Can Localism and Nationalism be Mixed in the Fourth Republic?

americana

INTRO TO THE FOURTH REPUBLIC

At this point I’ve probably written three or four versions of the “Three Republics” thesis applied to the 2010s. I’ve even written up and delivered a toast to the Fourth Republic, and an exhortation to those who love it to bring about its existence. I have a long essay/short book outline just waiting for me to sit down and write it, as well. I’ve thought a lot about this subject.

But I haven’t thought enough, not yet.

For those who are as yet unfamiliar with the “Three Republics” thesis, it goes something like this: America, being a nation founded in a conservatory revolution, has the unique opportunity to reinterpret its timeless principles and reinvent its lasting institutions every time the social order decays and disaster strikes. This has happened, with shocking regularity, about every 70-85 years, and by my measure (and those of some people I respect) it’s happening again now, just as it happened in the 1780s, the 1860s, and the 1930s.

A “Republic,” in this context, is the unique constellation of institutions and systems propped up by a founding generation in the midst of crisis, in order to preserve ordered liberty and the American Dream for forthcoming generations and to keep the Union and its republican institutions alive. There have been three thus far- the First Republic of George Washington, established in the fires of the American Revolution and the consolidation of the Constitutional Convention and Washington’s presidency thereafter; the Second Republic of Abraham Lincoln, forged in the Civil War and Reconstruction; and the Third Republic of Franklin Roosevelt, constructed throughout the New Deal and affirmed in the world crisis of the Second World War. Each Republic had antecedents in reforms passed in the generations prior, and this one is no different. Each transformed the country to preserve it. As the institutions of the last several decades have decayed, we enter a socio-political crisis like no other, and will need to rise to the challenge.

Again, I’d like to write an extended essay or perhaps even a short book on this subject, but I will need to read more broadly on American social, economic, political, and biographical history before I have the details I need to sophisticate the narrative properly. Anyhow, aside from discussing the cycles of history, at times I’ve written up platforms of policy proposals theorizing what the Lawgiver of the Fourth Republic’s policy agenda would have to be (and these platforms have mostly succeeded only at reflecting my personal political preferences.) In my soberer moments, I do at times wonder what the general necessary contours of reform would look like.

There are some obvious ones. The fiscal/tax imbalances will need to be corrected somehow, not because “we’re spending ourselves into oblivion,” but because bad bookkeeping can’t go on forever. Entitlements and pretty much every domestic department’s spending will have to be restructured for efficacy, though I hope not reduced at all. Plenty of people, including Lieutenant Governor (and possibly future Governor of California, and possibly future President of the United States…) Gavin Newsom wrote a whole book, “Citizenville,” on the need to reform government for the Information Age using the democratizing power of information technology. (Government Executive Magazine routinely publishes laughably bad articles about how departments of the federal government are revolutionizing this and that bureaucratic process through some interwebz thingie, but hey- at least they’re trying!)

There’s a whole raft of other economic-structural and social-cultural issue areas I could go into, but I’ll withhold for now and do that another time. I’ll focus on something specific in this post- the question of where the political-institutional emphasis of American democracy should be focused.

MY WORK IN LOCALISM

Let me explain. Over the last two years or so, I’ve worked for a couple of scholars- Joel Kotkin and the folks over at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, first, and second, Mike Hais and Morley Winograd- on the deceptively straightforward topic of political and institutional Localism. The fruits of my work for Kotkin can be found here, in his COU report “Our Town: Restoring Localism.” The fruits of my work with Winograd will be published in a paper soon, though I’m not sure if I’m allowed to reveal the outlet and title, so I won’t.

Anyhow, Kotkin and Winograd- respectively a member of Senator Ben Sasse’s informal circle, and a former domestic policy advisor to Vice-President Al Gore- both independently came to the conclusion some time ago that America’s political institutions are more top-heavy and centralized than is healthy in the current age, and that the proper solution is a restoration of some form of increased authority for city halls, county boards, and other institutions closer to the people. Kotkin, having centrist and occasionally quasi-libertarian leanings, comes at this from a different perspective than Winograd, who is an old-line New Democrat with progressive leanings. Kotkin’s report emphasizes the coercive power of the central state, and the need to check it in the interests of preserving individual rights and opportunities and, most importantly, the diversity of social and economic opportunities and systems to choose from.

For Kotkin, people are mobile, markets are benign, and the greatest danger inherent to centralized bureaucracy is the imposition of a socioeconomic order inimical to the flourishing of free society. I don’t think he’s a libertarian by any means, but his reasoning for localism certainly has a libertarian, if perhaps not necessarily anti-government, ring to it.

