A Thought on Populism & Localism

Populism has been in the news since 2016, but like any political “ism” it doesn’t have a super clear definition and meaning.  Most people, in my estimation, probably understand populism as some type of anti-elitist politics, where policies for “the people” are the focus as opposed to policies introduced by “the elites” or by “bureaucrats.” The essence of populism is an anti-top down approach to policy solutions, pushing back against an elite that tells the masses how they should live. Populism seems to be a form of governance where the people on the bottom demand their views both hold prominence and dictate the direction of public policy.

 

Governance by populism can be dangerous, however. It can have the feel of a mob mentality and while it can represent substantial and important concerns among the public, it can also be a driver of poorly constructed reactionary politics. It can give power and energy to groups that want policies that infringe upon the rights of others.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about the populism we see in the United States and in the United Kingdom today:

 

“Populism has re-energized a politics-most prominently represented by Donald Trump in America and the Brexit coalition in the United Kingdom-that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence of the modern economy.”

 

I don’t want to simply say that populism is wrong and criticize those who support populist policies. Instead I want to focus on understanding what is taking place in the brand of populism we see today, and how this cuts against the new grain of local governance and economic development we see in dynamic thriving cities in the United States (and across the globe) today.

 

Our populism represents a feeling of isolation and marginalization by those who do not benefit from a globalized world economy. Those who stand to lose status and lose economic means of participation feel as though they are simply being told that there is a new system in the world that doesn’t have a purpose for them. With declining social institutions and social capital in the Untied States (fewer people attending church, more people leaving rural areas, and lengthy commutes draining the life out of people) citizens see limited avenues to engage in the world in a way that feels meaningful. When work dries up or shifts from a craft to a retail job, people understandably feel threatened and vulnerable. Their intuition to pull back, isolate and protect themselves, and draw boundaries between who is and is not allowed to continue to engage in their desired economy is understandable even if it is harmful in the long run. I don’t think it is a healthy reaction, but we can understand where some of these populist pressures originate.

 

A new localism, in terms of governance and economic development, has to think about these pressures and reactions as it encourages a greater networking of innovative ideas, of fluid participation from varying individuals, and shifting rewards for creative and unique work. Somehow this complex system has to be made more understandable to more people, and also has to retain elements that improve the lives of people in more ways than simply making the cost of t-shirts and flashlights a bit cheaper. Localism won’t succeed and will be consumed by populist reactions if it cannot find a way to be inclusive and provide real value and a sense of meaning to “the people.”

 

The advantage that Localism has over traditional calcified forms of governance and over populism is its ability to cut through identity politics and focus on solutions to problems that people feel in their day to day lives. Localism aligns the efforts of the elites and the masses, encouraging development that makes cities and metro regions better places to live and work in, and helps encourage more social engagements, activities, and connections. Bringing people together and unifying interests and strengths is the only way to counter a populism which seeks to do the opposite.

American Nationhood Had a Top-Down Start

The human mind seems to be very comfortable with dichotomies, and we are very good at telling ourselves stories to make dichotomies work. We really prefer ‘either-or’ situations and ‘this-or-that’ decisions over settings that are more ambiguous and require decisions between multiple options and interpretations. The way we understand and view history, and how our history has shaped our present moment, is one area where our dichotomous though preferences can arise.

 

In his book, The Quartet, Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation and offers some insight regarding the creation of the Constitution which runs against the vision of our founding that we as a democracy like to believe.  In our country, we like to believe that American democracy was inevitable, a clear preference advocated by our citizenry, and pushed for by all. We look back at the revolutionary war and our founding and picture masses of people choosing freedom and making the right choices to lead our country to prosperity.

 

The reality however, is that our nation was much more fractious at its founding than the stories we live with, and our history is as full of top down decisions as much as it is full of bottom up preferences. From the very beginning, with the idea of a national government, our actual history has run against what we like to believe as a democracy has been the defining principle of America. Ellis writes, “There was no popular insurgency for a national government because such a thing was not popular.” And he explains that our national government was built because, “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard of popular opinion, carried the American story in a new direction.” It is interesting to look back at our nation and see the role that popular support played relative to the decisions of an elite. When we think about what our nation stands for and how our government should operate and direct our path, we should remember that in the past we have made more decisions based on more options than the often dichotomous choices we try to chose from today.

 

Continuing on the focus of top down versus bottom up support for a national government, Ellis writes, “The obvious alternative explanation is top-down. All democratic cultures find such explanations offensive because they violate the hallowed conviction that, at least in the long run, popular majorities can best decide the direction that history should take.”

 

To me this is a reminder that if I am not personally involved in studying an issue, and only understand it ephemerally from news and short stories, I probably should not consider my ideas or the popular ideas of citizens to be more valid than the views of experts. It is likely that we are not considering the full range of possibilities, and it is possible that what is popular and desired is not truly the best course of action. I don’t think this means I should remove myself from debate, but that I should spend more energy thinking deeply about the perspectives of competing interests. I may never fully understand the choice in the end, but I should not decide, based on popular opinion, that a decision was either right or wrong.