The idea of looking downstream for action and answers has long been a basic tenet of conservatives, who tend to distrust centralized power. But Robert Putnam, the former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a self-described “good liberal Democrat,” says that localism is increasingly embraced by those on the left as well.
“Probably 30 years ago decentralization was kind of a right-wing view,” says Mr. Putnam, who, along with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, is the author of a new book, “The Upswing,” which explores how the nation’s social and communal fabric has frayed over the decades and how it might be restored. In the 1960s, segregationists battled the federal government by invoking “states’ rights” to fend off efforts to integrate schools and other institutions, while liberals embraced centralized power as a way to force reform.Now, says Mr. Putnam, “There’s been a change in that view on the left. Increasing numbers of people on the left also think that decentralization would be a good idea.” In the last few years, a growing number of young liberals have switched their focus from national to local politics, seeing work in their own communities as a better way to expand the stockpile of affordable housing, raise wages for low-income people and address racial tensions.
In Duluth, Minn., a city of about 85,000 on Lake Superior, community leaders were so alarmed about the tenor of public discourse that in 2003 they decided to launch a program called “Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project,” which established ground rules for those taking part in debates about local issues—a system that community leaders credit with working through difficult debates over municipal belt-tightening and a new ordinance on paid sick leave.
Since then, requests from other communities seeking to replicate the program have poured in, and Duluth leaders have shared their experience with more than 100 communities from coast to coast. “We have been especially busy in the last few years,” says Rob Karwath, former executive editor of the Duluth News Tribune and now a consultant to the Speak Your Peace project.
One community that picked up the program was the town of Sisters, Ore., which found itself several years ago falling into angry divisions as it grappled with a split between old-time residents and newer arrivals over how to handle growth. So in 2016 it adopted the Speak Your Peace format to lower the temperature.
And this year, it has found that the program has helped deal with an entirely new 2020 issue: relations between the community and law enforcement. Sisters had no desire to slip into the kind of tensions between police and community that have rocked Portland up the road. One step it took to avoid that fate was to host this month an online forum in which citizens could talk directly with local police officers.
“It was awesome,” says Amy Burgstahler, a co-founder of the Citizens4Community organization that hosted the meeting. “People were, like, ‘Wow, I’m feeling more at ease’ … It was never our goal to send a specific message. Our goal was to let people talk.”