Why federalism is key to restoring civic connectedness and faith in the American government
The other week, I stumbled across a headline that I think illustrates the challenges facing American communities. It’s from CNBC, paraphrasing Mark Zuckerberg. “Facebook can play a role that churches and Little League once filled.”
Zuckerberg was celebrating an impressive milestone for his social media platform: It now has two billion monthly users.
But I was struck by how he described those users in his speech, which was titled “Bringing the World Closer Together.” He called the Facebook user base a “community” . . . a community two billion members strong.
As Silicon Valley lingo goes, the term is not that objectionable. In fact, it’s kind of endearing. It speaks to a deep-seated recognition that community is good . . . that man was not meant to live alone.
But words matter, and a group of two billion people is not a community in any meaningful sense of the word. Two billion people isn’t even a mass movement — in the year 1930, it was the total population of Planet Earth.
It doesn’t make sense to describe two billion people as a community because community is about meaningful human relationships . . . and you can only have so many of those.
In fact, the limited nature of community is one of the reasons it is so valuable: Membership in a community helps to make the impersonal mass society we live in more manageable, more human.
And so, while Facebook can help connect us with friends, family, and cat videos, it is not true community. Community institutions like churches and Little League can’t be replaced by the glowing rectangles we keep in our pockets.
Rather, community is the stage where we perform the most rewarding roles of our lives: As children and parents, siblings and spouses, friends, mentors, and disciples.
Strong communities surround us with supporting cast members who can help us in these roles. Moreover, they prepare young people to take on these challenging roles as they grow. Strong communities instruct us in our early years, and support us thereafter.
Weak communities, by contrast, are an empty stage where individuals perform in the glare of the spotlight, forced to improvise their roles without accompaniment or support.
Which leads to a question. How strong are America’s communities?
Recently I started a multi-year research effort within the Joint Economic Committee, called the Social Capital Project, to study that question. In May, the project released its first report, titled “What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America.”
Drawing on decades of social science research, the report found that American communities are growing weaker. Here is some of what it found.
This will not come as a surprise, but American families look quite different than they did a few decades ago. In important respects, they are worse off.
Men and women are having fewer children in total, and they are also having fewer children within wedlock. Between 1970 and 2015, births to single mothers rose from 11 percent of all births to 40 percent. A majority of American children can now expect to live with just one parent at some point before reaching age sixteen.
Americans are spending less time in religious communities, which Robert Putnam called “the single most important repository of social capital in America.” Church attendance and trust in organized religion have dropped sharply since the early 1970s.
Americans also participate less in secular voluntary associations such as the Boy Scouts and Rotary International — groups that historically have brought together Americans from different walks of life.
And we are increasingly segregated on the basis of class. As AEI’s Charles Murray has pointed out, upper-middle-class professionals have insulated themselves from their less prosperous countrymen by moving to neighborhoods of immense privilege. It should surprise no one that the largest cluster of these affluent neighborhoods surrounds Washington, D.C.
The Social Capital Project’s report paints a concerning picture of American community life. It finds that strong communities increasingly are a class prerogative rather than a common inheritance.
The destruction of community life is a spiritual crisis for millions of our fellow citizens. These Americans live among their neighbors, but do not live with them.
They have been severed from local institutions that give meaning and repose to the soul.
What caused this? There are of course many culprits. But I contend that much of the blame goes to government, which has intruded into aspects of life that used to be the sole domain of civil society.
It is no coincidence that federal power has expanded at the same time American communities have come apart. The trends are related, and in fact they reinforce one another.
When government grows, civil society recedes. Just to give one recent example: According to AEI researcher Bradford Wilcox, almost one-third of Americans report that they personally know someone who has not gotten married for fear of losing a means-tested government benefit.
Think about that: Government welfare policy is discouraging marriage, which is the bedrock of healthy societies, not to mention upward mobility and the pursuit of happiness.
Government crowds out civic groups by competing with them to perform similar social functions. Robbed of purpose by a competitor they cannot outspend, these civic groups either, leaving behind an empty public square. This in turn provides yet another pretext for state intervention. And so government expands again, fueled by the dead timber of civil society.
We observed this in the early 20th century with the decline of fraternal societies — groups that provided their mostly working-class members with everything from life insurance to medical care. The welfare state supplanted these local lodges over a few decades. As one member wrote, his Order “lost a strong argument” for recruiting new members when the government started providing similar services.
But government does not just compete with civil society in the material realm, through the provision of welfare. It competes also in the spiritual realm, by offering individuals alternative visions of community . . . political identities that bypass local affections.
As the great scholar Robert Nisbet observed, men and women hunger for community, and they will go looking for it when they do not find it close to home. Nisbet noted that for many people “this same quest terminates in the political party or action group.”
We can see this today in national protest movements that are reacting to the centralized, winner-take-all nature of federal elections and policymaking. These mass movements give participants the feelings we associate with community, namely a sense of belonging and moral purpose.
But they instill these feelings on the cheap. Attending marches, signing petitions, and posting indignantly on Facebook are no substitute for the hard work of building real communities in our real lives.
Putnam said it best: “From the point of view of social connectedness, the Environmental Defense Fund and a bowling league are just not in the same category.”
Mass movements are designed to effect change at the highest levels of government, but they are ill-suited for the human-sized problems of everyday life. They do not take care of the neighborhood kids during a family emergency. They do not bring groceries to the shut-in down the street.
