Democracy Against Localism


Like any theory of politics, localism is not without its ambiguities. It is not even clear that localism is a “theory.” Some might say it’s more like a sensibility, with room for many different theories. Many porchers call themselves conservatives, but we also have socialist localists like Russell Arben Fox, and this is perfectly coherent. Localists believe that small is beautiful, but localism is a big tent.

Ambiguities are useful. They invite the ongoing work of clarification, and this is work that builds and sustains intellectual friendship, an activity that in itself nurtures hope. In some recent book reviews, I highlighted a couple of ambiguities that seem especially useful for the localist project. The first concerns the relationship between judgment and jurisdiction: whether localism is only a procedural claim about who should decide (local v. distant authorities), or whether it is also a set of substantive claims about what should be decided. That was the major question I raised in my review of Trevor Latimer’s Small Isn’t Beautiful. The second concerns localism’s relationship to liberal democracy and its present discontents. That was one of the questions I raised in my reviews of Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change, which I read as a postliberal theory of democracy, and of Danielle Allen’s Justice By Means of Democracy, which I read as a new theory of liberal democracy that seeks to ward off the postliberal argument that liberalism is anti-democratic.

I didn’t pick it up with any of this in mind, but Ryan Holston’s Tradition and the Deliberative Turn happens to address both of these ambiguities. Holston’s book is a careful defense of local democracy against the liberal theory of democracy that dominates contemporary theory and practice. Precisely because the dominant theory is fundamentally liberal, it is also fundamentally anti-local. Holston also explains why localism is not just a theory of jurisdiction and shows why there is in fact a connection between who decides and what gets decided.

“Democracy” Against Localism

If you’re like me, you’ve lately developed a certain ambivalence toward “democracy.” You’re pretty sure you believe in it, but when you hear the word, you reach for your gun. You smell a cliche. It’s a black-box word; pretty much anything could be hiding inside. “Democracy dies in darkness,” says the Washington Post, and this is exactly right. That’s what happens when you turn ideas into slogans.

But there’s a deeper reason for our ambivalence. For the past few decades, “democracy” as an ideal has mainly meant some form of “deliberative” democracy. This “deliberative turn,” as Holston calls it, wasn’t the lazy or malicious substitution of cliche for meaning. It was a sophisticated argument about what democracy really means, about what it must be like if it’s going to be real democracy. The idea is that politics must be deliberative, or it’s not genuinely democratic.

Most localists share the feeling behind this theory. The feeling is that there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about undeliberative democracy, which is of course the democracy that actually exists. Localists want a politics of meaningful participation, a politics that is more than yelling on Twitter every few minutes and pulling a lever every few years. And this is exactly what deliberative democrats want. For deliberative democrats, democracy is not meaningful unless it is deliberative. Democracy is about more than voting your preferences; it’s about forming those preferences in dialogue with your fellow citizens.

If the theory has had so much influence on the ideal (if not the practice) of democracy, and if the theory jibes so well with our localist sensibility, why would localists feel ambivalent about it? Why not celebrate its influence? Why not welcome it into the big tent?

Because, as Holston shows, the two positions are in fact entirely opposed. We are localists not least because we think meaningful participation is difficult or impossible beyond a certain scale. We look around and see an existing “democracy” that is thin and flat. We look to smaller communities for the possibility of a thicker form of political life. In healthy smaller communities, people don’t just have their interests “represented” (as in non-deliberative democracy); they deliberate. They talk to one another about what their interests are, and most importantly about what their common interests are. In a smaller community, the question of the “common good” becomes meaningful because there can be a common conversation about what it is.

Deliberative democrats also look around and see a dangerously flat form of democracy, one that lacks or soon will lack legitimacy. But they depart radically from the localist solution to the flattening. Holston’s deliberative democrats believe that meaningful participation is only possible beyond a certain scale, or at least that participation becomes more meaningful as the community grows larger. Localists see local attachments as the conditions for meaningful deliberation. Deliberative democrats see local attachments as obstacles to it.

