Americans care about, prefer, and trust the local over the national. And we bear some serious consequences for this ideal. 

A recent survey experiment illustrates this preference: respondents who read a story about an American soldier killed in Afghanistan were more likely to turn against the war if he was identified as coming from the respondent’s state. And in 1998 Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center collected surveys showing that on topics ranging from schools to violence to morality, Americans rated conditions in their localities better than in the country as a whole, sometimes by huge margins.

Local bias is well known in politics. Americans think Congress is terrible, but their own representatives aren’t so bad. This May only 16 percent of Gallup respondents approved of how Congress was handling its job, but 46 percent approved of their own representatives’ work. Americans want representatives to respond to local rather than national interests. Although evidence suggests that local governments are neither more honest nor more efficient than the federal government, Americans generally trust local pols more and believe that they waste less money than the feds do. Never mind that the number of federal employees essentially stopped growing nearly twenty years ago, while the number of local employees grew 16 percent between 1993 and the Great Recession. These contrasts have persisted or even strengthened in recent years.

There are several possible explanations for this seeming statistical oddity whereby Americans’ average evaluation of the nation is far worse than the sum of their evaluations of their own neighborhoods. Perhaps people compare the personal experiences they have locally with sensationalist media coverage of the nation. Perhaps it’s simply hometown boosterism. Or perhaps it’s the result of a deep, historical commitment to the ideology of localism.

That Americans prefer neighborhood and community to distant authority is no big surprise. Right and left agree: “think globally, act locally.” And these days “locavores” are all around us. But more important than slogans is how much and how distinctively localism is built into the American political system.

Compared to other nations, a startling proportion of American law and policy is determined by states, counties, cities, and smaller jurisdictions such as school districts and homeowner associations. These units determine most of our taxes—how much we pay, on what goods, according to what rules. Some New Yorkers, for instance, make a point of filling up their cars in New Jersey, where gas taxes are lower. Tax burdens also vary within states. A nice new car will cost me a few hundred dollars less in sales tax if I go up the road to buy it in Davis instead of in Berkeley. Even our urban areas are split into distinct municipal enclaves—for example, Beverly Hills surrounded by Los Angeles.

These local jurisdictions define justice—what are crimes, what are penalties—and policing. Compare laws and enforcement with regard to alcohol sales, pot smoking, or panhandling, or contrast police policies toward undocumented immigrants in, say, Phoenix and New Haven. 

Small governments decide what our children will learn—how many schools will teach what subjects with what staffing in what languages. Shall we teach evolution, or testing skills, or creativity? And the money available to do whatever kind of teaching varies notably from district to district.

Localities have their own building codes and zoning laws. A municipal rule requiring large lots for houses is one way to ensure that only the affluent can buy into a town. Communities even have their own labor laws regarding credentials, wages, and benefits. The minimum wage is $7.80 per hour in Tucson, $8.00 in Los Angeles, and $10.55 in San Francisco.

And the list goes on. I close with an obvious example: Since 1971, the Constitution has required that the age of voting everywhere be eighteen, but just about everything else that determines who can vote, when, and how is controlled by states and counties.

A startling proportion of American law and policy is determined by states, counties, cities, and even smaller jurisdictions such as school districts.

Other Western democracies have some features of localism (Switzerland is a noteworthy case), but the United States is extreme. Many comparable countries have national or regional, not local, police; a national judiciary; a national sales or value-added tax; a national program for training and assigning teachers; national labor laws and labor contracts; and so on.

Readers will note that American localism persists even though the role of the federal government has grown over our history. That expansion started in the 19th century, notably with the Lincoln administration’s transcontinental railroad, land-grant colleges, and homesteading, among other initiatives. In the last century, the federal income tax and broad interpretation of the Constitution’s commerce clause have given Washington the tools to deal with pressing issues of the modern world. The feds, for example, established old-age pensions and health care, built most of the major roadways, and established air quality standards. Washington sometimes coerces states and localities to do its bidding—for instance, by threatening highway funds to make states raise the drinking age. Nonetheless, and despite conservative outcries about violating the original intent of the Constitution’s authors, these extensions are, by world standards, only modest modifications to American localism.

Arguments for America’s exceptional localism (aside from fealty to the founding fathers) rest on democratic impulses and concern for practical management. We generally believe that the closer the governors are to the governed, the stronger the control the latter have over the former. Furthermore, we value people in each community determining their own way of life. Let Manhattan be Manhattan and let Provo be Provo. Such localism also allows individuals to choose from a “menu” of communities in search of the one that suits them best—low taxes with crowded schools versus high taxes with small classes, for example. 

The practical argument for localism is that the states and localities are the “laboratories of democracy,” that experimentation and competition among local units yields new and better ideas that can be adopted elsewhere or by the federal government itself.

Critiques of America’s exceptional localism also rest on democratic impulses and concern for practical management. Practically, localism creates races to the bottom. Jurisdictions outbid each other to subsidize businesses that play one against the other for the best deal. In the end the “winning” locality often loses money on the deal. Localism also makes it harder to raise up depressed regions. The South, most notably, lagged far behind for much of American history. Breaches in localism such as the Works Progress Administration (resisted by many Southerners), the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Federal community aid helped the South catch up.

As to democracy, local authorities often enforce injustices against isolated people who can gain effective voice only by combining at the national level. The Civil Rights movement is a key example: national coalitions used federal power to break state and local Jim Crow systems. The 14th Amendment has been used to impose national values over local resistance on behalf of individuals’ free speech, religious liberty, and legal representation. American localism, moreover, can corrode democracy by encouraging people to shirk wider civic responsibilities. Advantaged Americans cloister their money, attention, and citizenship behind the boundaries of affluent suburbs or the gates of private communities, leaving the less advantaged to cope on their own.

These, then, are some of the trade-offs. We govern close to the grassroots, in accord with the localism that is a distinctive part of the American democratic experiment. But we pay a price for it, literally and morally.

Photograph: T-Bone Sandwich/flickr