Conservatism, Localism, and the Mittelpolitan Problem

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This morning, I completed a series of lectures and discussions with a local civic group here in Wichita. The topic for this morning was the upcoming elections, but in the end, the only thing just about everyone wanted to talk about was the upcoming sales tax vote. That didn’t surprise me much–I’d spoken to another community group just two days before, and most of them wanted to talk about the sales tax vote as well. To which I can only say: great! This city has shown a surprisingly amount of citizen engagement and even outright passion this election season–this whole year, really–and I’m happy to have been an observer and sometimes participant in it.

Of course, that’s the political and civic wonk inside me talking, the one which delights in democratic involvement no matter what the outcome. There remains one basic question: what if all that local energy is being turned towards efforts that actually, in fact, hurt one’s own locality? That’s the accusation being made by the “Yes” camp in the sales tax fight: that those who oppose it–and, truth be told, they’re probably going to win the vote–have no faith in their city, and no willingness to invest in its future. Frankly, it’s an accusation I find persuasive (despite readily acknowledging both 1) the fact that sales taxes are regressive and a poor option for raising funds, and 2) that I have little doubt that real estate moguls and big construction interests are likely going to soak up that portion of sales tax dollars nominally budgeted for “job promotion”). I’ve never pretended–to myself or anyone else, I hope–that my radical localist-socialist-anarchist-populist democratic side doesn’t get regularly trumped by a compromised progressive/”good government” mentality: I’m a believer in locally responsive public schools, in environmentally responsible farm policies, in democratically egalitarian health insurance programs, and, short of genuinely criminal inefficiencies along the way, I’m willing to pay taxes for all of them (and I think you should be willing too). Obviously, though, many people around here don’t feel that way.

Again and again, in both the groups I spoke to this week, the issue of “trust” came up. The root of the complaint is pretty simple: Wichita, these folks argued, may be a fairly large city, but it’s also a city with a fairly small and insular group of leaders, who have been around long enough for most of us to get to know them, or at least to get to know someone who knows them, or who has worked for them or with them. And the trust in or affection for these people is pretty minimal. One individual suggested to me that Wichita is still a “tribal” city, with pretty clearly defined leaders of various petty factions who basically much run the show–and you’re either on their side (and thus you enjoy the blessings of the city’s largess, and see your preferred issues and candidates triumph over and over again), or you’re not (and thus you don’t). I’m not sure how one could empirically demonstrate that this is true or not, but if it is true, it suggests a particular, shall we say, mittelpolitan problem, one which James Madison’s argument in Federalist #10 speaks to: if a city grows too large for genuine affection to exist between leaders and citizens, that vacuum in familiarity is going to occupied by powerful players who can command sufficient factional support to be able to ostracize those small groups who don’t agree with them. The Madisonian solution, obviously, is to extend oneself more, to grow larger, so the tribal mentality is transcended by the multiplying scale and diversity of the city and a true metropolitan environment emerges. The possibility of a consensus born of trust may have been lost, but at least there would no longer be the abiding suspicion that one’s community was a insular playhouse for a few big wigs.

“Extending” a city, though, is easier said than done. The data seems to suggest that growing cities hit certain limits and end up clumping together in a certain mid-sized range, with breakouts being notable but rare. Perhaps that reflects, at least in part, the public policy difficulty in harnessing the tools of expansion and investment as one transitions from a fairly homogenous, smaller city where participatory consensus is at least a theoretical possibility, to a larger, more diverse metropolitan center where old ideas about democratic government have been fully transcended by Madisonian interest group efficiency (such as it may be). One way of talking about these cities which endure in the middle is “conservative.” Indeed, that label came up multiple times in my conversations with these civic groups: Wichita is a “conservative” city, and they weren’t talking about (or at least weren’t only talking about) Republican-party-style American “conservatism.” No, they meant that it was a city that was cautious and protective and conservative; not a city of risk, a city broadly suspicious of untested innovations. Presumably there could be a great advantage to this mentality: there would be a focus on the wise management of one’s resources, and an unwillingness to support extensive and unexpected initiatives.

But on the other hand, if one is–as every America city, and indeed probably every industrialized city everywhere in the world, surely is–captured by a global economy of specialization which makes actual autarky impossible, then it seems plausible that a lack of innovation might in practice only mean that local economic actors will, instead, be impelled to simply continue with well-established functions. This would, incidentally, be one way to keep the same old tribal factions in positions of influence. And this would, if one takes a look at Wichita, and the way a huge portion of the city’s total expenses our eaten up by maintaining a single transportation corridor which developers keep building on to, seem to describe out city fairly well as well.

