems. Then there are Network Entrepreneurs. They link the Walk Outs, who tend to be lonely, overworked and short-staffed. They help the Walk Outs build a support system and a way to exchange knowledge and care.
Change in a localist world often looks like a renewal of old forms, which were often more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures of the past 50 years. Localism stands for the idea that there is no one set of solutions to diverse national problems. Instead, it brings conservatives and liberals together around the thought that people are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.
David Brooks became an New York Times Op-Ed columnist in 2003. His column appears every Tuesday and Friday. He is currently a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and is also a best-selling author.
This opinion piece first appeared on the New York Times.