And so, when partisans leave their rallies, they often return to communities as barren and inhospitable as before — whether they are wearing Make-America-Great-Again caps or pink knit hats.
America is investing its energy in national politics — and in many cases, little more than commentary about national politics — even as it is withdrawing from its local communities, where citizens’ power to create change is orders of magnitude greater.
Most social media activism — hurling hashtags and retweeting insults from late-night comedians — is not real engagement. It’s like Fantasy Football. It borrows some of the entertaining superficialities of the real thing, but without the stakes, sacrifices, or rewards of true human endeavor.
The challenge we face today is rebuilding our real communities, which will require us to reverse century-old trends toward centralization. We need to turn our gaze away from Washington, back to where we came from.
If we accept the premise that improving the lives of our neighbors and neighborhoods is someone else’s problem — some politician, some bureaucrat far off in Washington — the battle is already lost. That’s not to say government plays no role, or even necessarily a small role. Rather, it is to recognize that government only works in America as the people’s servant, not our master.
This is a daunting challenge that does not admit of easy solutions. A commitment to localism will require hard work. In the short run, it will seem less emotionally satisfying than the status quo. The stakes will seem smaller . . . the reforms less sweeping and urgent . . . the opposition, less villainous.
But this is also why, unlike our current season of outrage, a turn toward localism stands a chance of actually succeeding . . . of actually yielding a happier, healthier republic.
Put another way, I believe if we aim for subsidiarity, we’ll get positive change not only in city hall, but in Washington, too. If we continue to aim instead for centralization, we’ll get neither. Here’s why.
First of all, a renewed focus on local governance would lower the stakes of political conflict.
Everyone in this room is aware of the toxic partisanship in this country. Our national politics resembles a tribal feud, with Hatsfields and McCoys nursing ancient grudges against the other. Each new transgression is defended by invoking old transgressions by the rival clan.
This is not what American politics is supposed to be about. It is not how we should view and treat our fellow citizens. The American system was carefully designed to accommodate differences, not pit them against one another in a cage match.
Peaceful accommodation would be possible once again if we returned control to the state and local levels.
Decisions made at lower levels of government are more likely to be consensus decisions, given the shared values within most communities.
When problems arise within communities, local politicians are better situated to hear the concerns of stakeholders. This accountability is positive both for politicians, who can make better-informed judgments, and for citizens, who have a more direct channel to raise their concerns.
And we should not discount the sheer civilizing effect of proximity. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “the passions that commonly embroil society change their character when they find a vent so near the domestic hearth and the family circle.”
In other words, we can get away with shouting at our opponents in all caps on Twitter, but living in community with others requires good manners.
A renewed focus on local governance would also encourage innovation in public policy. States are referred to as the “laboratories of democracy,” but often they are not free to experiment with policy solutions because the federal government imposes one “solution” from above.
This is a risky way to make policy. Top-down solutions are an all-or-nothing bet, with catastrophic results for millions in the case of failure.
Federalism offers a better way here as well. It allows states to tailor policies to their diverse residents and cultures.
Take my home state of Utah.
You may not know it, but Utah has had success in alleviating poverty while maintaining a small, conservative state government. The state spends little per capita on public welfare, yet its largest population center has the highest level of economic mobility in the country; 10.8% of Salt Lake City children born into the bottom quintile of the economic ladder will rise to the top quintile within their lifetimes. This impressive rate rivals the economic mobility of Denmark, which is often pointed to as a model of big-government policies.
Utah has accomplished this feat by understanding its unique strengths and limitations.
Thanks in large part to oppressive federal land policies, Utah has comparatively low fiscal capacity, which means it would have to levy painfully high taxes in order to fund big-government programs.
On the other hand, Utah is blessed with tight-knit communities. These communities are oriented around the LDS Church, whose moral instruction and charitable network help low-income members become self-sufficient.
Utah’s success in fighting poverty may not be replicable in other states. But honest observers would conclude it has found a responsible, small-government strategy that meets our needs.
Other states should be free to try different policies, and to learn about what works — and what doesn’t — from their neighbors. I certainly hope more states look to Utah as a model of responsible leadership.
But there is one more reason we need a renewed commitment to local governance. It has to do with something at the very core of our national project: Self-government.
Earlier, I mentioned the anger that is fueling so much of our politics today. On the left and right, populist movements are marching on Washington demanding change. Many of their members are motivated by a sense of loss. They do not think their leaders care about them or that their concerns are being taken seriously.
Crucially, they do not feel like they are in control of government. Rather, they feel like government is in control of them.
This loss of control is an indignity — a reversal of the American social compact, which puts the people in charge. And it began with the decline of self-governing local communities that give meaningful roles to ordinary men and women.
Seen in this light, localism is a way to restore dignity to the forgotten Americans — to our fellow citizens who haven’t caught every break, and maybe never will . . . but who are devoted parents, trusted neighbors, and pillars of their communities.
As usual, Tocqueville put it best. He wrote that “the township, at the center of the ordinary relations of life, serves as a field for the desire of public esteem.”
He understood that men and women desire esteem, and that for the vast majority of people esteem is earned close to home through service to others.
That is the true beauty of localism. Hundreds of years after the Founding, it still offers our country the best way forward.