Book Project

Against Localism: An American Tradition and Its Discontents*

This book reconstructs and critiques the tradition of localism in the United States. Localism is the preference for, or in the disposition in favor of, what is near and small as opposed to what is distant and large in the political world. Part One begins by distinguishing localism from several closely related concepts such as federalism, decentralization, and devolution. I argue that localism has three distinct but related dimensions: dispositional, instrumental, and ideological. In the following three chapters, using this analysis, I construct and interpret a series of historical cases: Anti-Federalism in the 1780s, Stephen Douglas’s “doctrine of popular sovereignty” in the 1840s and 1850s, and the debate over school desegregation (especially busing) in the 1960s and 1970s. In Part Two, I use insights drawn from the case studies in Part One to assess the desirability of localism in contemporary politics. First, I argue that localism, in its most plausible form, is not an independent value; it is better understood a proxy for other important interests and values that are conditionally, but not categorically, promoted by assigning political authority to lower-level units. Second, I argue that localism, in its ideological form, has pernicious effects in democratic politics.

Table of Contents

Part One: An American Tradition


*Based on my dissertation:

The Localist Tradition in America
Princeton University
September 2015
Committee: Melissa Lane, Stephen Macedo, Paul Frymer