Deliberative democracy is a political order for what Holston calls “the community without limits.” At the center of the theory, in all its variations, is a “utopian conception of a limitless body or group of interlocutors,” people united not by shared history (which imposes limits on the size of the group) but by its absence (which eliminates those limits). And so the theory depends on an oxymoron: there is no such thing as a community without limits because limits constitute communities.

Of course, “community” is another one of those black-box words that derives its utility from its meaninglessness, or more precisely from the subversion of its meaning. We talk (incessantly) as if “community” must always be “inclusive” and about how a community is more of a community the more “diversity” it includes. But we do not actually have community in mind when we talk this way. We are really talking about “humanity,” an important but importantly different concept. If localists feel ambivalent about democracy, it’s because they know or sense that the word has come to stand for a strange kind of anti-community.

All this is very much in keeping with Deneen’s suggestion that liberalism has bled democracy dry of meaning, if by “liberalism” we mean a political philosophy that is also built on a utopian notion of limitless community—the kind of community that includes everyone as an abstract individual, and no one as a concrete person. Though Holston does not really talk about liberalism, his argument shows how “deliberative” democracy turns out to be just another version of “liberal” democracy. In both cases, the modifier does more than modify the noun. It subverts it. Tradition and the Deliberative Turn can be profitably read alongside Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Another title for Holston’s book might have been Why Deliberative Democracy Failed, and the argument would have been quite similar to Deneen’s. Both projects fail to the extent that they succeed.

Deliberative democrats would balk at the idea that their program has succeeded. They’d point to the sorry state of discourse, made even sorrier since the advent of social media, and suggest that genuine “deliberation” is a rare bird. (Come to think of it, they’d feel a lot like I felt when I read Latimer’s argument that localism has too much influence.) They’d certainly be right to lament the quality of our political conversation. But the chaos coexists with a widely shared assumption that a better conversation would look exactly like their model of deliberation. And what Holston shows, I think, is that the model itself contributes to the chaos. The more we try to “deliberate” in the way we’re supposed to, the less capable we are of having healthy conversations. The more “deliberative” our democracy becomes, the less democratic it is. This relates to the second ambiguity, about jurisdiction and judgment.

Jurisdiction and Judgment

Deliberation is not a conversation that includes all kinds of people, as deliberative democrats imagine. Rather, deliberation is how a certain kind of person talks. That is the crucial insight here. It’s not unique to Holston, but Holston draws uniquely on Hans-Georg Gadamer to develop the insight in detail. And Gadamer helps Holston show exactly why this peculiar person turns out to be such a bad conversationalist.

The kind of person in question is the heir to what Holston calls “the autonomy tradition.” The label is a jab: the whole aim of this “tradition” is to get rid of tradition as such, because tradition is an obstacle to autonomy. Holston’s claim is that the contemporary theory of deliberative democracy comes out of this anti-tradition. Deliberation is how an “autonomous” person talks, and the purpose of a deliberative democracy is to secure everyone’s autonomy—and, when necessary, to make them autonomous, by smashing the traditions that diminish their autonomy.

For Holston, the autonomy tradition starts with Rousseau. To the central question of political theory—what’s the difference, if any, between just and unjust exercises of political power?—Rousseau poses an answer derived from a relentless process of elimination. When people argue about public matters, they offer all kinds of reasons for their conclusions. Some of these reasons are legitimate, and others are illegitimate. The challenge is to eliminate the illegitimate reasons so that only the legitimate ones are left. That way, the decisions that are made on the basis of these reasons will also be legitimate. Laws will be just rather than unjust. For Rousseau, the illegitimate reasons are the ones that have been pressed upon a person from the outside—by history, by experience, by other people. Legitimate reasons are the ones that are left after these externally imposed prejudices are eliminated. Legitimate reasons are those that come only from inside, from the undetermined will. The autonomous person speaks in public with the voice of “conscience” alone, and the voice of conscience is the voice we hear when all other voices, past and present, have been silenced.

