June 17th, 2019


All political hope is local

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published May 15,2018

All political hope is local

This has nothing to do with Donald Trump, or everything to do with Donald Trump, or maybe someplace in between. This was caused by the election of Donald Trump, or this caused the election of Donald Trump, or maybe a little of each. Whatever the truth is — wherever your sentiments lie — there’s rumbling in the land, perhaps even an earthquake, and it comes down to this:

Our political system is in trouble.

There. Finally, I’ve typed a sentence that no one can dispute.

Here are the symptoms: Public despair. Political polarization. Congressional paralysis. Rampant incivility. Government by crisis. Rapid decline in respect abroad for America. Economic uncertainty even at a time of reasonable economic conditions.

But hold it. Despite the usual impatience for state government, particularly acute in Albany, Trenton, Harrisburg and Jefferson City, you’re not hearing much complaining about state and local government. The problem, as Ronald Reagan might have said and as many of his successors would endorse, is Washington.

“There is a real need for healing,” says Edward Rendell, who has been a mayor (Philadelphia), a governor (Pennsylvania) and a national political figure (chairman of the Democratic National Committee). “That’s true in Washington but it’s also true in Sacramento and Albany and across the state capitals. But a lot of the healing must come from leadership.”

And perhaps from rethinking the settled ideas from the past and to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions, like this one:

Could the problem be one of the heroic efforts of American history, one that helped lift the country out of the Great Depression, defined the relationship between the capital and the citizenry and shaped our politics for three-quarters of a century? Could we be suffering a New Deal hangover?

Republicans, who never liked the initiatives Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrapped in his New Deal blanket, are congenial to this idea. Some Democrats may be at least open to the notion.

“The danger and problem we face is that as people think about our government only in terms of the federal government, people begin to lose faith in the very idea of democracy,” said Morley Winograd, who served as the senior policy adviser for Vice President Al Gore.

He and a duo of well-regarded activists have written a brisk new book rooted in that conviction. Here’s what Mike Hais, a survey research expert, Doug Ross, who operated charter schools in Detroit, and Mr. Winograd have to say in “Healing American Democracy”:

[T]he New Deal civic ethos depended on a broad national consensus on purpose and political norms for its implementation. It has become increasingly ineffective, as the country has gone from relative homogeneity to a citizenry defined more by its variety than by its sameness.

Let’s not transform this into a debate over the New Deal. That won’t get us anything, except a fraught conversation on what to do about Social Security, which I personally have been writing about incessantly since 1983, a full 35 years, and we still face an entitlements crisis. The New Deal is a villain here mostly because it sought national solutions to a national crisis, but we have a national crisis of a different sort today. Besides, it’s the next step in the “Healing” manifesto that’s interesting — and that has increasing adherents from coast to coast.

Messrs. Hais, Ross and Winograd see growing evidence that “an expanding number of local communities are fashioning solutions to challenges that elude effective response in Washington and state capitals.” In short, they argue: Go local.

This locavore thrust isn’t confined to these three men, known mostly for their writings about millennials. Increasing numbers of American thinkers, without consulting each other, are drawn in the same direction.

Am I the only one to see the irony in this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine, which has a cover piece titled “How the Presidency Became Impossible” but tucks at the very back the musings of the redoubtable James Fallows, who in a cross-country tour of the United States found new and inspiring vibrancy in the efforts of local government? Am I the only one to see hope in Robert Luthnow’s new “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America,” which on the surface is a dreary tour of Donald Trump’s base except for its (insightful) validation of the rural distress based in contempt for Washington.

Mr. Wuthnow, who was reared in a town of 5,000 and who teaches at Princeton, knows why many Americans turned from Washington:

People are strong. The [local] community is resilient. But it makes you mad that people elsewhere, especially in Washington, don’t see it that way. They don’t even seem to behave responsibly like you do. They’re devoid of common sense. They talk and talk but don’t get anything constructive done.

Not everybody feels the trend toward localism is completely positive. Yale University Press will bring forward “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself” in the fall, and in it Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro argue that political decentralization has rendered government and the political parties less suited to today’s challenges.

Even so, a lot of constructive work — a lot of constructive thinking — is being done at the local level, perhaps a cause of, or perhaps a reflection of, the decline in civic respect for Washington.

Three-quarters of Americans in 1958 thought the national government could be counted upon to do the right thing. Today only one in five feel that way, according to a December 2017 Pew survey.

But there is ferment on the local level. Pittsburgh borrowed a concept from Kalamazoo, Mich., to create the Pittsburgh Promise, helping high school graduates pay for college tuition. The two initiatives have performed yeoman service in their communities. New Orleans has found its way back from Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Fallows found inspiration in Dodge City, Kan., which raised taxes to pay for parks and pools, and for Charleston, W.Va., which did the same to support public libraries.

“Serious as the era’s problems are,” Mr. Fallows wrote, “more people, in more places, told us they felt hopeful about their ability to move circumstances the right way than you would ever guess from national news coverage of most political discourse.”

Whatever the cause, 70 percent of Americans, according to a September 2017 Gallup Poll, have confidence in their local governments to do the right thing. “I have seen the future,” Mr. Fallows wrote, “and it is the United States.” Just not in Washington.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.