The American political tradition is steeped in localism. Arguments on behalf of the local and local government are ubiquitous in American history. In the book manuscript, I provide an analysis, description, and critique of the “tradition of localism” in American political culture with an analytical introduction, three case studies, and a normative conclusion.
The existing literature on localism is mired in conceptual confusion. Therefore, I first clarify the concept of localism. Localism is actually an umbrella concept covering three sub-concepts: localism as attachment (social), localism as activity (political), and localism as theory (ideological). Two insights from political geography further clarify localism as activity: (1) “the local” is relative and (2) conceptualizations of space are political. Localism as activity is defined as attempts to alter the hierarchy of governmental scale by transferring political authority from higher to lower-level governments.
In chapter 2, I show that the American Anti-Federalists’ localism is held together by two spatial theses: (1) attachment to government is negatively correlated with geographical distance, and (2) diversity is positively correlated with territorial size. My interpretation improves on the existing literature by providing a unified account of the Anti-Federalists’ spatio-political commitments.
In chapter 3, I show how popular sovereignty in the antebellum era, as advanced by Stephen A. Douglas, is best understood as an example of localism as activity rather than an offshoot of the ideal of popular sovereignty in the western political tradition. I also show that the debate over slavery in the territories is usefully understood as a conflict in the politics of space over how to define “the people.”
In chapter 4, I show how the ideology of local control, as a form of localism as theory, played a causal role in the demise of school desegregation beginning in the 1970s. The Supreme Court and the American public treated the benefits of local control and neighborhood schools as considerations to be weighed against desegregation.
In the conclusion, I assess the status of localism as an ideal in both American political thought and democratic theory more broadly.