Think Local

Patrick J. Deneen
David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor, Political Science and Constitutional Studies
University of Notre Dame

A main reason for the intensity of political polarization in America today is that so much policy is now determined in Washington, D.C.—whether through Congress, executive order, or decisions by the Supreme Court. In spite of what your mother might once have said—“don’t make a federal case of it”—this has become our norm, in which every political division becomes magnified, and every decision produces winners and losers on a national scale.
The original genius of the American system was the understanding by its founders that so large and diverse a nation would require respect for diversity that stemmed from distinctive cultures, beliefs, and traditions in different parts of the Union. This allowance for diversity was enshrined in federalism, but its weakening in the face of greater centralization has produced a crisis of governance. The intense national focus on presidential elections as well as the makeup and decisions of the Supreme Court is not a sign of national strength, but civic sickness. There can be no cures for the ills of hardening partisanship so long as our public life is largely lived as a spectator sport focused on decisions made in the nation’s capital.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his masterpiece Democracy in America, argued that democracy would only flourish if it were practiced primarily on the local level, and that such hands-on practice had the effect of transforming private individuals into citizens. The danger that democracy faced, above all, was the rise of “individualism,” which he believed would lead to an atrophy of civic energy and would ultimately strengthen the central government as people came to rely less on their fellow citizens and more on the state. He feared that the logic of democratic freedom might lead paradoxically to a form of “democratic despotism.”
By contrast to the vitriol in the nation’s capital, the city of South Bend is led by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who recently ran for the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Yet the fact that he is a Democrat has been largely irrelevant in how he has undertaken his daily business as a mayor. His efforts to strengthen downtown South Bend through a renewal of its civic space, the effort to attract new housing and new commerce to its downtown, forging a partnership with Notre Dame, the transformation of the riverfront to an attractive common space, and policies to make the city government more accountable and transparent aren’t partisan and have strengthened the unity and enthusiasm of the city’s residents in contributing to our shared lives. While few, if any, of us are in a position to have a major impact on the federal government, most of us can make a contribution to our communities. Through what Tocqueville described as “the arts of association,” by coming together to discuss issues that might divide us as well as join us in this less fraught sphere, we might actually (again, Tocqueville) “enlarge our hearts.” The best prospect for improving the catastrophic condition of contemporary politics must begin with caring a lot less about Washington D.C. and more about what we might do to make our communities better places for our friends, our families, our neighbors, and our fellow citizens.

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