October 7, 2021


Subsidiarity and Federalism

By: Louis Damani Jones

With the advent of forms of media that allow for the nearly instant transmission of information from one end of the country, and the world, to another, our cultural narratives have become increasingly more nationalized and globalized as history progresses. The old adage “all politics are local” becomes more dated by the day. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s possible to learn about human rights abuses happening half-way across the world and vote accordingly. It’s possible to receive real time updates about a natural disaster halfway across the country that put your family members in harm’s way. With that being said, there are not enough people appreciating what we are losing and what was already lost. With conversations so national and global, if we aren’t careful, we could begin to lose track of the very substantial impact that local, state, and regional narratives have upon the reality of everyday American life. 

The importance of political engagement being rooted in the local life of the populace is in no way incidental to the American political structure. In fact, it’s one of its defining features at all levels. Take Congress for example. In light of our political discourse, we sometimes examine Congress in a disembodied way with Senators and Representatives completely detached from the constituencies that they supposedly represent. Through the lens of our national narratives, characters like Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Joe Manchin, and Kevin McCarthy are simply Washington-centric antagonists in a very narrow political drama over national policies. In all reality, their purpose is to be iconographic, channeling  of the interests of whatever region or state that they’ve come from. Through this lens, even federal issues are about state and regional narratives.

Even more fundamental, however, is state and local governments themselves. In any given state there are hundreds of representatives that may represent a few cities or counties in the state legislature. Depending on population, representatives may even have districts so compact that they only cover a few neighborhoods. State senators often cover slightly larger swaths, but often no more than a few counties as well. Underneath the state legislature are county governments and city governments, which are even closer to the people. As people  strive to participate in our national processes and create a government more responsive to the lived reality of Americans, there is no doubt that the local and state level offers many more political opportunities for significant change than the federal level. 

Local and state officials are also more bound to the local and regional narratives of constituents due to the lower level of voter turnout, which strengthens the power of the single vote than in federally aimed elections. A single, locally engaged neighborhood of voters could unseat a mayor, county councilperson, or state senator with relative ease in a non-presidential election year.

Even though the federal government has much more expansive financial and technological capabilities than states and localities, there are also many more Constitutional boundaries set for the federal level than there are for the state and local levels. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution essentially  grants all powers that are not explicitly listed in the Constitution to the states, setting explicit limits to federal powers while leaving vast room for states to be “laboratories of democracy,” a phrase famously coined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to describe the capacity of states to create solutions that the federal government could not. 

These political and technical realities give expression to an important moral and philosophical reality that people closest to a problem tend to know how to deal with a problem in the best way. Proximity provides a vantage point by which to understand nuances and externalities. Empowering individuals to have representation near to the people also increases self-determination and community agency. With national legacy media continuing to maintain a strong hold on social media networks, it is up to citizens to actively uncover what’s happening in state, regional, and local governments in order to ensure that the voices of families, cities, counties, and states are being accurately heard – not drowned out by broad national and global trends.