There is something special you feel when you return home to that place where you grew up. Like many of you, I recently got back from making this return home and experiencing that familiar sensation. It cannot simply be explained by the fact that you are with family, relatives, old friends — as joyous as that is. You are stirred by a gust of sentiment even if the people closest to you now live elsewhere. It arises even when you have no plans of starting a career there. The feeling is a great amalgam of knowledge, familiarity, and nostalgia.
Essentially, you see all the things that others cannot – as if you possess x-ray vision. The local park is not merely a park, it is where you developed a first crush. Most people whiz past the small, nondescript Italian restaurant on the corner, but you know the kindness of the owners and their ability to produce a delicious chicken parmesan. Sections of the town are not just white lines on a map, but areas with distinct characters and qualities. This neighborhood pulled together to assist the person whose house recently burned down, this one is home to many members of the PTA, another has the largest lake in the area. You are able to navigate all of this, without Google Maps, by foot or by car.
So why then, with the existence of such a distinct feeling, built from knowledge the local has that the visitor does not, from comfort and a full set of powerful memories, is there such little emphasis given to localism among so many politically-minded young people?
Vehement calls for expansion of federal regulation in healthcare, education, and poverty alleviation, for example, are made with little reflection had on the usual nature of implementation. Namely, far-away strangers making decisions for local communities. And rarely do people grapple with what is given up with broad, national action – the fulfillment, increased civic commitment, building of ties, and nurturing of souls that might come with individuals working together to develop solutions on a local level.
A focus on strengthening America’s local institutions, rather than figuring out how to pile onto the toxic, national political debate, could ultimately decrease division, increase civic interest in young people, and bolster the spirit of our citizenry.
In Democracy in America (1835), what some have called the greatest book written on democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville writes at length about the splendor of America’s system of townships. Tocqueville observes:
It is nonetheless in the township that the force of free peoples resides. The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate to making use of it. Without the institutions of a township a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom.
Tocqueville connects a vivacious township system with political stability, saying “this political existence impresses on society a continual, but at the same time peaceful, movement that agitates it without troubling it.”
In contemporary America, more and more young people are turning away from civic life and those that are not increasingly focus on federal government affairs. Worries abound about the stability of our political system given intense rifts. I believe we must work to recapture the Tocquevillian spirit. The feeling that we recognize when we are home should matter in our political thinking. And given the discontent with our current Administration, there is perhaps no better time to reinvigorate interest in localism among young people across the political spectrum.
A focus on strengthening America’s local institutions, rather than figuring out how to pile onto the toxic, national political debate, could ultimately decrease division, increase civic interest in young people, and bolster the spirit of our citizenry. We should aim for institutions like the New England townships Tocqueville so admired – ones that have next to no rivals in attracting “the ambitious passions of the human heart.”
Troy Epstein is a Master of Public Policy graduate student, and a guest writer for the Review.