Modern conservatives and libertarians like to frame their attacks on liberals as good common sense. Rather than disagreeing with goals of progressive reform, they attack the means and laws as inappropriate. Health care reform is being attacked not only on constitutional grounds but as misguided in its entire approach. Conservatives tell us that it is a mistake to concentrate power and regulations on the national level. Putting a large bureaucracy in charge of anything robs local communities — the people who understand the situation on the ground — of influence over the policies that affect them.
Localist conservatives accuse Democrats of hubris. Our attempts to dictate policy from the national level fosters a corruptive culture, devoid of real oversight. When I get into education fights with my conservative friends, I frequently get asked, “Doesn’t a local community and its elected school board have a better idea what the district needs than does Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a Washington bureaucrat?”
Conservatives pushing localism forget that many of the institutions that foster oversight and engagement on the national level do not exist or are profoundly atrophied at the local level. I’m from Long Island, and, although I receive excellent national news coverage and reporting on Manhattan from the New York Times, I’m usually at a loss to find any articles on local races. Newsday, Long Island’s biggest paper, has been conducting round after round of layoffs, and local news shows primarily cover snow closings and murder investigations.
In the absence of healthy local journalism, politicians can get away with anything. In my school district, I watched candidates get away with dirty tricks like claiming the school budget had to be defeated because it was full of hidden costs. When we went to school board meetings to ask her to provide evidence to back up her claims, she told us she couldn’t, since the costs were too well hidden. The budget was voted down, but the secret line items were never found.
Another candidate’s campaign made copies of a pro-choice op-ed that was written by her opponent’s teenage daughter for the high school newspaper. Copies were distributed to every household in Catholic neighborhoods with a message: “Do you want the man who raised this girl on the school board?” Abortion wasn’t a school board issue, and pro-choice voters in other parts of the district might have been turned off from voting for a candidate targeting personal attacks on 14-year-olds. That is, if they’d ever heard about it. Without local news, the flyers went unreported except by word of mouth.
It’s too much to hope that, if power were decentralized, institutions would immediately spring up that could help citizens act as watchdogs. My whole state learned that when the New York State Senate suddenly became relevant after the Democrats took the majority by a slim margin. The State Senate had been solidly Republican for so many years that it had long since stopped mattering who most districts elected. As a result, when they finally had access to power, the senators ran amok.
After the mess began, state senators were subjected to slightly more scrutiny and we found out that at least one hadn’t done his mandatory campaign finance reports for years and didn’t even bother keeping an office in his district. It’s not clear what the other senators might have been guilty of, since the news still focused only on the senators who had gone rogue and betrayed their party. The rest remained isolated from any real scrutiny.
Conservatives need to acknowledge that the support structure needed for proper use of power at the local level does not exist in many states and counties, and it will not develop organically in time to help us. After the horror of the New York State Senate’s last session, relatively few senators were defeated, even though their behavior was atrocious. All those years we hadn’t been watching gave them plenty of time to redistrict themselves into safety and direct possible challengers into other pursuits. While the institutions of oversight were dying, those in power were able to use existing laws to preserve their local fiefdoms.
Institutions that serve as local watchdogs are impoverished, but there’s still hope on the federal level. Groups that police government on the national level have an economy of scale that makes it easier to promote good governance. Everyone can donate only a small amount of money or time and still be able to finance a watchdog group, and, given that so many people are affected by national policy, more have good reason to make a small commitment. In an apathetic or under-informed culture, only large scale offences will receive investigation. Unless we change that culture and build up local investigative resources, we’re simply trusting our local politicians on blind faith.
Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.