Do Americans Want to Be Involved in Local Governance?

Yes, I want to live in the America described in Joel Kotkin’s Liberty Forum essay. Unlike our present sociopolitical order, it would encourage citizens’ robust, meaningful civic engagement by reinvigorating federalism, which was crucial to the pre-Progressive constitutional architecture. This sense of involvement and stewardship did indeed reflect “habits of the heart,” which Tocqueville also described as “the whole moral and intellectual state of the people.”

But the Jacksonian democracy Tocqueville analyzed in Democracy in America thrived because of a related but distinct force: “self-interest well understood.” In their belief that virtue is, above all, useful, the “inhabitants of the United States almost always know how to combine their own well-being with that of their fellow citizens.” Civic participation flourished at the local level because that venue offered the best chance to do well by doing good, to advance one’s private interests by promoting the public interest conscientiously

Beyond explicating this destination and its virtues, however, Kotkin has little to say about how to get there from here. His reticence is only one reason to wonder whether it is even possible, in the America of 2018, to effect Localism 2.0, no matter how considerable its advantages. The restoration of localism may well require changing other aspects of public life, ones that have become fundamental and, therefore, deeply resistant to reforms.

Showing Up at Meetings: Not a Popular Pastime

The most fundamental, of course, is the moral and intellectual state of 21st century Americans. Do we want to be as involved in local governance as 19th century Americans were? Or will our contemporaries feel that localism would take up too many evenings? Even as forcing people to be free conduces to totalitarianism, forcing them to be democratic vitiates democracy. Does a shrewd, far-sighted understanding of self-interest today culminate in devolving power and responsibility from Washington, D.C. to the states and localities? Or would this reversion of trends that are more than a century old be resented as the imposition of an unsought burden?

I don’t dispute the public opinion surveys Kotkin cites, showing a desire for decentralization. But people often say one thing (especially to pollsters) while doing another. When in contradiction, a person’s actions usually reveal his true state of mind more accurately than his words.

Assessed on this basis, any desire for localism is much harder to detect. Like Professor Kotkin, I grew up east of the Mississippi but now reside in southern California. He is at least as familiar as I am, then, with municipal elections in Los Angeles, where it is common for fewer than 20 percent of registered voters to cast a ballot. High-minded guilt trips from editorial pages and civic organizations about all the quality-of-life questions to be addressed—such as charter schools, homelessness, and real estate development—never seem to get anyone off the couch. In 2014, after just 8 percent of eligible voters turned out for a school board election, the Los Angeles city government considered the possibility of inducing citizens to register and vote by making ballots serve a dual purpose as lottery tickets, with the possibility of winning a five-figure cash prize for exercising the franchise.

Voter-turnout rates are lower in Los Angeles than elsewhere in California, lower in California than elsewhere in America, and lower in America than in most democracies around the world. A very reliable American pattern is that turnout rates tend to be highest in the quadrennial elections where the ballot includes presidential nominees, second-highest in the midterm elections where many states choose Governors and U.S. senators, and lowest in the purely municipal elections where mayors, city council members, and county officials are selected. Eschewing cash inducements, in 2015, Los Angeles decided to boost turnout by rescheduling its municipal and school board elections to coincide with state and national ones. Other California cities have made the same change.

One might interpret this fact as further evidence that there is no desire for, and possibly strong resistance to, decentralization in America. People are more likely to vote for the offices they consider more important, and less likely to vote for ones they consider less important. Perhaps, however, it is precisely because voters believe that their day-to-day lives will be affected by the national government’s decisions more than by those of the state government, and in turn more affected by the state than by local governments, that they arrive at the choices they make about which elections do and don’t merit queueing up at the high school gymnasium. If we follow Kotkin’s advice, and choose to make America great again by making local government matter again, significant numbers of people may find it prudent to redirect their energies and attention away from the nation’s capital and toward city hall.

But even if we stipulate that Americans are eager or at least willing to see their local governments take on more responsibilities, the problems of implementing that reconfiguration remain formidable. One enormous obstacle is that, while the possibilities for civic engagement have expanded, the belief that such engagement is consequential or even comprehensible has diminished.

Ballot Mania

I offer my personal situation, which is fairly typical. I reside in Claremont, a suburb and college town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, some 30 miles from downtown L.A. Like all Americans, I can cast a ballot for five national office-holders: the President and Vice President; two U.S. senators; and one member of the House of Representatives. Like all Californians, I can vote for 11 state office-holders: two state legislators, one in each house of the bicameral legislature; and nine executive officers, including the Governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner, and superintendent of public instruction.

There are, then, 16 politicians who should be on my radar screen if I intend to keep abreast of national and state affairs. That’s already a daunting homework assignment. Not only did I have to look up the names of most of the current state executive officers, for example, but it would require more ambitious digging to figure out what many of them do. To take one instance, I strongly suspect that I am in the majority of Californians who cannot readily explain the division of responsibilities between the controller and the treasurer, both of whom are elected, and how either’s work relates to that of the state auditor, who is appointed. The Board of Equalization’s ambit is even more mysterious.

Local government is physically near but, by virtue of its complexity and obscurity, psychologically distant. There are four officials in Los Angeles County I can vote for: assessor, district attorney, sheriff, and one member of the five-member Board of Supervisors. The City of Claremont has a five-member city council, all of whom are elected at large. The Claremont Unified School District also has five at-large board members. The Citrus Community College District’s trustees are each elected from a single-member geographical division. The same is true of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District’s board members. Three Valleys is one of 26 agencies constituting the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

So that’s another 16 elected officials at the local level—levels, more precisely—making 32 in all. I think that’s the whole roster. The other local governmental agencies that address Claremont residents’ needs have boards, but as near as I can determine, they consist of members elected to other offices, such as mayors and county supervisors, who then serve in additional capacities. These agencies include the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, and the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District.

