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local politicsWhat matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.—Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue

MacIntyre’s brilliant critique of modernity and its many failings was published almost thirty years ago. Its many trenchant criticisms of the shallow nature of liberalism, with its rejection of personal virtue and meaningful life stories lived within a larger, spiritual context, sparked incredulity among liberals. It also helped spawn an intellectual counter-move called “communitarianism.” That movement claimed to answer the need for community by tying human flourishing to service to the common good. Unfortunately, communitarians defined that common good as the same tired, social democratic goal of a nanny state shaping the lives, and now even the character, of the people. 

Communitarianism, largely moribund now, revived liberalism to a degree by delivering an infusion of 1960’s-style smugness. A selfish liberal hedonist is actually a saint, you see, so long as he recycles.

MacIntyre’s book also was taken as a kind of call to action. He noted that we are waiting for “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” This comment has been both derided and hailed as a call to a new kind of monasticism, by which people of faith would withdraw from the world into an isolation in which a remnant might wall itself off from the cultural chaos surrounding us, restoring their spiritual and moral lives in preparation for a later, more propitious time of renewal.

There clearly is a need to reject contemporary mass culture, and to protect our children from the values so intentionally pushed at them by teachers, media figures, and advertisers seeking to strip them of their virtues and make them into “good” self-involved consumers. But the monastic analogy can be drawn in too literal a fashion. We need a new kind of St. Benedict, one who can guide us in dealing with a culture and a state that will not leave us to ourselves, and that fosters many would-be saviors who would prey upon us.

The answer, then, is not to follow priests who have forsaken their true and holy vocation for delusions of glory and immunity to sin, or rich men heading into the swamps to found their own utopias. Even in the swamps and hinterlands, the government will regulate our lives, and the effort of blocking out the wider culture may itself turn us against one another, or leave us prey to charismatic false saviors.

What, then, are we to do? An essential part of the answer must be involvement in local life. We must seek to make the culture better where we actually live.

This option is instinctive for most conservatives, committed as we are to Burke’s “little platoons,” and aware as we are of the primary role family, church, and local association play in the formation of character. But there is another aspect to this localism that too often slips our minds or, perhaps more often, repels us from active involvement: local politics.

As national politics have become inescapable (as well as horribly destructive) people increasingly have forgotten the importance of politics at the local level. From the New England town meeting to the townships Alexis de Tocqueville saw as the very life of American liberty, local politics in America have been formative, shaping the character of the communities in which we live. They are an integral part of any ordered life.

Today, unfortunately, such a claim may seem either fanciful or delusional. Local politics are the realm of the inane, the petty, and the corrupt. It is the arena of small minds, arguing over small things, trying to gain small advantages for themselves and their friends. Local politics put the “small” in “small.”

It is not all the local mugwumps’ fault, of course. The federal government has taken most of the governing out of local government. And states have done their part, too, treating cities, towns, and the like as incompetent employees to be constantly overseen and second-guessed as they carry out “mandates” from their betters. But all this has only made worse an already difficult situation, in which public apathy meets with delusions of power and opportunities for small time, but very harmful graft.

Just a brief example of thousands available: A supervisor of a township in which I once resided had the land on three sides of his home rezoned as undeveloped parkland. The same supervisor also took the lead in killing plans for a neighborhood nearby that would have produced a livable community of houses and shops, but increased traffic on the street in front of his house.

Small, Petty, and Utterly Essential

Here is the thing: bad as they often are, local politics are an essential means of protecting our way of life. Stripped of many functions, they still control, to a degree, expressions of public spirit; they still may spend public funds for good or ill on local projects and programs; and they still have power over where and how we live and work.

There still are good towns in America. Some towns are willing to oppose anti-religious bigots by maintaining the maximum expression of faith allowed by current political dogma, and fighting for more. Some towns make room for Christmas, and Easter, and a true Thanksgiving in public places. Much more of our tradition is allowed even by our current, deranged, constitutional law than we see in most areas of America, and some towns live up to that standard.

Some towns still refuse to use taxpayer monies to fund anti-religious “art,” or to fund programs indoctrinating children to reject our traditional way of life.

Some towns have managed to maintain, or even build, decent, livable neighborhoods in which families can spend more time playing, praying, and working together instead of in the car. Some towns have said “no” to the developers and corporate financiers in whose interest it is to turn America into one vast strip mall filled with Wal Marts, Applebee’s, and endless parking lots.

Sometimes the issue is legal. The kinds of neighborhoods in which virtually all Americans grew up until the administration of FDR, without the ½ acre of lawn, but with parks, sidewalks, front porches, and an easy walk to church, school, shops, and even work, are now illegal in most of these United States. Neighborhoods are still destroyed to make way for business parks, or “more efficient” one-way streets, or “public” housing. And the selling of communities to developers only gets worse in bad economic times like we have now.

But some towns have restored our traditional zoning laws and made it possible to build and maintain traditional neighborhoods. To do this, however, they have had to have the right people pushing at the town hall. Towns have needed people to vote the right way, but also people to resist the push for “progress” and “efficiency” that brings destruction. Defending our towns means working, as communities, to shape the living and working environment of roads, shops, and industry. The free market, here, will be shaped either by traditional values or by liberal values that claim to be efficient, but really push the cost of development on taxpayers while promising increased property taxes and jobs that never materialize.

Local politics are small because their scale is small—a human scale. And so the foibles of human nature are on full display. Engaging in local politics can be supremely frustrating. It sometimes seems as if nobody shows up to the meetings unless they want something for themselves at public expense; or unless they are crazy. As a result, good ideas die, or are simply made illegal, even as bad ideas flourish.

What, then, can be done? A great deal, actually. The reason local politics are so bad is that so few people have enough interest to participate—save the wolfishly self-interested and the crazies. So those of us who are willing to be called crazy can, by showing up, petitioning, and arguing, occasionally win. Wal-Mart has not, in fact, been allowed into every town they have sought to victimize. Good neighborhoods are being built and thriving. Developers lose, when they lose, primarily because the local government says “no thanks” to giving developers the shirt off their constituents’ backs—generally because the constituents have made enough noise that they are afraid to do so.

The same principle applies to the rubbish on the public library shelves and in the local schools, as well as the various insanity funded by local “arts” tax dollars. The left runs these programs in almost all communities because they are louder and more willing to fight than are conservatives; they make it all too attractive for us to withdraw and cede the public square to those who hold us in contempt. But, in the communities in which conservatives remain the majority (and that is a lot of America), it is worth the time and effort to be a crazy.

Local public service can mean an investment of time and patience that can be very trying. I still remember my time on the local homeowners’ association with, well, mostly boredom. But, busy as we are with work and family, time invested in our towns can reap very real rewards.

So, if you want to save the world, you ought to consider saving that plot of land by your neighborhood, zoned for a church, from becoming a Wal-Mart.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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