Rousseau’s public sphere is occupied by a very lonely crowd. For him, a genuinely public reason is the one offered by the person who is fully insulated from the public. Holston wants us to see that this is in fact the vision of the deliberative democrats: a democracy composed of citizens who are able to deliberate with one another precisely to the extent that they are unaffected by one another. Only this kind of person—an odd duck indeed—is capable of deliberation and thus capable of securing the legitimacy of political power.

The autonomous person, unimpressed by the judgments of others, is not someone who makes no judgments. Precisely because he has undergone that process of elimination and been liberated from every external influence, the autonomous person can be counted on to make judgments that tend in one direction or another. In Gadamer’s famous phrase, the Enlightenment (and Rousseau is certainly part of the Enlightenment, because not in spite of his Romanticism) instituted a “prejudice against prejudice.” Such a prejudice produces peculiar conclusions about the specific issues of the day, and the autonomous person will always draw those conclusions. When he does not, it is because he is not yet fully autonomous—he still has to “do the work,” as the antiracists say.

It’s no accident that I’ve meandered into culture war territory. Holston excavates the autonomy tradition in order to make his argument against the theory of deliberative democracy, but I couldn’t help reading his treatment of Rousseau with that thing called “wokeness” in mind. And one good way to pose the question about jurisdiction and judgment is to put it like this: why is this “wokeness” so obviously incompatible with localism? If localism is just about who makes the decisions, and is neutral with regard to what decisions get made, why couldn’t we have “woke localism” just as coherently as we have socialist localism?

Rousseau’s process of elimination isolates the “voice of conscience” by removing from it the voice of every influence except for two: “freedom of the will” and “benevolence of the soul.” Autonomy means being free to do what you want without your wants being shaped by other people’s wants. But this freedom would be anarchy, were it not joined with an empathy for others that prevents you from pursuing your desires at their expense. Importantly, Rousseau’s empathy (pitie) does not put autonomy at risk. It is pre-social, an instinctive response to suffering, though it can (and must) be cultivated by education. That it is a response only to suffering, and not to happiness, is crucial. “With happiness . . . there appears to be no possibility for Rousseau of developing an understanding of others, whereas with misery, the other’s lot can be understood . . . by the evocation of empathy.”

Pitie is the transposition of amour de soi, self-love, onto others. We empathize with others to the extent that we can imagine ourselves (our own autonomous selves) afflicted in the same way. But empathy can never produce a shared understanding of what is good. That would threaten the freedom of the will to determine for itself what is “good”: “Ostensibly united in suffering, all are conceived as seeing the world from a universal perspective of human impotence and anguish in the face of institutional oppression.” Thus the two principles are actually two sides of the same coin: what is pitiful is the unliberated will itself. We empathize not with people who suffer from a lack of good things, since that would require us to share an understanding of what’s “good,” but with people who have had such an understanding imposed upon them by others, at the expense of their autonomy.

It seems to me that contemporary progressive sensibilities—“wokeness”—can be pretty fairly summed up by these two principles. The only phrase I hear as frequently as “don’t impose your values!” is probably “be kind!” It’s always the same people saying it (and it’s usually the people who are also talking a lot about “democracy” and “community”). It’s easy to make fun of the logical contradiction, but it’s important to see the logic behind it. It’s Rousseau’s logic, the logic of the autonomy tradition.

Maybe now we can see why “woke localism” makes no sense. Localists, precisely because the communities they have in mind are local and therefore not “unlimited,” also tend to hold positions that are pretty unwoke. By “unwoke” I do not mean “conservative” in the usual sense. Localists don’t have to be conservatives. But I think localists do have to be people who believe that a particular community’s conception of the good—“conservative” or not—provides legitimate grounds for reasoning about the use of authority. The essence of progressive liberalism—of which “woke” is the bleeding edge—consists of the denial of that claim.

