Timothy Noah has a smart review of Ralph Nader’s new book, which calls for a left-right alliance on issues ranging from the Pentagon budget to the minimum wage to TV advertising aimed at children. This is an eclectic set of topics, but Nader is a man of surprisingly eclectic viewpoints. Noah calls him a “pro-regulatory, highly litigious libertarian” whose ideal is “a small community” where the citizenry “unites to force corporations and unresponsive government to act in the public interest.”
In the spirit of smallness, Nader devotes a whole chapter to a certain group of reactionary populists skeptical of both D.C. and Wall Street and popular in the South. No, it’s not the Tea Party. It’s the “Southern Agrarians,” an early twentieth-century rural movement hostile to bigness and united in defense of local, small-scale economies.
Nader seems to think that many political goals could be achieved through a left-right alliance based in a similar principled opposition to “corporatism”—even if the allies are not actually united, physically, in the same small towns. This anti-corporatist, localist impulse is familiar in American politics. It is also, from a practical standpoint, unlikely to achieve most of the big-ticket goals of the American left.
Progressives have come to this realization before, and in similar circumstances. Our unfortunate era shares many of the headaches that afflicted the early twentieth century—including soaring inequality, dangerous and unethical behavior from big business and finance, and new risks for workers in a rapidly-changing economy. The response of some thinkers was to roundly condemn big institutions, whether economic or political, as dangerous, distant, and unresponsive. But others—including Herbert Croly, the founding editor of The New Republic—advocated the promotion of one kind of bigness in order to control the other kind. In his masterpiece The Promise of American Life (which has just been reissued in a lovely new edition), Croly argued that only a powerful national government could fulfill America’s “democratic ideal.” Croly was contemptuous of the romanticism that accompanied so many discussions of local communities. “The organization of the American democracy into a nation is not to be regarded in the way that so many Americans have regarded it,—as a necessary but hazardous surrender of certain liberties in order that other liberties might be better preserved,—as a mere compromise between the democratic ideal and the necessary conditions of political cohesion and efficiency,” Croly contended. “Its nationalized political organization constitutes the proper structure and veritable life of the American democracy.”
Croly grasped, earlier than most, the core reason why so many on the American left became (and remain) suspicious of localism. “If the American local commonwealths had not been wrought by the Federalists into the form of a nation,” Croly wrote, “they would never have continued to be democracies; and the people collectively have become more of a democracy in proportion as they have become more of a nation.” This argument was borne out in the nineteenth century, as Croly knew, and again in the twentieth, as he would have predicted. The most famous anti-federal stand on behalf of “local principles” was, of course, the defense of slavery (and later, segregation). Fairly or not, the slogan American liberals most commonly associate with celebrations of localism is “states’ rights.” In this mindset, local communities are the sites of the last, desperate stands against equality and political reform.
Of course, this isn’t quite a balanced picture. While federal power was needed to integrate the South, and while the states are the sites of resistance against Medicaid expansion today, on other issues (like marriage equality), many states have outpaced the federal government. Localities can be places of forward-thinking reform, too. But the American left’s mistrust of localism has deep historical roots.
And as Croly and his allies understood, there are practical limitations to localism as well. Liberals have good reason to favor fixing federal power over rejecting it, and good reason to support national politics alongside local action. Indeed, most of Nader’s priorities would require federal resources and a nationwide political conversation: breaking up the big banks, setting an inflation-indexed minimum wage, and deliberating over how to treat public goods like the Internet, or how much to spend on the military.
Croly’s book has fallen from prominence, and so has his distinctive contribution to thinking about this problem. But there are good reasons, on historical and pragmatic grounds, to think twice before sentimentalizing local communities and issuing blanket condemnations of bigness. A serious approach to political reform should be careful not to turn away from federal power. It’s not without its flaws, but when it works, it is—not despite, but because of its bigness—one of the best friends American democracy has.