For Winograd, people are members of communities, local decision-making processes produce results reflective of the values of the people who chose them, and the greatest danger inherent in consolidated power is the loss of sovereignty among local communities to shape their own destinies. Winograd is certainly not an old Bryanite populist in the way the editorial board of the Washington Monthly is; but in some ways he comes to similar conclusions about democratic accountability and decision-making being best done locally, as close to the people as possible.

These are oversimplifications, of course- read the entirety of Kotkin’s published report and Winograd’s forthcoming report to find out more- but they advance a narrative different than those commonly peddled nowadays. Namely, that the chief problems in American politics today rise not from wrongheaded people blocking necessary reform, but from overly zealous reformers attempting to impose their beliefs on others. Rather than seeking national solutions to pressing problems, rather than seeking a restoration of a benign national system, Kotkin and Winograd believe that the way to release the pressure of the current nationalist-cosmopolitan culture wars- and in fact, the way to give people more individual opportunities for the pursuit of happiness and for social innovation- is to relocate power to the lowest possible level, to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” to harness the natural diversity across domains of the American people and let it do its own thing.

It’s an amazing vision, and I can’t see a reasonable path forward into the American future that doesn’t incorporate some form of renewed localism. As both Kotkin and Winograd argue, and as Walter Russell Mead argued in his essays on the “Blue Social Model,” the current trends towards localism and decentralization are myriad- information technology makes more local democratic participation possible than ever before. Complexifying economic trends across state and national borders make it harder for arbitrary state and national capitals to regulate already-complex economic activity. An electorate more diverse than ever before in American history (and America was plenty diverse among even its different sorts of white people before the demographic shifts of the 1960s changed the racial equation) clearly is a different sort of governing situation than a largely homogenous electorate. Internal contradictions within the bureaucratic state that have been underway at least since the 1960s, when the First Generation of Neoconservatives started writing excellent stuff about bureaucracy, have only gotten worse.

Moreover, people have faith in local institutions at levels surpassing respect for any big institutions save the Armed Forces. Not many people participate in local governance, but those who do solve a lot more problems than those who participate in state and national governance, simply because problem-solving in city hall is more pragmatic, numbers-based, and face-to-face than lawmaking in the assembly hall. (Though it’s somewhat different in bigger cities, as my fellow Angelenos can attest.) Officials at lower levels can actually interact with their constituents- most lawmakers at the state and federal levels just can’t do that.[1]

So what does “Localism” mean pragmatically?

Kotkin’s version calls for a strategy of rollback- strip the administrative state of much of its regulatory power, in Sacramento and Washington, and let Peoria and San Francisco make their own damn climate policies and housing rules. In its place, voluntary associations a la “Associations of Municipal Governments” or the Hanseatic League, perhaps, are more efficacious and responsive to local needs.

Winograd’s approach is less concerned with legislative policy reforms and more about government-to-government interactions and cultural shifts- staying in the current constitutional framework, cities and counties and other entities should experiment with policies on their own and engage in information-sharing or innovation diffusions to spread new ideas around. And of course, local citizen participation should always be encouraged, in as many ways as possible.

I don’t really disagree with either of these approaches, in principle or practice. I think both Winograd and Kotkin would probably be open, as well, to more concrete measures like Nixonian Revenue Sharing or the replacement of federal rules with regional consortiums for rulemaking.

DISAGREEMENTS WITH LOCALISM

But I do think it’s a more complicated story than just a restoration of localism and a toppling of bureaucratic power or a revival of republican virtue.  I have two problems with the whole “localism” idea as a program, even though I heartily adopt it as a principle alongside my other principles and will try to fit it in where possible.

First off, it is something of an anti-program, and an anti-program without much meat at that. Neither Kotkin’s nor Winograd’s reports, both of which I helped with, goes particularly deep in the way of policy proposals. Kotkin’s reads like a description of what’s wrong with bureaucracy, and less like a description of what ought to replace it, if anything. Winograd’s at times sounds like a plea for a “revolution in consciousness” about governing, with a few bits of advice for how to manage it. I think both would agree with me on those partial characterizations, though they’d qualify it by saying they’re not out to start new movements, but to highlight shifts in the public debate that need to happen. And, being far less wise than either of them, I would of course defer.