To hold that community is always a particular community, that there is no such thing as an unlimited global community, is at the same time to hold on to a certain view of moral discourse and its relationship to political authority. On this epistemologically localist view, the moral values needed to deliberate about public matters come from particular communities, with their histories and traditions. They do not come from anywhere else; and democratic politics is impossible without them. This is Gadamer’s argument, as Holston lays it out.

Despite the constant reference to various “communities,” woke positions do not come from the values of a particular community. They reflect Rousseau’s opposing view about moral discourse and its relationship to politics. On this epistemologically anti-localist view, the values of particular communities are not “moral“ values at all. They are prejudices and as such are obstacles to deliberation.

Consider Andrea Long Chu’s recent essay on “Freedom of Sex” in New York magazine. Its subtitle is “the moral case for letting trans kids change their bodies.” Chu’s reasons for letting trans kids change their bodies at will (quite literally) boil down to a claim that there is no way to argue against permitting such changes without imposing moral values on people (including minors). The assumption is that imposing moral values is precisely what is immoral, because people (including minors) are autonomous.

From an epistemologically localist perspective, Chu’s essay is not a moral case for anything: it’s a case against morality itself. It’s Gadamer’s “prejudice against prejudice.” Gadamer’s argument is that there is no moral knowledge without “prejudice”—without the shaping effect of particular experience, of specific histories and traditions. “[O]ur historically particular perspectives, that is, our prejudices (Vorurteile), actually facilitate rather than simply occlude, human knowledge. . . . Our prejudices not only are unable to be removed from understanding, but … such prejudices are in fact the essential precondition for understanding anything.” (101)

I think it is telling that every case for letting doctors mutilate vulnerable children (to make my own prejudice clear) seems to ultimately be the same as Chu’s, even if few others have drawn out the logical implications with such brutal clarity. The arguments are always based on the autonomy tradition. But I wonder: is it impossible to make a genuinely moral—an epistemologically localist—argument “for letting trans kids change their bodies”? Such an argument would refer not to freedom of the will but to concrete values, to cherished goods, to the prejudices of a particular moral community—to limits on the will. It would insist not that we must be able to do whatever we want, but that what we want in this case is objectively good for us, whether we want it or not.

Such an argument would still be wrong, in my view. But it would be possible to engage with such an argument. I cannot engage with Chu’s “moral case,” because it is a case against making moral cases for anything. It’s an argument that we shouldn’t be arguing about this. Trans kids have the right to change their bodies, whether or not it’s good for them. If it’s a right, it’s not up for debate. It is a deliberative argument against deliberation itself. But I could engage with a localist trans activist, because we would be speaking the same language. We would be speaking the language of limits—the language that makes deliberation possible.

That’s the great cultural task now: to relearn this old language, to keep it from dying out, to nurture it and refine and expand it, to develop new idioms and accents. Holston’s book is part of that project.

Image via Wikimedia Commons


  1. The most important ingredient to a successful democracy is left out of the mix in the above article. Without this ingredient, communities or larger bodies of people slide into an authoritarian society and state. That ingredient: EQUALITY.

    Equality demands that we not only pursue our own interests or the interests of our group or tribe, it demands that we protect the freedom and rights of others. And so in any capitalist system where the pursuit of self-interest eventually ends up to be first and foremost for everyone involved, equality demands that we take multiple interests into consideration. Equality limits the power of any dominant group in a community or larger body.

    It isn’t the democracy has failed anyone even though it is not perfect. It is that we have failed democracy when we don’t insist on equality accompanying it.

    Regarding the discussion on trandgenderism and children, what no one adequately understands are the causes for gender dysphoria. We should note that scientists are seeing some possible physical causes for the condition in some cases. And so it would be just as wrong to rule out gender affirming care for any child as it would be to not use both the correct criteria for assessing who should undergo such care and proper standards that regulate what that care consists of.

    What we are seeing in the Western World at the present time is the rise of authoritarian ethnocratic movements. In Western Europe, those movements seem to revolve around national identity and race. In Eastern Europe and the U.S., those movements revolve around religion. At least some of those movements would use the mechanics of democracy; but what they want to eliminate is equality And that is our real challenge here whether we are dealing with the local community or a larger body of people. That is because without equality, freedom or liberty or rights become nothing more than privilege for the dominant person or group.

