Can ‘Localism’ Restore Sanity to U.S. Politics?

I live in one of those old towns that was not built for cars. Its Main Street is narrow, hedged in with historic stone houses and walls. As commuter traffic has intensified over the past several years, it’s become increasingly dangerous to walk along Main Street.

The mayor of my tiny Virginia town has worked incessantly to fix this, by fostering walkability and traffic-calming measures since he ran for town council in the 1990s. I’m determined to help him: I want to walk with my daughter to the playground or the farmer’s market without fearing for her safety.

Our mayor is liberal. He drives around town with an Obama ’08 bumper sticker on his car. I am a conservative, pro-life Christian; in 2016, I voted for Evan McMullin for president. But our partisan political differences mean nothing when it comes to caring for this town and making it better. Here at the local level, our interests intertwine: They are practical, achievable, even apolitical.

This is localism, a bottom-up, practically oriented way of looking at today’s biggest policy dilemmas. Instead of always or only seeking to fix municipal issues through national policy, localism suggests that communities can and should find solutions to their own particular problems, within their own particular contexts. The best walkability solutions for Washington, D.C., may not work in my town. Urban revitalization efforts in Detroit will need to look different than those efforts employed in rural Iowa.

If we’re to find hope and unity for our politics in this fractured era, localism may be the perfect place to start.

It hands ownership and power back to those who are most likely to feel hollowed out and powerless in the face of federal stasis. As the Brookings Institution fellows Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write in their new book “The New Localism,” this approach empowers postindustrial cities and dying towns to fix their problems from within, without federal bureaucracy or funds.

Localism suggests, in places like Charlottesville, Va., that communities can and should find solutions to their particular problems.

Localism manifests itself in a variety of forms. The farmer and author Joel Salatin has seen localism thrive within the sustainable agriculture movement: States like Wyoming and Maine have campaigned for “local food freedom laws,” which enable farmers to sell certain goods to neighbors without as much federal oversight or bureaucratic red tape. Private philanthropists, state representatives and community activists have all banded together to garner opportunities and funding for young and beginning farmers in their own communities.

“When you arrogate a fight to the national level, the stakes are much higher than necessary,” Mr. Salatin told me. “At the state or local level, the stakes are not nearly as high because the numbers are smaller, the ability to change is easier, and policies can be customized to specific geopolitical contexts.”

The same principles apply to urban planning, as Chuck Marohn, the president…


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