The hidden power of the local


Sam Smith – One of the best kept secrets about American politics is that change typically comes from the local and not the national and from the weak rather than the powerful. Consider civil rights, the environment, marijuana laws, or the peace movement that ended the Vietnam war. Each change came from those at the top of the system finally responding to the often lengthy campaigns of those without power but with the courage to  make a case loudly and effectively.

In fact, in the past century only the New Deal and the Great Society acted with atypical strength on behalf of the concerns of ordinary citizens, rather than merely responding in a moderate fashion to their demands.

In recent decades the powerful, with considerable aid from the mass media, has taught the public that it is those at the top, rather than coalitions, movements and community values, that produce positive change, allowing someone like Donald Trump, for example,  to pretend he is acting on behalf of the working class.

The forces behind all this are numerous and include factors such as:

  • Widespread corruption, undermining principles we allegedly support. 
  • Our failure to control the influence of money on our campaigns and on the beneficiaries of these funds
  • An electoral college that has become a stunningly anti-democratic institution. At the time of the Constitution, there were only 9 states with a population over 100,000. Now all states are greater than 500,000 but there are also over 20 cities with populations greater than that. Yet a key part of our governance remains with states rather than cities. 
  • As local media has declined, mass media has exploded and with it the bias of overly powerful voices defining the work of overly powerful leaders.

I spent my young years in Philadelphia and Boston and learned early that politics was not about reliable values and public service, but something to be reformed and controlled as best one could. The problem now is that television and the Internet have increasingly taught us to regard the most powerful figures as sources of wisdom and values, propaganda as truth and the national as vastly more important as a source of values than communities and their churches,  schools and other organizations.

Fortunately, and atypically, I found this not to be true thanks to being blessed with a number of communities where I wrote at one level and lived and learned at another. As early as the mid 1960s I edited a community newspaper a Capitol Hill redefined as the much larger Capitol East, 70% of whose residents were black. I got involved in numerous neighborhood and city wide issues including the anti-freeway and pro-DC statehood movements. Later, moving to a better off Cleveland Park, I still remained deeply involved, including heading the parents association of a public school and being one of the first the cities new advisory neighborhood commissioners. Now, many years later in a small town in Maine, I not only continue to edit Undernews but also a Facebook page providing news about our village. 

In short, I have, for most of my life, treated the local as providing much of the values and wisdom applicable to, but too often ignored by, the more powerful.

I also got involved in politics back when even corrupt senators got where they were by having served a community that responded with their votes. Today, they don’t need to actually serve, they only need to inundate their constituencies with favorable media images.

It is easy to forget that our states and communities are where most positive change begins. As I noted in my 1993 book, Captive Capital:

“The ill effects of Washington influence peddling presents one of the strongest arguments for devolving power from the capital to the fifty states and their localities. While corporate lobbyists function at all levels, it is often easier and cheaper for citizen action groups to fight them locally than it is to take them on nationally. Even the environmental movement, with its major presence in Washington, has benefited enormously from the impact of local action and pressure. In 1992 alone, for example, the 100 largest localities pursued an estimated 1700 environmental crime prosecutions, more than twice the number of such cases brought by the federal government between 1983 and 1991. Another example has been the drive against smoking. While the tobacco lobby ties up Washington, 750 cities and communities have passed indoor smoking laws. And then there is the Brady [gun] bill. By the time the federal government got around to acting on it, half the states had passed similar measures.

“So powerful is the potential for decentralized action that pressure groups sometimes demand that federal or state laws prevent lower levels of government imposing their own restrictions. In one case, the North Carolina legislature passed anti-smoking legislation that, under tobacco industry pressure, preempted local action on the matter. The bill, however, had a six-month delay before it took effect; and during this interim some 30 communities passed their own laws.

“Richard Klemp, vice president for corporate affairs for the Miller Brewing Company — that is to say their chief lobbyist — laid out the stats of the problem in a 1993 speech. Klemp noted that the firm had to deal with 7600 state legislators, 535 members of Congress, 50 governors, one president, hundreds of regulatory officials, and thousands of mayor and city councils. ‘At each biennium,’ he said, ‘there are more than 200,000 bills introduced in the state legislatures and 12,000 bills introduced in Congress, any one of which could have a limiting or potentially devastating effect on the brewing industry . . . ‘”

Over the past few decades, liberals have increasingly favored federal over state and local action, so much so that this bias has hurt their reputation among ordinary Americans who approve of their state and local government far more than they do of the feds.

The Trump disaster offers an opportunity to rediscover the power of the local. Already scores of mayors have come together to indicate their support of the Paris accords on climate. States refused  to participate in Trump’s attack on the voting system and many states have provided protection from immigrants against the federal assault.

It’s not a question of either/or but of rediscovering the power of the local and making it an important part of the drive towards change. 

Back in the early 70s, Senator Mark Hatfield made the remarkable proposal that citizens be allowed to funnel a portion of their federal tax dollars directly to neighborhood organizations. In defense of this profoundly radical idea, he cited some figures that dramatically show how some of the nation’s social problems could be broken into smaller and more manageable parts:

“If, for example, every church and synagogue were to take over the responsibility of caring for ten people over the age of 65 who are presently living below the poverty level there would be no present welfare programs needed for the aged. If each church or synagogue took over the responsibility for 18 families who are eligible for welfare today, there would not be any need for federal or state welfare programs to families. If each church and synagogue cared for less than one child each the present day care program supported by federal and state funds would be totally unnecessary.”

The other problem with our political system, due in part to the Internet, has been our infatuation with identity politics. When I was young, part of the test of good politics, was its ability to reach out to varied constituencies. So my problem with Black Lives Matter is not philosophical but mathematical. There simply aren’t enough blacks to get it all done. The solution: find issues that can be shared across ethnic lines.

In DC in the 1960s, civil rights leaders did just that. They fought for a better life not just for themselves but for everyone through such issues as the anti-freeway, home rule and DC statehood movements. DC has had black mayors for 47 years but also home rule and no new freeways.

Imagine, for example, if black and latino leaders were to take the lead on multicultural working class issues. The lies and other sins of a Donald Trump would matter far less.

If this seems strange, check with the Rev. William Barber who has revived Martin Luther King’s anti-poverty campaign and explained once, “He gave a sermon at Riverside about a year before his death called ‘A Time to Break Silence’ He declared that there were three triune evils that you could not separate: racism, poverty, and militarism. He said you can’t separate them out or put one before the other. They all are interlocking. And we have to address them as interlocking.”

If we continue to follow our national politicians and let the media to guide us we will continue to treat ethnicity only as an never ending problem rather than one  we can change by learning new ways of living with each other.  But to do this we must realize that the answers don’t lie with the most powerful but with ordinary citizens who come together to find and act upon them.

Remember that the local is where we find community, churches, schools and other institutions that offer values that matter and help. When was the last time a national politician or network newscaster helped you become more decent?