    • “It isn’t the democracy has failed anyone even though it is not perfect. It is that we have failed democracy when we don’t insist on equality accompanying it.”

      In and of itself equality is nonsense. It is only meaningful in the contexts of how, where, and when it is worked out, and is in no sense a valid stand-alone concept. It’s like “diversity” — it’s fine as a sort of working principle, but only in context with other principles, like competence and quality. By themselves neither diversity nor equality are virtues.

      • Rob G,
        Localism on a large scale was the argument used by the Southern states in defending their institution of slavery. You’re right if you are referring to back then, there was no equality. If you are talking about the Jim Crow era, you’re right, there was no equality. And if you are talking about now with the remaining vestiges of systemic racism, you are only partially right because we are starting to approach racial equality, though much work needs to be done to complete the task.

        And if you are talking about the discrimination and persecution of the LGBT community, again, we are approaching equality.

        And so are the past and present states of inequality something to brag or complain about?

        Of course context determines what is meant by equality. But that is true for almost every word. And our historical and present bigotries and discriminatory practices provide an assumed context when discussing equality

        • I have no quarrel with equality before the law and equal access to goods and services (those are two of the sorts of contexts I was referring to). But it seems to me that today’s understanding of equality goes far beyond that, and involves a quest for equality of outcomes, which is a pipe dream, and which becomes dangerous and oppressive when enforced by the culture and the state. Hence the intersectionalist cries not for equality, but for “equity.” The problem with egalitarianism is that it almost inevitably comes to involve not just giving the oppressed and underprivileged a leg up, but the hobbling of those perceived to be “privileged.”

          • Rob,
            I understand your objections to equality in outcomes. And I see some validity to those objections especially on individual basis.

            But when it comes to equality in outcomes for groups of people like race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, biological sex, and so forth, to totally reject using equality of outcomes leaves us with little to no means of proving that we have equality in laws and access to the Free Market. That point has been made by Martin Luther King Jr., though worded differently, in his 1967 interview with Xander Vanocur and by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

            And so I think a more nuanced approach to the equality of outcomes must be taken so that we have the means to help verify that we have an equality in laws and access to the Free Market.

    • You claim that equality is important but I see no suggestion of how you view or define “EQUALITY”. Can you clarify? Why is equality more valuable than all the other important parts of democracy? I don’t see a case for this in your comment and I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

      • Madeleine,
        Take America’s problems with racism. When America began as a nation and even before, only blacks could be slaves and treated as property. Whites couldn’t. Then we had the Civil War, Reconstruction, and then Jim Crow. Whites held a superior position to blacks in society. Whites could commit crimes against blacks with impunity. Whites had the best public resources and access to the Free Market while blacks could be denied full or partial access to what is made available on the Free Market. Though allowed to vote according to The Constution, many blacks were blocked from voting. Do you understand what I am talking about now?

        Though we still have systemic racism in our nation, we could shift our focus to the LGBT community. A huge stumbling block to equality for homosexuals in society was denying them the opportunity of marrying the person of their choice. Another huge stumbling block to equality for them was that there was no national protection for them from discrimination. Before federal protection took place, homosexuals could be harassed and even fired from their jobs in 28 out of the 50 states.

        So I am referring to equality in terms of rights and access to the goods and services provided by the Free Market. I am referring to equality in terms of non-discriminatory laws and protection.

  2. And this is the content I show up for at FPR. These reviews have been helpful in clarifying some of my own thoughts regarding localism. Not being that systematic in my own thinking, I’m also glad that Adam reads ’em so I don’t have to. Has FPR ever considered a book club?

  3. There is no such thing as a “socialist localist” in the real world. You can be 100% sure that anyone calling himself that is infinitely more interested in ensuring that a state government tell a small town they have to allow boys to use the girls bathroom than they are in strengthening the ability of the local government to represent its people and make its own decisions.

