Jan. 1, 2001
In 2001 the mainstream press in the United States will discover a reversal, declaring that “liberals” have suddenly decided they want more power for local and state governments rather than for Washington. Right-wing pundits will describe this as hypocrisy and as a gross distortion of their own alleged preference for anarchy. “Opposing government interference at the federal level does not mean we want it at the local level,” they will tell each other.
This interpretation of events will have some truth in it. Progressives will concentrate more on local action for several reasons. First, to some degree, they always have. Second, globalization and international agreements have become tools for harming the poor and the environment. Third, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Florida the right to participate in a presidential election. Fourth, George Bush Jr. is in the White House and the elephants have a congressional majority. Fifth, the federal government has become pretty much useless to progressives during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years, and successes are already occurring at the local level.
The idea that leftists prefer to act through more distant government has always been overstated, just like the idea that righties prefer not to. When San Francisco proposed to give equal rights to gays and lesbians, which side started screaming for federal action? When municipal governments in Michigan propose to pay employees a living wage or local governments in Virginia attempt to slow sprawl or ban the dumping of sewage sludge on farmland, which side tries to pass new state legislation or win state court opinions to deny localities those options? And who has created the massive government spending on corporate welfare, weapons, prisons, and highways?
Yesterday, President Clinton took a step to support an international court and Jesse Helms protested. We’re all familiar with that picture. But opposition to global corporate power agreements is a position that will be more and more dominated by the resurgent left. Increasingly we will see leftists stressing the need to act locally and consider the importance of local ecosystems and cultural differences, while right-wingers (including those referred to as in “the middle of the road”) will increasingly promote the abandonment of labor and environmental protections through international treaties.
The Green party won three dozen seats at the local level in 2000 despite the incredible gang attack on Nader’s remarkable candidacy. Living wage campaigns have won higher minimum wages in 53 cities and counties despite, or because of, the federal government’s decision to lower the federal minimum (through “inaction”) to the lowest it’s been in 30 years. And the living-wage movement is now taking shape at the state and federal level after its tremendous local successes.
Cities and towns are taking innovative steps to prevent their schools from getting too much worse. Towns are making contributions to county school systems. School systems are (in a questionable move) appealing to local businesses for help. Of course the left will (I fervently hope) continue to insist on HAVING public schools. But it will give up on getting decent federal funding for them and concentrate on finding resources locally.
Regional planning of the sort promoted by Myron Orfield in Minnesota is gaining popularity in many cities. This will continue to be denounced as communism by those in privileged suburbs. But it is a more local focus on combating sprawl and improving housing and schools than the national approach that has been tried by many leftists in this country (with little success) and in other countries (with much more).
Labor unions are investing more and more in organizing. Local governments are agreeing to measures guaranteeing workers the right to organize. The president-select has promised a national right-to-work-for-less law. Supporters of labor rights will find themselves working more and more from a local level against the federal government.
Even advocates of universal health care, I predict, will abandon Washington as hopeless and quickly achieve successes on a smaller scale.
Does all this represent a victory for the right? They’ve made the federal government useless for progressives, yes. But it is only a victory if we let it be, if we actually buy the myth that we always wanted to do everything from the federal level, if we refuse to recognize the opportunity to build a movement starting in neighborhoods and working our way up from there.
We should aim for state successes by 2002 and a Nader presidency in 2004. But we should never stop working locally.
12 Jan. 01:
A dozen days into the new year, and the Virginia Supreme Court has declared that localities cannot ban the dumping of toxic sewage sludge on their land. The state of Virginia is also preventing localities from taxing themselves to improve transportation, from halting “development,” and from keeping out unneeded and unwanted power plants.