Saturday, August 28, 2010

How to Make Local Government Sexy

This post on Andrew Sullivan's blog by Conor Friedersdorf is quite relevant to my Aug. 3 post on localism. Per its title, it is clearly an advocacy piece in favor of localism, but if anything its opening ("Does anyone pay regular attention to their City Council or County Board of Supervisors?") tends to support my point. It raises the question, to me at least, of whether this is inevitable. That even those people who are generally aware of (and potentially engaged with) national politics are often disengaged at the local level is really problematic for advocates of local government. But how would you go about promoting increased engagement? Would better online reporting and organizing make a difference? Do we need dedicated and effective bloggers in every community to bring these issues to life? And how would you promote/fund that? One could argue that people don't pay attention to it because there is a perception that local government doesn't have that much power and doesn't really matter. But I think Yglesias's arguments to that local government still has considerable impact on quality of life (through zoning and business regulations) are quite persuasive. Why is the public's perception so different? Certainly I don't have answers to these questions, and as such I am disinclined to offer much support to movements in favor of increased power for local government. I'd just like to see those who advocate that address these issues more squarely. I'm not convinced this is an intractable problem, and if concrete steps could be taken to address it, it would be to everyone's benefit. I think we just need some creative thinking on this topic.


Hank said...

I got started writing a long comment on the previous post about local government but didn't have time to finish. My computer restarted etc. To briefly summarize what I can recall (I don't have much time tonight either):

1) Federal government does have power over most of the sexy issues. It just leaves the detail and minutiae to the locals, if anything really exciting started happening at the local level the feds would probably take over whatever it is because they can. The feds have the power to do whatever they want, and the desire to stick their fingers wherever the media is looking.

2) I think the disproportionate focus on federal government, and perhaps even its disproportionate power, may be a legacy of the waning mass media era. If we can develop new ways of consuming news that allow us to move further down the long tail of journalism things may gradually move in a different direction.

3) "One size doesn't fit all" kind of assumes that we have any idea what size fits anybody. I think the possibility for innovation, experimentation, and competition that localism provides are some of its greatest strengths.

4) I really do think local gov't does provide more accountability. Your points are valid, but think about a town of 50k doing a $10m civic project or school expansion. With local government, the stakeholders who pay in are much more likely to be the same people who consume the product or, at the very least, in a position to observe that there is no gross malfeasance. People on the ground will pay attention to how the money is spent and how the project turns out. Or note that a majority of local spending goes to education, police, and transportation, things that really do get a decent amount of attention from a lot of people.

I've wondered if maybe we need a more thoroughly electoral, hierarchical, system. People could just vote for state and local officials and all federal representatives would be voted on by state assemblies. It would be very grass rootsy with power always flowing from small regions up. Potential benefits would be higher participation and turnout, insulation of federal officials from direct campaigning, weakening of the national parties, and a more diverse national discourse fueled by local debate.

Joe said...


I agree with a lot of your points (particularly re: scale of representation). As I indicated in my initial post, I am not married to my position. The problem is that I believe, somewhat echoing Yglesias, that there is a lot of critical policy made at the local level. Zoning, civil design, traffic management, business regulations, etc., have a very underappreciated impact on our day-to-day quality of life, economic performance, and environmental impact. But I think largely as a function of the fact that these are local issues there is much less coverage, discussion, or interest in these issues than in matters regulated by the federal government. Certainly there is a tremendous amount of disfunction at the federal level, but at the least that is something that people have a great deal of awareness about and spend a lot of time trying to develop solutions to. Whether any of these solutions will ever be successfully applied is another question...

I can't agree, however, with the idea that voting locally, with local representatives voting for federal offices. I think that would be more likely to empower the party machinery (upon whom all of the local officials would become dependent for career advancement) than the voters.