      • Well that is a very convincing rebuttal, professor. A cliched clip from one of the worst movies of the past few decades. How do you do, fellow kids?
        I thought I’d take a look at your blog to see if you address anything relevant recently but had to stop in laughter at your recent quip in apparent approval of the “right” of state officials to strip presidential candidates they don’t like from the ballot, a position so absurd it gathered the support of zero supreme court justices, not even the woman who testified under oath that she doesn’t know what a woman is. I would include a link here to the classic line from Kindergarten Cop that might help her out, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it.
        So I’d love for you to illuminate me on some lefty person or group anywhere out there who has demonstrated a priority of local government sovereignty over current social hysteria when push comes to shove, because I don’t believe such a creature exists.

    • Don’t know about socialist localists, since socialism seems to imply centralization, but there are certainly left-localists: people who lean left economically but are not statists or collectivists. A lot of agrarian/distributist types fall into that group.

      • Distributism has absolutely nothing to do with the left. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Chesterton and Belloc are very very clear that they are completely opposed to socialists.

        • The critique of capitalism by many of the original agrarians and distributists draws on the earlier socialist critique. The reason they opposed socialism was because of its statist/collectivist tendencies.

          • Agrarianism is not distributism. Very different things.
            Distributism is based primarily on Catholic economic thought. To the extent it might sound like socialists is because Marxism is based on feeble misunderstanding of the Gospel.

  4. Currently reading Renaud Camus’ Enemy of the Disaster. He’s got some very interesting things to say about democracy and culture which make a good deal of sense.

    By the way, Camus has been painted as a racist, an anti-Semite, and a conspiracy theorist. As Louis Betty explains in his introduction, and Camus says himself, he is quite clearly none of those three, which becomes quite apparent when one actually reads him.

  5. Fantastic article–I’m glad you picked up the book! I am a big fan of Ryan Holston and his work; would recommend the book to anyone.

  6. Brian, I know that agrarianism is not distributism. But there are definite parallels and overlaps, as was recognized by both the agrarians and the distributists. I did not imply that distributism sounded like socialism, only that its critique of capitalism draws on it.

  7. Curt, there is nothing inherently wrong with using outcomes as guides for progress or even as a sort of goal or ideal. The problems arise when they are perceived as something that can be enforced, whether in terms of individuals or groups. That’s how you end up with things like quotas and the lowering of standards.

    If more men than women want to be engineers, and more women than men want to be nurses, you will never have “equality” in either of those professions. But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything unjust going on. The idea that inequality necessarily involves injustice is simply incorrect, and democracy should reflect that, rather than being forced to create outcomes that don’t comport with reality.

    • Rob,
      What do you mean that we can’t have equality between the biological sexes in professions like engineering? Here, we are not talking about equality in numbers. Instead, we are talking about equality in terms of treatment, evaluation, training, opportunities, and pay. BTW, my last few hospital getaways surprised me in how many of my nurses were males.

      What King was talking about equality in outcomes, he was talking about income and wealth. I would have to go back and read Crenshaw to see exactly what she was talking about. In addition, when talking about equality in outcomes we can also compare population percentages with employee percentages.

  8. “we are not talking about equality in numbers. Instead, we are talking about equality in terms of treatment, evaluation, training, opportunities, and pay.”

    Agreed, but what tends to happen in these discussions is that equality in terms of the latter becomes muddled with the former. That there aren’t as many women in engineering as men must be due to sexism, etc., etc. But an enforced equality put in place to avoid this undermines choice in a subtle way, as it cannot help but be artificial, and thus brings us back to things like quotas and set-asides, and the lowering of standards to achieve apparent (but not real) equality.

    • Rob,
      The reason why we can’t do the former is because of the disparity in numbers. We do the former in terms of male-female. But in terms of the races, we can’t do equality in terms of numbers or percentages to be more precise.

      But the disparity in wealth and income between the races should be getting smaller rather than larger.


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