But there’s a second problem. As anyone who reads this blog knows, my number one intellectual influence is Michael Lind, formerly of New America, and the last Hamiltonian in America for some time. Lind is a nationalist through-and-through in every way, a liberal nationalist in the Rooseveltian-Lincolnian vein. Though he has occasionally been known to advocate some manifestations of localism- see his NYT column on restoring local democracy or his co-written report with Joel Kotkin on industrialism in the Midwest– he is generally a thinker who more than most favors big institutions and central solutions.[2]

Whereas in the last few years, populists on the left decried big banks and big businesses and populists on the right decried big governments, Lind has been arguing for decades that big institutions like big government and big business are what make America great. They, of course, need to be regulated in the public interest and balanced against each other, so as not to destroy liberty and transform the whole of America into an oligarchic-industrial version of the Antebellum Plantation South. But generally, Lind argues that you can’t have a strong national defense and a productive industrial economy and basic social welfare protections without having a centralized, industrial state. He’d be arguing on the same side as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and most of the postwar Presidents.

He’s not wrong at all. Big government and big business, that unholy combination, have been the source of much of what is good about America, the motor driving what is so American about America. And with Theodore Roosevelt’s caveat- that it must be regulated for public interest rather than private profit- this public-private nexus can indeed do great things.

It’s just so often inimical to localism.

MY DILEMMA

Let me state this in no uncertain terms:

Michael Lind’s Hamiltonian Nationalism remains, I think, the primary paradigm necessary to move forward with restoring American nationhood and greatness to something worthy and capable of protecting our ideals of ordered liberty and the American Dream as we advance into the 21st Century. There are threats around the world and we have a lot of people we need to feed- so we need a strong centralized state apparatus to sustain the necessary internationalist foreign policy, and we need a productive neo-industrial economy to maintain our people’s quality of life.

At the same time, Morley Winograd and Joel Kotkin have identified serious, serious problems with that model, problems that cut to the core of what it means to be an American. And most of their solutions, which I assisted them with researching, reject national solutions in favor of the wisdom and mobility of American communities and citizens. I wouldn’t quite say their reports advocate Jeffersonian localism, but they lean that direction for sure.

And at a fundamental level, I’m not sure if it is even possible to mix the big-state centralizing tendencies of Hamiltonianism with the local-control decentralizing tendencies of the New Localism.

Well, perhaps it is- I did, after all, do some work for the Richard Nixon Foundation, and one of the insights I gleaned from that is that President Nixon’s failed reforms of the New Deal had exactly that as their goal- to retain the benefits of being a modern industrial state with a strong foreign policy, while restoring as much power to the localities and states as was feasible in the 1970s. So even if it failed, there is an extant model to perhaps revamp and work on for a combination of nationalism and localism.

So perhaps both localism and nationalism can be had, but even if they both can be had, one must clearly take precedence. I want to say that in a dangerous world, that must be the nationalist side; but I’m not sure right now.

There are other things to consider- class and culture structures, divisions between different American regions and their relative power over each other, etc. Burnhamite elite theory might be helpful here, as well. There’s a lot to think about.

CONCLUSION

Ultimately, I’ve written this meandering screed primarily to organize and systematize my own thoughts on a dilemma I’ll have to confront soon enough- how to reconcile two good and basically incompatible things, two good and basically incompatible systems, two good and basically incompatible ideals. There probably isn’t a rational solution, but there probably is a practical and livable solution that can’t be rationally justified. One of the things I intend to do in due time, when I return to these issues, is to look at localism vs. nationalism issues in American politics, at both the local and state levels and federally, and think of them in this context. And eventually, when I turn to prognosticating (futilely) the contours of the Fourth Republic’s great policy and political debates, perhaps I’ll take a firmer stab at trying to reconcile Lind’s nationalism with Winograd and Kotkin’s localism.

But that will have to wait for another time.

 

—-

[1] I was formerly involved with a futile and frankly kind of dumb ballot initiative campaign called the “Neighborhood Legislature” and one of the best arguments I took out of it was the sheer non-representative nature of the California and United States legislatures- when you’re a California State Senator with 1.2 million constituents in your district, you’re effectively trying to represent nearly twice as many people as a U.S. Congressman represents. Neither can truly do anything in a way that confers anything like democratic legitimacy. (I now disagree with the utopianity of the proposed reform, though.)

[2] It’s ironic, actually- Lind is normally the more idiosyncratic thinker among the three, and Kotkin and Winograd are normally slightly more conventional in their conclusions. But in the issue of where attention ought to be focused, Lind argues at the level of Congress and the White House; Kotkin and Winograd argue for City Hall.

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