One Case for Localism

by Conor Friedersdorf

In California, local government is where our political failures begin.

Does anyone pay regular attention to their City Council or County Board of Supervisors? The people in Bell didn't, and were typical in that way. Those local bodies are used as stepping stones to the state legislature and beyond. But the folks who rise aren't doing so based on the considered judgment of citizens so much as their ability to curry favor with donors, spend on campaign advertising, and win elections via name recognition.

It's a contest that's grown too sophisticated for amateurs.

Several factors militate against civic engagement. Ours is a large state with huge counties that contain sprawling municipalities. Our population is famously transient. A series of progressive reforms and populist ballot measures (especially Proposition 13) tended to strip control from local authorities, so that Sacramento grew in political importance. When the County Board of Supervisors sets property taxes, residents damn well show up at the meetings, whereas scrutiny is orders of magnitude less when the most contested subjects are settled regionally.

Nowadays so many critical matters of public policy are being decided by anonymous, faraway state officials, or even worse, their federal equivalents. In a way, life is less burdensome for people when they can safely ignore local civics, but the price in dysfunction and ceded influence is high. The thing about national or even state elections is that voters can only get their information from the mass media or professionally run campaigns. Though these are the best methods we've got, they are pretty terrible. Have you watched cable news lately?

Those of us who advocate federalism, and want states to give as much control as possible to locals, aren't just cranks who worry that tyranny is going to sweep the land if a marginally looser construction of constitutional law prevails. Our insight is that self-government works best when important matters inspire civic participation at a level where it can actually matter.

On Wednesday nights, a ten minute car ride is sufficient to arrive at city hall in time for the weekly meeting, where you can stand up at a podium, speak your mind directly to actual decision-makers, and respond if you still don't get your way by talking with people afterward -- the ones who cheered when you spoke up, and might even be willing to back your own run at local elective office. These kinds of encounters inspire confidence that regular people can make a difference.

And we'd be far better off if our politicians started out as folks with particular passion for grassroots civic efforts, rather than coming from a power hungry class drawn by the prospect of a remunerative career in elective office.

Everything about national politics is awful. The candidates, the disingenuous talking heads, the artificially binary separation into Team Red and Team Blue, and especially the lack of weirdness, which is another way of saying that American communities and people are a quirky sort. Their diverse approaches to the pursuit of happiness are given short shrift if they're always forced to make consequential decisions in concurrence with everyone else.