Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, conventional wisdom in this country has held that problem solving is best done top down. Local government, the argument goes, suffers from limited resources and narrowed vision, while the presidency acts for an encompassing national constituency.
There is a reason that voters feel they are not listened to: at the highest levels of government, they are not.
Conventional thinking, however, always risks being outrun by change. As the twenty-first century unfolds, top-down politics stands exposed as an arena of dysfunction. With partisan shibboleths rampant and legislative impasse an ever-present prospect, national politics has left wide swaths of the population underserved while problems grow. No longer do our federal institutions stand as defenders of the vulnerable. Polarization seemingly has a stranglehold, and the unum of e pluribus unum is increasingly hard to find in our national politics.
But can unum be brought home anew? In practical terms, is there a gateway to pragmatic problem-solving that can bridge the many divides that crisscross our nation? This essay makes a case for working from the bottom up, for the local community as a foundation for a new approach to policy making. Are there grounds for thinking bottom up? I contend that there are, and the U.S. city holds a vital place in working out how we as a nation might move forward from here.
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A good starting place is to reconsider the virtues that local government may possess in greater measure than its upper-level counterparts. There is something to be said for the axiom that local government is closer to the people. It is closer in that its problems are immediate. Breakdowns in public safety, for instance, happen locally. And when parents are considering where to live, their top question is often about the schools in the neighborhood. Across the board the quality of life is more acutely perceived at the level of ZIP code rather than state, region, or nation.
Political consequences follow. If trash is not picked up, potholes go unrepaired, schools are unsafe, or the water supply has toxins, local government hears about it first and most clearly. While members of the U.S. Congress posture about ideological purity and governors strategize about the next step on the political ladder, it is local officials who hear about the street-level aggravations their constituents face.
In The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control (2008), political scientist Lisa Miller argues that policy discussions constrict and become more abstractly “professional” as they go higher up in intergovernmental consideration. Instead of deliberations widening in scope, they narrow. Upper-level officials screen out many concerns and potential solutions voiced by constituents. There is a reason, then, that many voters feel they are not listened to: at the higher levels of governing, they often are not.
A case can thus be made that bottom-up problem-solving, which is far from scarce, has a potential strength that top-down lacks. But can localities on different sides in a highly divided nation find common ground? Dynamic and forward-looking metropolitan areas, after all, are subject to resentment from those who live in regions with stagnant economies, the threat of population loss, and lagging adjustments to a fast-evolving cosmopolitan ethos. “Fly-over territory” versus “coastal elites” is shorthand for the highly uneven process of development that has taken place, and the resulting culture war is intensely partisan with strong emotional content.
Myles Horton of Highlander Folk School fame once said, “If you want to change people’s ideas, you shouldn’t try to convince them intellectually. What you need to do is get them into a situation where they’ll have to act on ideas not argue about them.” My translation of this is to identify shared problems and to do so in a framework of action.
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As a contrast between top-down and local action, consider responses to the opioid crisis, which would seem to have strong potential for finding unum.
Speaking in the East Room of the White House, for example, President Donald Trump said, “No part of our society—not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural—has been spared this plague of drug addiction.” Yet Trump stopped short of declaring the opioid problem a national health crisis, instead opting for the more modest step of a “public health emergency.” He asked for only minor adjustments in the use of existing resources and emphasized his support for a new “Just Say No” campaign.
The red state/blue city phenomenon is a reminder that cities need allies to navigate the middle level of U.S. federalism.
Critics saw his move as long on optics but short on substance. They called for billions of dollars, vastly expanded treatment facilities, and an overhaul of how the nation treats drug addiction. But, in the end, the top-down approach consisted of a return to a failed approach from the past.
Without federal and state funds, bottom-up responses are small scale but more aptly targeted. Consider how volunteer efforts in Huntington, West Virginia, leverage local alarm and spur action. The documentary film Heroin(e): How Three Women are Fighting the OPIOID Crisis (2017) captures how three women in this small city—the fire chief (the department’s only female member), a real estate agent who volunteers with her church ministry, and a family court judge who runs a nighttime drug court without extra pay—are more than just heartening accounts of rescue and turnaround. The underlying reality is that of extraordinary voluntary efforts. These individuals offer a special level of commitment that brings even the most dedicated close to the burnout line.
The feel-good aspects of Huntington’s opioid response make it easy to romanticize the local arena. But impressive as Huntington’s effort is, it is under-resourced, and it is not reversing the tide of addiction. Huntington’s opioid battle illustrates energy and a problem-solving know-how well worth emulating, but left on its own, it is not capable of turning the situation around. Realism brings a more complicated picture into focus, one that features tensions and conflict.
Consider the relationship between the medical campus of Johns Hopkins University and its surrounding community in Baltimore. For several years a chain-link fence separated the northern side of the medical campus from its neighbors. The fence was a visible indication of tension while also marking the informal understanding that Hopkins would not acquire additional land north of the established line. This understanding did not, however, bring an end to the wide disinvestment running through the area.