Thus we come to the most difficult urban problem we face locally, and which many other cities face. The socio-economic logic of what sustains cities is, with relatively few exceptions, bound up in practices and technologies that are difficult to operate on a small scale. So there is a drive to expand, and well-positioned tribal leaders will push for, administer, and benefit from that expansion. But that expansion will hit limits, and become repetitive and more environmentally costly, without innovation–whether driven by external forces and trends, or originating from within. Absent those external forces, expansion beyond a particular point will require finding the democratic trust to innovate beyond the bounds informally laid out by those aforementioned entrenched interests–and yet if the conservative attitude of those who live in such cities was formed (as of course it would have been) by the context of that initially-growing-but-now-leveled-off city, why would that level of trust exist?

Recently there has been much discussion about conservatism and urbanism–can there really be a “conservative” notion of urban living, and if there is, what would that notion contribute to life in and the management of our nation’s cities? If by “conservatism” we simply mean the preservation of the local and the traditional, then I’m not sure I can give a positive answer to that question. That kind of determined commitment requires a degree of independence and autarky which no urban area in our world of specialization could possibly manage; cities can only survive by embracing their own anarchic potential, for good or ill, and that means transformation and conflict and change. Political life, though, is about managing change, and that makes anti-statists and anti-centralists and anti-federalists of all sorts cringe. Management! Far better to embrace the local- and self-disciplined liberty of the agrarian than something which involves government. I can understand the appeal of this, because it enables us to uncomplicatedly (or at least theoretically so) to grasp at immediate realizations of local knowledge, affection, and–yes–trust. I, too, like what Bill Kauffman has to say:

[I]f you wanna change the world you’ve got to do it within your own ambit. Within your own circle of love. Anything grander–more far-reaching–and you’re dealing with people not as flesh and blood but as constituents, as soldiers, as numbers. You wind up shipping them off to war or herding them into public housing projects—always for their own good, of course. This doesn’t mean shun politics. It does mean, from my angle of vision, that the only meliorative political acts are those which decentralize, which devolve power to the most local levels: to the small community, to the family, to the individual. To the human scale–the only scale that can measure a person’s worth.

That’s powerful, and true. But also an invitation to stagnation, distrust, and all sorts of troubles of the sort which drove Madison to turn viciously (and unfairly) on the state and local governments which developed during and immediately after America’s revolution: the trouble of the petty tyrant, of the–dare I say it?–local tribal chief. Anyone who has paid even slight attention to the conflicts, protests, and violence which has sprung up in Ferguson, MO, over the past several months knows–because it has been pointed out in news reports again and again and again and again–that so of these problems have arisen because St. Louis County is a case of localism gone mad, with nearly one hundred tiny municipalities, some less than a mile square, surviving off the extraction of traffic fines and late payments from mostly impoverished (and mostly minority) citizens and, of course, from those unlucky motorists who get nailed by the cops from Bella Villa or Velda City or some other municipality that luckily was able to grab a 1/4 mile of I-70 in its borders.

It would be easy, I suppose, to insist that one’s own decentralized locality is entirely different from these parasitic tiny urban enclaves–that it is, in Kauffman’s terms, truly worthy of being loved for what it captures and holds within itself. But doesn’t that very language suggest that, if something is to be worthy of our affection and attachment, it needs of have such a scale–and, given today’s capitalist economic realities, therefore be innovative and trusting enough–so as to be able to hold onto something loveable? I see no easy answers here–only the realization that urban localities can become genuinely unlovely if they cannot work out ways to balance conservative sensibilities with something a little more trusting in the face of inevitable change. This is not to claim that the human scale isn’t worth holding up as an ideal; on the contrary, it is. Local knowledge will always be more supporting of civic virtue, I think, than the expertise of the specialist. But humans are political animals, and they form political communities to manage their own affairs, and that means being willing to risk actual “management” on behalf of specialized tasks (as is the case with our sales tax, and the idea of using to raise money behalf of repairing our local aquifer, upgrading roads, funding public transportation, and, yes, subsidizing business start-ups and relocations). Figuring out what kind of management is appropriate for one’s own place, and being willing to accept risks and changes when it is clear that one style of management can no longer–no matter what level of citizen involvement and activism–give you what one’s city needs, is probably the most difficult puzzle any urban localist (especially if your context happens to be one of those cities stuck in the middle) has to face.

  • Share: