The Devil’s In The Details

We used to call this federalism.

I really do respect the research done by the Brookings Institution. Overall, I find their methodologies appropriate and their conclusions sound. But every once in a while, I see an “essay” that makes me wonder what the authors have been smoking. The linked article on “constitutional localism” falls into that category.

Specifically, we call for a new civic ethos or governing framework which we call Constitutional Localism, that will shift the greatest number of public decisions possible to the community level—albeit within a clear constitutional framework to protect the individual freedoms and rights won over the past 250 years.

We see the pursuit by Americans of varied lifestyles and cultural preferences as a healthy sign of American freedom and choice, not a destructive force. We need to rebuild public confidence in American democracy, not by insisting on a singular national answer to each problem, but by celebrating the ability of America’s varied communities to find solutions that work best for them. As we see it, the challenge confronting the nation is to find a way to permit this range of opinion and action to flourish while restoring a shared faith in the common democratic values and processes that define American self-government.

Where to start?

First of all–and most obvious–the framework they suggest is the legal framework we have–a significant, albeit diminishing, degree of state autonomy, constrained by the requirement that local laws not violate the Bill of Rights.

The fact that “localism” often doesn’t look very local is a function of 21st Century reality: the inter-related needs of national (and increasingly global) commerce; the ease with which citizens and criminals can cross state lines, the national nature of many threats we face–from medical epidemics to terrorist attacks to acid rain. Etc.

The challenge is to determine what sorts of rules are properly the purview of local lawmakers, and which need to be national in scope. Americans have engaged in arguments about this since the Articles of Confederation. In my state, Indiana, municipalities face the same issue–a longstanding debate about the state legislature’s refusal to allow meaningful home rule by cities and towns.

People of good will can–and will–argue about what political scientists call “devolution,” and what partisans dub “state’s rights.” Which rules should be left to the locals, and which must be made nationally or even globally? To what extent should citizens think of themselves as part of the broad American fabric, and to what extent members of various sub-constituencies? How much consistency is needed to create unum from our pluribus, and how much is too much?

There is a modern twist to this age-old debate, and it is disquieting.

I have blogged previously about The Big Sort and the growing urban/rural divide. Americans appear to be “sorting” ourselves into like-minded communities, geographical “bubbles” where we can live with people who think and act like us. It is part of the polarization that has kept government from working toward that elusive something called “the common good.” Do we really want to encourage cities to create various iterations of “people’s republics” while more rural areas establish enclaves ruled by “Christian Talibans”?

At what point does autonomy become separatism? Inquiring minds want to know…


How to do Local

One of the ways in which newspapers are responding to the challenges of the internet age is by concentrating on coverage of their own communities. Dubbed “localism” or sometimes “hyperlocalism,” the approach makes a lot of sense: let readers get their national and international news from the New York Times, the Guardian, and other sources easily accessed through the web, and concentrate on providing information about one’s own home town.

The Indianapolis Star –like many other papers–has announced that it will concentrate on local coverage, “stories you can’t get elsewhere.”

This approach will only work, however, if the newspaper does actual reporting. Local coverage is not simply printing press releases sent in by new restaurants that are opening. It isn’t just “galleries” of local homes and their decor. It certainly isn’t the same links to stories about the Super Bowl and how to lose weight that appear on the newspaper’s website for a week.

Earlier this year, I discontinued subscribing to the Star. After 50 years. What would make me change that decision, and re-subscribe, would be genuine local coverage: school board meetings. Library board decisions. Real, in-depth coverage of the Mayor and City Council.

During the last year, the Ballard Administration and its partisans on the City-County Council engaged in deal-making that may or may not have been improper. The Star hasn’t covered most of it. Even when they have, the coverage has been superficial–“he said, she said, I guess that’s all, folks.” The IBJ recently reported that the city was building a parking garage in Broad Ripple, paying for its construction with our tax dollars and then handing it over to a developer who formerly worked for the Mayor. The developer will be entitled to all the profits. I’d like to know how the administration justifies this transaction, but I saw no reporting about it at all in the Star. (Maybe I missed it, but if so, it certainly wasn’t highlighted.)

I saw little detail about the fifty-year parking meter deal–certainly not the analysis provided by local blogger Paul Ogden or regional urban expert the Urbanophile.  Even when the paper did report on the Litebox fiasco, there was little reporting on the process that led the city to ignore huge red flags and hype an obvious con man.

These are just the deals we know about; in the absence of real reporting, how much more do we know nothing about?

The bottom line is that concentrating on local coverage can indeed save local news media–but it can’t save them the bother or expense of hiring and training real reporters. Giving us genuine news we can use to evaluate local institutions and politicians requires investigative reporting by trained journalists.

Going back to the days when small-town newspapers printed the school cafeteria menus won’t cut it.