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Local Govt. Control: The Ignored Campaign Issue

Appearing in:

Real Clear Politics

In an election cycle full of spittle and bile, arguably the greatest issue — the nature of governance and the role of citizens — has been all but ignored. Neither candidate for president has much feel for the old American notion of dispersed power. Instead each has his or her own plans for ever greater centralization: Trump by the force of his enormous narcissistic self-regard; Hillary Clinton through the expansion of the powers increasingly invested in the federal regulatory apparatus.

This profound disregard for the restraints of federalism comes at a time when our economy is undergoing profound centralization. Regulatory and monetary policy has benefited those with access to the most capital, making this economy more concentrated than at any time in recent history. This is particularly true in the information sector, which is now dominated by a handful of firms able to devour any competitor without  fear of anti-trust objections from Washington.

Ultimately the very things James Madison and the other Founders worried about — the concentration of wealth in a few hands, the devolution of republican institutions and the rise of a central imperium — are becoming increasingly evident, with precious little debate about what this means or how it could be reversed.

Is This What People Want?

This centralization is not occurring by popular demand. By a wide margin — 64 percent to 26 percent, according to a 2015 poll — Americans say they feel “more progress” comes from the local level than the federal level. Majorities of all political affiliations and all demographic groups hold this same opinion.

The preference for localism also extends to attitudes toward state governments, many of which have grown more powerful and intrusive in recent years. Seventy-two percent of Americans, according to Gallup, trust their local governments more than they do their state institutions; even in California, the mecca for ever-expanding government, large majorities favor transferring tax dollars from Sacramento to the localities.

This also applies to millennials. Though liberal on issues like immigration and gay marriage, they are not generally fans of centralization. Fewer than one-third of them favor federal solutions over locally based ones.  “Millennials are on a completely different page than most politicians in Washington, D.C.,” notes pollsterJohn Della Volpe.

The federal government, a source of pride in the days of the New Deal, the Second World War, the Cold War and the civil rights struggle, is now regarded by  half of all Americans, according to Gallup, as “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In 2003 only 30 percent of Americans felt that way. A recent survey conducted by Chapman University  found that more Americans now have a greater fear of their own government than they do of outside threats.

Has Centralization Reached Its Peak?

Although he is hardly the originator of this trend, President Obama has become one of the most prolific authors of executive power in U.S. history. Critically, this has occurred in a time of relative peace and no compelling national emergency.

The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that by 2015 the Obama administration had passed at least 184 “major rules” (regulations with at least a $100 million economic impact) and thousands of smaller ones. During its first six years, the administration promulgated more than twice as many major rules as during the first six years of the predecessor George W. Bush administration.

Many  directives  have been implemented as a way around legislative approval, a marked shift from earlier eras of legislative-executive cooperation during both the Reagan and Clinton  administrations. Some of this stems from the antics of an often obstructionist Congress but much of the long-term damage to federalism largely rests with the president. As Obama prepared for his last year in office, his agendawas defined primarily by new executive orders and regulatory edicts.

Once executive power has been validated, the road back to a more balanced federalism may prove difficult. The tools of dictatorship grow ever more comfortable in the hands of those of wield it, whatever their politics, something that occurred in the decades before the collapse of Roman Republic.

Not a Partisan Issue

In a new paper, “Our Town: Restoring Localism,” my colleague Wendell Cox and I argue that centralization should not be regarded as a partisan issue. Some progressives, particularly in academia, assert that support for localized decision-making rests “not in facts but rather in ideology and politics.” Some also link any devolutionary agenda to the crimes committed in the name of “states’ rights,” most notably slavery and the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws.

Yet, historically, many on the progressive left, including Justice Louis Brandeis, favored decentralization. As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton supported the view that local governments were often better suited to address civic problems. In his forward to David Osborne’s book “Laboratories of Democracy”, Clinton praised “pragmatic responses” to key social and economic issues by both liberal and conservative governors. Such state-level responses, Clinton noted, were critical in “a country as complex and diverse as ours.”

Nor are centralized solutions as efficient as some claim. After a half-century of massive federal investment, poverty rates are now worse than before the advent of the Great Society. Similarly, educational outcomes continue to deteriorate even as federal officials seek to intrude ever more into the minutiae of public schools.

Nor have attempts to consolidate local areas enhanced efficiency or reduced spending, as is commonly suggested. Overall, large consolidations have proven inefficient, with higher costs  and levels of indebtedness than smaller ones.

More important still is the critical role of localism in maintaining the traditions of American democracy. This is understood by many self-described progressives who express support for Main Street businesses and local farms and as a reaction against globalization and domination by large corporations.  Progressive author Heather Gerken has argued that social causes such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization tend to be adopted first at a local level before spreading to other areas.

Sadly, the closer one gets to the Washington honey pot, the more that progressive passion for localism tends to fade. Some liberals embrace nothing short of an administrative dictatorship in pursuit of their policy agendas. Last year, a writer in the Atlantic actually called for the creation of a “technocracy” to determine energy, economic and land-use policies throughout the world. This regime would impose such unpopular notions as energy austerity on an already fading middle class, limiting mundane pleasures like cheap air travel, cars, freeways, suburbs and single-family housing.

Such top-down approaches may gain much favor under Hillary Clinton, a centralizer by nature. Federal regulators would almost certainly nest ever deeper into what was once the realm of local governments in matters of zoning, housing, education and control of neighborhood demographics in ways that will hamper local initiatives and sap grassroots democracy.

Over time, these efforts may elicit resistance not only among conservatives or libertarians, but also left-leaning professionals who won’t want to cede all control over their local communities to the federal super-state. The next generation of hipster merchants may share an affinity for social liberalism, but they will chafe at increasing regulatory burdens already hampering entrepreneurial growth.

Despite the powerful economic and political forces behind it, the triumph of Leviathan is not inevitable. There is no compelling reason why the emerging Information Age needs to become an electronic dictatorship controlled by a few players, concentrated overwhelmingly on the coasts. Internet technology,  a gift originally funded by taxpayers, could instead be harnessed to effectively distribute power and authority downward across this vast country to states, regions, towns, neighborhoods and families.

We need to forge a new path that empowers the grassroots economy and polity, and respects the diversity of contemporary America. We can’t expect that this movement will draw much interest from Washington institutions, which gorge on centralization, but it could be propelled by local communities and people who still believe in the decentralized democracy envisioned by the Founders.

This piece first appeared in Real Clear Politics.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

City Hall photo by Flickr user OZinOH.