Localism and Democracy

Cliff Durand
Thursday, February 20, 2020

At a time when national political institutions seem unresponsive to us and our lives are controlled by giant corporations and the global economy is even further beyond our reach, people are looking increasingly to what they can do locally to improve their lives and communities. They look to local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and promotion of local history, local culture and local identity. Localism grows out of a sense of place that people can feel is their own. It is about building communities that are more healthy and sustainable - backed by local economies that are stronger and more resilient.

Localism is both an economic project and a political project. It involves a decoupling of lives from corporate capitalism by building local institutions that can meet human needs in a way that is more accountable. At the same time, localism builds inclusive communities that nurture political participation, or what has been called the “construction of citizenship republics.” These are based in direct participation rather than representationism.

The American republic founded on the US constitution written in 1787 established a system of political representation at the national level. As James Madison said, this removed the supposedly sovereign populace from government, entrusting it to a political elite deemed better able to protect the interests of property against the “unwashed masses.” These representatives were to be accountable to local electorates through periodic elections. However, these local electorates are disparate enough so as not likely to be able to form a national consensus that might threaten property at a national level. Therein lies the “genius” of our founding fathers.

It produced a political system better called a polyarchy than a democracy. The term ‘polyarchy’ was coined by Robert Dahl. Polyarchy is simply the selection in multiparty elections of leaders from among competing elites. Under this concept, which is generally called “our democracy,” in the words of Joseph Schumpeter, “the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them.” The purpose of elections is to legitimate our rulers. [Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Harper and Row, 1975, p. 285. Cf. also William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996.] Between elections the governing elite rules, largely insulated from the popular will, except under the unusual circumstances where autonomous social movements are able to force them in a more democratic direction.

The failure of representationism to actually represent the popular will was documented in a recent study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. Comparing public opinion on some 1,779 policy issues as measured in polls with what elected representatives actually enacted, they found a statistically insignificant correlation. It was nearly zero. However, there was a strong correlation with what elites and organized business groups wanted. Representative democracy or polyarchy turns out not to be very democratic. [Gilens and Page, Democracy in America?, University of Chicago Press, 2018.]

By contrast, what we are calling localism offers the opportunity for a more genuinely democratic direct participation. This is typified in the establishment of commons. Unmediated by representatives, everyday people are able to common together to share resources in common. The act of commoning overcomes the fragmentation that usually makes us vulnerable to larger corporate interests. For example, when a community commons together to create a farmers market or community supported agriculture, they have an alternative source to corporate agribusiness for their food. And even when needing other consumables from distant producers, by commoning together to create a local currency a community can keep most of the profit from local businesses in the community. When a community commons together to create a public bank they are able to keep funds locally for community projects thereby freeing themselves from dependence on private profit seeking Wall Street banks. And when a group of workers common together to form a worker owned cooperative (a kind of labor commons), they are better able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. When a community forms a solar energy cooperative, they are able to disconnect from the grid and address climate change. All these are examples of institutions based on direct participation that empowers people in important ways.

Such commons are a familiar part of daily life, although we often do not recognize them as such. What is a public park or plaza but a commons set aside for shared enjoyment, recreation and conviviality? What is a public school but an educational commons to assist in the development of youth? What are a municipal water and sewer system, the public streets, the fire and police departments but shared resources for the public good? These are socialized institutions that point toward the common good.

Often local government is the governing authority for such commons. Or there may be an elected school board or parks commission that governs local commons. Being closer to the commoners in whose name they make decisions they are more accountable, although even then they may be captured by special interests. To guard against that it is vital that members of the community be directly involved in their common civic affairs. Or people may simply by-pass government altogether to create their own self-governing commons by establishing a land trust to protect a park area, or a community garden, or a cooperative grocery store, or a worker owned cooperative.

In all cases it is best to follow the principle of subsidiarity. That is, decisions ought to be made at the lowest level possible with support from higher levels when necessary. That means that decisions can be made by those most effected by the decisions. That helps to sustain a vibrant civil society, a point I will return to momentarily. Decisions made at higher levels of governance tend to become bureaucratized and are seen as theirs rather than ours.

But there are situations where local decisions impact on others and higher levels come into play. For example, local agriculture may require irrigation using water from the Colorado River, although folks down stream need that water too. So local usage may have to be governed by a regional authority. In another troublesome case, a poor country may find it necessary to tap a scarce natural resource like oil. But that contributes to climate change and conflicts with humanity’s interest in protecting our planetary commons. We are simultaneously members of multiple tiered commons with sometimes conflicting legitimate interests. Democracy can get complicated.

Nevertheless local commons are vital to a healthy civil society. Commoning brings people together in a shared enterprise that builds what Robert Putnam called social capital. [Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2001.] Sustained face to face interaction builds trust that then enables collective action in other venues both local and above. This is a point Thomas Jefferson recognized when he advocated township governance as the little republics that will keep the national republic alive. Local participation nurtures citizenship republics.

But can local commons be scaled up and under what conditions? This is what happened in the US during the New Deal when successful local experiments became models for national programs. A national crisis combined with a leadership looking for solutions offers a favorable climate. Also important are social movements pressing elites for change. It takes more than the accumulation of local initiatives pointing beyond capitalism to move the larger society forward.

Today we live in a historical interregnum. As I have argued elsewhere, we face a crisis of liberal democracy. A major economic collapse is widely expected in the near term. Climate catastrophe is staring us in the face. The convergence of multiple crises may imperil civilization itself. In the event of societal collapse at national and global levels survival then depends on resilient local institutions. By empowering local communities against predatory capitalism in the present, localism prepares us for a future in the face of these multiple crises.