Among the many magical charms our conservative pundit class invokes in its futile and impotent “war” against liberalism, the idea of localism is perhaps the most well-known and trendy. The general idea behind localism is that instead of building institutions or engaging in difficult and draining ideological wars, one’s energies are better spent constructing a sustainable and virtuous community in a particular “place.”
Localist ideas permeate much of the paleocon branch of conservatism, particularly in its flagship publication: The American Conservative and have even occasionally made their way into the pages of The New York Times and other mainstream outlets. The central hub of pure localism, however, seems to be the website Front Porch Republic, which the liberal journalist Damon Linker describes as follows:
Influenced by an eclectic range of thinkers, including sociologists Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, Catholic philosopher David Schindler, and poet and essayist Wendell Berry, the Porchers see conservatism as a disposition or way of living locally, within moral, religious, economic, and environmental limits, in tightly knit, sustainable community with neighbors and the natural world. If they have a rallying cry, it’s “Stay Put!”
On the surface, there would seem to be a significant amount of overlap between the porchers and many of the thinkers on the reactionary right. Both recognize the pernicious effects which the forces of degenerate mass culture, the liberal managerial state, and hyper-individualism have had on the body politic. Both, also, seek the re-invigoration of local communities, the thickening of familial ties and the restoration of local, intermediary, institutions. But this is where the similarities between the fad of localism and the ideas of the reactionary right end.
Porchers and their fellow travelers, sadly, labor under several, profound delusions–delusions which doom many of their initiatives to failure even before they leave their ideological wombs. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the porcher fascination with populism and local democracy.
Granted, there is certainly a case to be made that the populist impulse has a potentially important part to play in any serious right-wing movement, but porchers tend to fetishize it with a fervor and sincerity that would make Norman Rockwell blush.
The fallacy is believing that a culture (at least as someone like Philip Rieff would understand it) can be sustained wholly from the bottom up, without the need of any elite influence or modeling. The idea expounded by localists is that if only local communities were comprised of enough big-hearted and civic-minded George Baileys with which to shore up their institutions, they would spontaneously, once more, become hotbeds of virtue in the midst of degeneracy.
The problem, of course, is that the composition of particular local cultures, at least in the context of the modern United States, is profoundly shaped by the influence of large institutions controlled by elites in distant, cosmopolitan locales. Liberal ideologues, contrary to the pretensions of their own propaganda, did not win the “culture war” through grassroots activism, but by methodically infiltrating and taking possession of important elite institutions. They then used these institutions to legitimize their own ideology, which then trickled down through the various castes of the American class structure until it eventually reached the unwashed proletariat, usually in the form of television sitcoms or super bowl advertising.
Thus, contrary to the assertion of Andrew Breitbart, as well as the vast majority of localists, it appears that it is culture itself which is downstream from politics and not the other way around. To reshape the culture one must seize control of the majority of its dominant institutions, an act which is inherently political.
Part of the porcher’s difficulty with understanding this train of thought is their faithfulness to historical templates which are no longer applicable to the modern world. This is especially manifest in their embrace of such ideas as the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton’s concept of distributism and other ideologies of decentralization such as federalism, states rights, etc. The main idea being to distribute authority and various forms of power far and wide throughout a given political realm.
While such concepts may warm the heart with visions of small town agrarians laboring on their small acreages, they fail the test of basic realism. Leaving aside the immense amount of political will that would be necessary to devolve power from the federal to state and local governments as localists desire, the primary problem remains a technological one.
Modeled as it is on the medieval world of peasants, knights, and lords, distributism makes the most sense in a society that possesses a bare minimum of technological sophistication. In such a world distributism and localism work because they are the most practical forms of political and economic organization available, as it would be essentially impossible for a particular sovereign to centrally manage his kingdom effectively .
Even up until the early 20th century, relatively low levels of technological development still favored a decentralized approach to governing. But with the rise of advanced communication and transportation technologies, this incentive was inverted. This led to not only the consolidation of political power but cultural power, as well. The United States itself once possessed a myriad of thriving and distinct local and regional cultures, but with the rise of centrally produced mass media and of cheap and efficient transportation, these cultures have almost completely evaporated, and with them many of their local, mediating institutions.
Thus, while localism may have been an efficient way to manage a 19th-century agrarian society, it is not an efficient way to manage a modern, technological one, whose very material circumstances incentivize centralized control of government and culture.
This is not to say that such a society as is envisioned by the porchers is not possible; it certainly is. Many things, after all, are “possible” in and of themselves. A fusion reactor is “possible” but, like localism itself, the amount of energy necessary to input into the system far outweighs the amount that can be extracted from it, which renders it an investment that, while possible in theory, yields few real dividends.
Thus, it is not surprising to find that non-theoretical, actually existing forms of localism (local and organically produced goods, etc.) tend to cater towards those segments of the population that constitute the upper middle class. These “local” businesses exist primarily to serve the needs of a relatively small population of affluent individuals and thereby have essentially become providers of luxury goods.
The existence of the local food economy is predicated on the existence of individuals willing to pay an inflated price in pursuit, not of a particular good in itself (an apple, e.g.), but rather of the mysterious and esoteric quality the good in question is rumored to possess (being an “organic” or “fair trade” apple in contrast to merely a regular one).
The same phenomenon can be observed in the contemporary housing market which has seen prices skyrocket in neighborhoods possessing certain characteristics that have been championed by localists, such as quaint architectural features and proximity to homosexual nightclubs and hipster coffee shops. Such communities are considered to be vibrant and having character, mystical qualities which justify the exorbitant asking prices of real estate brokers.
Ironically, instead of an ideology of small town conservatives, localism, in practice, has become the preferred lifestyle choice of our managerial class of rootless cosmopolitans, for whom “buying local” is just another way to build their own personal brand and signal virtue to their peers.
Of course, such urban enclaves of decadence are not what our conservative porchers usually have in mind when they discuss localism. Rather, they tend to focus on small, agrarian communities. Yet so much of their discourse still tends to obscure what actually makes these communities so unique and what allows them to produce such high levels of social cohesion.
Ethnic homogeneity is a subject that is almost never discussed in localist publications, yet it remains the primary reason why the traditional communities they extol have such high levels of social trust, to begin with–the very characteristic the traditionalists at Front Porch Republic find so attractive.
Diversity, whether racial, cultural, or religious, simply doesn’t tend to produce the close knit, high trust, local communities the porchers are so fond of.
The public “commons” localists extol can only exist in a community whose individuals share an actual common purpose beyond mere profit or pleasure, a commonality which, in a society where a devout Roman Catholic family’s plot of land may lie adjacent to Wahhabist Yemeni immigrants on one side and a lesbian couple raising their adopted son on the other, is sorely lacking.
In such a diverse society, the term community is a misnomer. Instead, Americans exist as a collection of unrelated individuals whose interactions are mediated through various shallow and transactional mechanisms, where common ground with a neighbor can only, at best, be found in the most banal of trivialities, such as feigned interest in the outcome of a local sportsball match or a shared admiration for the discography of The Stone Roses.
Without a shared, metaphysical vision of the good to unite them, Americans will forever stare vacantly past one another. And this vacant stare will continue, unabated, regardless of how many sweet sounding platitudes about the common good are invoked by the advocates of localism.
Like many romantic ideas, localism works best as a thought experiment or, like a hobby farm, as the personal project of those with considerable disposable income and time on their hands. But as a program for rebuilding the culture of the Western world, it remains a fantasy, merely another mirage in the vast desert of conservative ideas.