This inventory of politicians who, in some sense, represent me and derive their just governing powers from my electoral consent does not include the 165 Los Angeles County Superior Court judges on the most recent ballot handed to me, 154 of whom ran unopposed. Nor does this survey of my duties as a citizen take into account the need to familiarize myself with ballot propositions—and we Californians are presented with 18 of these, on average, over the course of every two-year election cycle. And that figure does not include county and municipal ballot propositions. Claremont residents, for example, have recently voted on issuing bonds and raising taxes to build a new police station, and on whether to create a city-owned water agency.

Until I assigned myself this task of measuring the full scope of my responsibilities as a citizen, I had only the haziest idea of who many of these officials and governmental bodies were. The entirety of it, once reckoned, would leave few waking hours for any activity other than conscientious citizenship. If, in architecture, less is more, then in democracy more is often less. A political structure that makes citizenship a full-time job guarantees high rates of absenteeism.

It’s not clear that localism is a solution for this problem, and it’s not hard to imagine localism implemented in ways that would just make matters worse: more elections; more governing bodies, more candidates, more ballot propositions.. Rather than making American governance more intimidating and baffling to our citizens, we should reengage them as small-d democrats by making political life more accessible.

The Buck Never Stops Anywhere

The key is to establish clear, simple lines of authority that enable laymen to easily determine which officials, and which government agencies, are the people to contact, and if necessary vote against, when a particular public need is unaddressed. As matters stand, it is frequently the case that various federal, state, and local governmental entities, many of which the average citizen knows nothing about, have “a say” in formulating policy, and “a role” in implementing it, but no one of them “owns” the issue. The buck never stops anywhere. And when citizens have no idea whom they should write, call, or protest, they are left dissatisfied but also disengaged.

Accordingly, there is much to be said for political scientist Steven Teles’ argument that we should reinvigorate federalism by reorganizing it along functional lines. In “policy areas like education or health care,” Teles writes, “give the problem either to the federal government or to the states to deal with, but don’t give it to both.” Such a change might result in more localism, or in less, depending on how Americans sorted out the question of which level of government is best at discharging each particular responsibility. But it would bring about more and better federalism, and more and better republicanism, as good governance and self-government were brought into closer alignment.

As long as we’re rationalizing modern government, we should consider a related change. My inquiries into my own citizenship revealed that I reside in: California’s 27th congressional district (out of 53); its 25th state senate district (out of 40); its 41st state assembly district (out of 80); its third equalization district (out of five); Los Angeles County’s first supervisorial district (out of five), the second Citrus Community College District trustee area (out of five); and the third Three Valleys Municipal Water District division (out of seven). None of the boundaries defining these jurisdictions are contiguous, so each jurisdiction’s concerns and constituencies are distinct from all the other jurisdictions’. Nor are any of them permanent, or even durable. In order to remain compliant with the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” decisions, all the lines will be redrawn after the 2020 census reveals the population shifts that have taken place since 2010.

This proliferation of governmental bodies isolates me not only from my elected officials but also from my fellow citizens. The 27th congressional district is a temporary abstraction, lacking a past, a future, or a shared identity and interests. And I belong not just to one such contrivance but seven (that I know of). It’s hard to pursue the public interest when “the” public is made up, meaningless, and transient.

Everyone who lives in Claremont knows that they do so, and most people care about this fact and this political entity. Claremont’s residents readily grasp how their self-interest, well understood, is advanced by good governance and harmed by bad governance. By contrast, few people who live in the 27th congressional district or first supervisorial district know that they do, or care. In the unlikely event they do, no tangible steps follow from that awareness. The idea of banding together to advance the dear old 27th’s common needs and destiny, or to vindicate the honor of the Fighting First supervisorial district, is absurd.

The needed realignments, then, will clarify not only governments’ responsibilities but citizens’ affiliations. Federalism worked better when it was clear which officials tended to a locality’s internal affairs, and which ones represented its interests in the state and national capitals. The “one person, one vote” rulings won’t be overturned, but they could be reinterpreted. Instead of maintaining electoral equality through arbitrary, temporary districts, work toward making district boundaries contiguous with the lines on the map that define real communities of which the members are fully cognizant.

True Reform Would Entail Enlarging Legislatures

This almost certainly means increasing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives and many state legislatures. The average congressional district had 212,000 residents in 1911, when Congress first set the number of members at 435. Today each district has over 700,000 residents. A California state senate district is even bigger, with nearly one million residents, making each district more populous than five states of the Union. Very few “communities” with this number of people have a sense of being a sociopolitical entity with interests that deserve to be heard and respected in the forums where state and national policies are deliberated. (The New Hampshire House of Representatives, at the other extreme, has one member for every 3,000 state residents, which probably overcorrects for the problem at hand.)

It also means equalizing representation by having more populous communities represented by multiple legislators, and less populous ones by single legislators. Doing so facilitates having legislative district lines approximate the boundaries of actual, identifiable communities, rather than amalgamating, slicing, and dicing such communities to achieve numerical equality among districts (only to repeat the process and create new rosters or equally arbitrary districts after the next census).

Such changes would be an uphill climb, to say the least. But considering them forces reflection on the key question: How do we best organize our republic to enhance the quality of government and the quality of citizenship? It is a discussion well served by Joel Kotkin’s essay. I appreciate this chance to reflect on the issues he raises.