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The call for citizens to ‘go local’

Shift in thought

In both the US and EU, a populist backlash against centralized power has revived interest in local activism, which often comes with an ethical imperative for neighborliness.

Former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan joins others in urging lawmakers to approve a proposed bill to prohibit local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities, during a Jan. 31 legislative hearing in Sacramento, Calif.
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This week, the chief executive of the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker, plans an unusual response to the rising populist calls against the EU across the Continent. Worried about the union’s very existence, he will ask each member state to openly initiate EU rules and explain them to their voters rather than simply blame the bloc's bureaucrats for often-unpopular rules.

 His move is a nod to the calls for more local control from many politicians in France, Britain, Italy, and elsewhere.

A similar move toward localism has emerged in the United States since the election of Donald Trump as president. Democrats are seeking to shore up state and local governments against Mr. Trump’s policies, such as on health care, energy, and immigration. Trump himself said after the election: “People talk about how we’re living in a globalised world but the relationships people value most are local – family, city, state and country. Local, folks, local.”

And just before the US election, President Obama told the United Nations: “Too often, in capitals, decisionmakers have forgotten that democracy needs to be driven by civic engagement from the bottom up, not governance by experts from the top down.”

A good reason exists for countries to take partisan issues down to smaller communities. In local politics, where people are often neighbors, labels like red and blue mean less than the mutual desire to achieve practical solutions for concrete problems. Disputes are often resolved without pitched battles in courts or legislatures. And it is easier to hold people accountable.

According to a 2015 survey by the Heartland Monitor Poll, Americans clearly favor their state and local institutions over national institutions in providing opportunities, educating the young, and making neighborhood more attractive places to live. The poll also revealed that more than half of Americans say they have the time or money to make an impact on their local community. The US Census estimates a third of Americans participate in at least one voluntary association.

“We know that enabling and participating in local politics is a sign that we truly care about our relations to one another,” said Alessandra Orofino, a Brazilian community activist, in a recent TED talk. For Americans, connecting to neighbors has never been easier with websites such as Nextdoor.com. One US philanthropic enterprise called Love Your Block provides small grants to community groups to revitalize their neighborhoods.

The informality of neighborly politics allows people to treat one another as individuals, not as abstract symbols or categories, says Nancy Rosenblum, a professor of political theory at Harvard University. In her 2016 book, “Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America,” she writes how the norms of local politics often demand people to act with an ethic of reciprocal decency. Community activism enables people to speak out but also to be more patient with one another.

“The judgments we make of those who live close by, our responses to their good and bad turns, and our responsibilities to them (if any), don’t come with scripts,” she writes.

Americans especially see good neighborliness as a moral identity that is also a form of democratic excellence. “It is a commitment to a form of goodness that entails discipline, and sometimes courage,” she states.

Local civic engagement cannot cure every political ill. People on the same street often don’t know each other or don’t get along. And sometimes federal action is needed to ensure basic rights. But compared to centralized politics, local activism often evokes its own ethical imperative, reflected in the biblical command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”