Don't bemoan Washington's bogland

With Congress in gridlock on issues like guns, immigration, and energy, Americans turn to states, cities, and private groups for action. This spirit of community and problem-solving will inevitably find its expression somewhere.

Richard Hamm/The Banner-Herald/AP Photo
Bruce Dubberly, left, Avery Smith and Lindsay Davis, right, work a field in Athens, Ga., to grow produce for a farmer's market at the Athens Community Council on Aging offices on Mondays.

With Washington in gridlock on issues from gun regulation to immigration reform, Governing magazine took note this month that Americans are turning to local and state governments – as well as each other – to find common ground in solving problems.

“The sweeping national interventions of the New Deal and the comprehensive federal social legislation of the 1960s have been replaced by a more decentralized approach to governance,” the national publication found.

States and cities can more easily pass laws than Congress because of a practical focus and stronger identity as a community. The trend is not confined to governance. As the local-food movement has grown, for example, scholars note that people are 10 times more likely to talk to each other at a farmers' market than a supermarket. Volunteering has surged. And with car-dependent suburbs growing old, urban life has a new cache, creating new types of bonding that the late scholar Iris Young called the “being together of strangers.”

Over a century ago, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville was astounded at the ability of Americans to solve problems by forming new associations: “If it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate,” he wrote. Thomas Jefferson referred to volunteer groups as “little republics.”

Today, trust in state and local government remains high – above 50 percent – compared with only 28 percent of Americans who have faith in the federal government, according to the Pew Research Center. As long as states or local laws stay within the US Constitution or federal laws, they can often better reflect the wishes of a larger proportion of voters than many divisive laws passed by Congress.

One good example: States have banded together to create the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education, aiming to replace the much-disliked federal program No Child Left Behind.

Many cities, such as Austin, Texas, and Boston are “taking on the big issues that Washington won’t, or can’t, solve,” according to a new book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution. A revival of cities has helped them to become sources of innovation, or places where people of diverse backgrounds can more easily share ideas and break down social barriers.

Americans do not lack for a national identity – just go to a park or parade this Fourth of July. But their problem-solving nature has led them away from seeing Washington as a fixer of all things. Many states and local governments will, of course, fumble the effort or be extremist. If they do, even they may be bypassed.

A search for community bonds and a sense of place will remain stronger than the forms in which those sentiments are expressed. The old affinities of village life find new outlets. Wal-Mart now carries local produce. The Obama White House has a community vegetable garden. And when a Midwest community is devastated by a tornado, people rediscover what binds them and rebuild in fresh and different ways.

“As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite,” wrote de Tocqueville.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill would do well to recall these deep traditions. Like any Americans, they too can recapture that wellspring of community.

[Correction: An earlier version of this editorial cited the Governing Institute as the source of the trend cited in the lead. The source is Governing magazine, which is related to the institute but independent. The national magazine covers local and state governments.]

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