In the 1990s, in an effort to improve the decades of distrust and discontent, a series of adjustments in university–community relationships took place. This included an expanded service relationship between Hopkins and the surrounding community, and under TAP (The Access Partnership), the medical campus agreed to provide uninsured and underinsured residents in the surrounding ZIP codes with a full range of medical services. As a city, Baltimore has experienced limited rebound from deindustrialization, but the overall trajectory of university–community relations—while punctuated by protest and tension—has nevertheless been one in which grassroots concerns received consideration and tangible benefits were accorded to a population long afflicted by inaction.
Another significant path opened in Los Angeles when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched its Justice for Janitors campaign. Los Angeles is a well-connected node in the global economy, and the union brought a variety of sophisticated tactics and resources into play. In making itself into a local presence, the union combined its organizational capacity with a community-oriented appeal to overcome hotel-owner resistance and establish a new civic landscape. In addition, the mobilization of Latinos in response to the Republican blunder of launching an anti-immigrant referendum led to the revitalization of the locality’s central labor council and a shift in electoral power at the city and state level.
Complementing other events, the creation of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE)—an impressive advocacy, research, and policy development organization—gave the metropolitan area a strong and connected capacity for responding to problems such as low-wage work, affordable housing in decline, polluted communities, and inadequate health care. As an organization at the core of a labor-environment coalition, LAANE successfully launched a Clean Truck program bringing multiple aims together. It was also a major factor in a large precedent-setting community benefits agreement that covered living-wage jobs, local hiring, affordable housing, and additional park space.
What should we make of these selected examples of problem responses by cities? First, even though some places have more internal capacity for action than others, even those with limited capacity display significant energy for and understanding of the challenges they face. Huntington, for instance, shows that volunteer efforts can magnify a commendable problem-solving capacity even though the means it possesses are modest. Baltimore shows that past divides can be overcome and even deep distress can be tackled. And Los Angeles offers a view of what a city with an overall robust economy can assemble and bring to bear through an orchestrated capacity for responding to its problems.
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These examples, however, fail to show the importance of the intergovernmental context within which contemporary cities operate. With federal support in ongoing decline, for instance, the role of states assumes heightened import. The red state and blue city phenomenon stands as a reminder that cities need allies to navigate the middle level of U.S. federalism. Local communities can provide a valuable perspective on problems and their mitigation, but, for that understanding to have impact in the policy process, it needs receptive ears at the state level.
Unfortunately recent research suggests that the ideological dogmas and partisan antagonisms of national politics filter down to the states and local level. As it does, the degree of unum needed for effective policymaking seems to be increasingly elusive. Can the energy, resources, and understanding found in politics at the bottom be harnessed to a changing policy process?
I propose it can by working toward a network of pragmatic-oriented organizations I will call local action groups. This response would be quite different from a mass following for an overarching vision; it would instead be one of connections among many nodes of action. Just as energy production has opened the possibility of autonomous microgrids linked into macro systems of exchanges, so could local action groups be connected to bodies of intermediate and eventually larger links of action.
Such connections need to be made strategically. Specifically, because partisan lines of division have taken a distinct geographic form, problem definition and measurement need to be cross-stitched in such a way as to be nonpartisan or bipartisan and geographically inclusive. The opioid crisis may be more intensive in some places than others, but it reaches across many divides. The same could be said of medical services. Hospital closings, for example, are a problem in both rural and urban areas. In light of demographic changes underway, educational and development opportunities for children and youth need to be expanded across many boundaries. The list could be extended to include matters from mental health treatment to pollution abatement.
Instead of starting with ideological dogma and working out its policy implications, this approach would identify concrete problems and show the breadth of their impact. Local capacity can be generated by developing and implementing a specific action plan. The point is to clear a path for compassion and civic-mindedness to take hold, inclinations so clearly at work in Huntington’s opioid response. Local metrics can serve to spur evidence-based efforts, and the collection of data indicators could then make previously unforeseen patterns plain and compelling. With such an unum-orientation for action groups to be built around, it would become easier to break through the usual boundaries.
If such bottom-up efforts succeeded, a wide network of actors would thus be oriented toward practical problem-solving and would encompass the full geographic span from urban to rural. They could then percolate up into state government and politics, providing a fresh form of political leadership that is committed to nondogmatic policy efforts and that is based in a firm understanding of community-level conditions.
A search for unum could activate constituencies—both those who were previously caught up in a politics of resentment and those demobilized by apathy and hopelessness. This is critical since cities can serve as a seedbed for action, but without rural and small-town involvement, unum is likely to remain elusive and the political foundation for change too limited to become successful. A nation that now finds itself divided between a population living in robust metropolitan centers on one side and a population living in economically stagnant regions on the other is a nation that needs to find a fresh mode of representation.