This is no longer your father's American conservatism. Who gets to define it in 2021?
The title of a book by Pierre Manent, Democracy Without Nations, cuts to the heart of the European Union’s folly. The day may soon be coming when someone has to write a companion volume about the United States called Democracy Without Community. Place has always been the organizing principle in American self-government. This is true in a formal sense, with the country divided into states and localities with governments of their own. But it has also been true in an informal, cultural sense: different places have had different personalities and have held different conservations with themselves, most often through the medium of local newspapers. In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed in the second volume of Democracy in America:
The number of newspapers must diminish or increase among a democratic people in proportion as its administration is more or less centralized. For among democratic nations the exercise of local powers cannot be entrusted to the principal members of the community as in aristocracies. Those powers must be either abolished or placed in the hands of very large numbers of men, who then in fact constitute an association permanently established by law for the purpose of administering the affairs of a certain extent of territory; and they require a journal to bring to them every day, in the midst of their own minor concerns, some intelligence of the state of their public weal. The more numerous local powers are, the greater is the number of men in whom they are vested by law; and as this want is hourly felt, the more profusely do newspapers abound.
In the twentieth century, local radio and television supplemented the work of the newspapers. This work was not always either edifying or well performed, but local news and local self-government maintained an obvious connection. Most politics was local politics, even at the national level, where regional differences were reflected in Congress. The “culture war” of the late twentieth century was largely a war of regional cultures, with different views on abortion or Second Amendment liberties to be found among cities or in the country and from state to state. A minority view in one place might be the majority view in another, and great issues would be aggregated into partisan coalitions. Yet the starting point for all effective coalitions, even the most philosophically abstract, was local culture and its potential for political expression. This was no less true for economics than for social issues: Americans worked in particular places where particular industries were rooted. Local political networks provided the means to communicate the interests of workers and businesses to higher levels of government.
The consequences of America’s recent trend toward displacement are thus far-reaching indeed. Social media is not place-based the way newspapers were. Walmart and other vast national chains were once the nemesis of localists, yet now the retail economy has become even more placeless with the rise of Amazon. COVID-19 has shown that information-economy employment also has little necessary tie to geography. And the virtual economy has been the less vulnerable economy amid the pandemic crisis: local retailers, including the chains, have suffered, while Amazon has prospered; telecommuting workers have kept their jobs, while Americans whose work depends on place have lost theirs. Meanwhile, in the realm of ideas and cultural politics—always linked to the dominant forms of media—local personality has given way to causes that transcend place. The identities of identity politics are not localized and cannot fit the pattern of traditional American self-government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, progressives now call into question not only the Electoral College but also the principle of equal representation in the U.S. Senate. And when they refer to the “popular vote” in House elections, what they mean is not the vote in each congressional district, but the overall national vote for one political party or the other.
Democracy as Americans have known it is impossible without localized politics because without such politics there are no channels through which to convey the great multiplicity of thoughts, interests, and values that matter to the public. To put everything in one venue, with more than 300 million people in the country, amounts to trivializing most voices, and empowering only the most organized, powerful, and media savvy. The result of that, as Tocqueville would have expected, is both centralization and atomization, frustration and hopelessness, and administrative tyranny. It encourages talk of secession, though secession itself is meaningless without the organization and personality of place.
All is not lost—even in Europe, nations have proved willing to reclaim democracy. America needs a Brexit: secession not from the Union but from the displaced bureaucracy and progressive church.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age.
Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
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