THE LOCALISM THAT UNDERPINS GOVERNOR BAKER’s POLITICAL SUCCESS

Baker two

^ localism at work : Governor baker signs Criminal Justice Reform bill, with StRep Jeffrey Sanchez behind him, StRep Sheila Harrington next, and Speaker Robert DeLeo and Attorney General Maura Healey to his right.

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Recently New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of what he called “the new localism” that he sees taking charge of the nation’s political future. (You can read Brooks’s column here : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/opinion/national-politics-localism-populism.html )

He sees correctly. It has often been true that when central governments lose their sinew, power devolves to the locality, where personal connection takes over from capital city officials. It was so in 9th Century France: after the tremendous centralizing success of Charlemagne’;s 44 year rule, a succession of ever weaker Carolingian rulers presided ever more minimally over the increasing authority of a number of local dukes and  counts. A similar localizing took place throughout Western Europe in the 6th Century, as Germanic invaders degraded, and then erased the power of the Emperor and his bureaucracy. How could it be otherwise ? People living in community, rather than singly as hermits, need to agree on some sort of common rule, with an agreed-upon authority to enforce them. Local rule means, perforce, difference : every locality sees itself from its own point of view.

We don’t live in the 6th Century or the 9th, and communication between localities, hardly possible then, is available to all today and is used by all. Nonetheless, local customs are arising upon local conversations that differ from place to place. The needs of Boston, in respect of flooding, traffic, and impossible housing prices, are not the same as the needs of, say, Charlotte in North Carolina or Chicago, St. Louis, Spokane, or Duluth in Minnesota. Nor is the population of Boston at all the same as that of these other locations. We’re very much a polyglot, immigrant city; Duluth certainly is not, nor Spokane; t.he other cities, less homogeneous but hardly major immigrant destinations. Thus each of these places, and thousands more, in today’s America, have responded to national dysfunction and gridlock by taking the power of innovation and decision into our own hands.

Nothing about Boston’s localism — so notable for its innovation, self-starting, and experimentalist conversations about every reality of Boston life — more vividly shows what we’re like than the political success of Governor Charlie Baker. He is a registered Republican and everybody. knows it; yet despite our locality’s almost universal distaste for Mr. Trump, who also claims to be a Republican, Baker is viewed favorably by at least 70 percent of voters, and by a higher percentage of Democrats than of Republicans. What is going on here ?

Granted, that Massachusetts voters vote the person, not the party; 53 percent of our voters belong to no party — a higher percentage than in any other state that registers voters according to party preference. (Not all States do that.) Yet I don’t think that Baker’s success results entirely, or even chiefly, from our voters’ independence of mind. I think it arises from our strongly local command of the conversation, the agenda, and the power of doing. We have long held the view that a Republican Governor is better able than a Democrat to referee disputes among factions of our overwhelmingly Democratic legislature; and Baker has certainly been as successful a referee as any before him. But that tradition does not account for the almost universal respect that almost every elected has for him and his priorities.

I think we’ve simply decided that we will govern our state, and manage our cities, the way we want to, without regard for the word salads cooked up in Washington and, indeed, in opposition to them. If Washington sends us lemons, we make lemonade. If it confuses us, we talk around it. If it disrupts us, we build our own eruption., If it denigrates our immigrants, or our LGBT people, or women seeking health care, or people of color, or businesses that tariffs destroy, we uplift them all, safeguard them, economically enable them. Last year at his “State of the State” speech, Governor Baker concluded by saying, “I don’t represent Washington to Massachusetts, I represent Massachusetts to Washington.” That was a strong defiance at the time; today he has gone farther still. The legislation signed .his year by him, and the taxes and fees approved, and the bond bills, have very little to do with — indeed, contradict — the economic agendas that command Republicans in Congress; and of course, none of what Baker and the legislature have done has anything to do with the odd messages tweeted by Mr. Trump.

Not everyone understands the localist movement that Baker has dominated, much less why. Several candidates, who dub themselves “progressives” or “super left” (in one case) are challenging incumbent legislators on platforms addressed more to the misdeeds and reactionary policies of Mr. Trump than on local matters.  Their messages sound oddly dissonant, given the context — as if they had wandered by mistake into the wrong conversation. The legislature of 2018 is not an arena for reshaping the national Democratic message, and one suspects that the September primary will ill reward these candidacies.

We in Massachusetts hardly realize how uncommon the Baker success is, or his partnership with a legislature overwhelmingly/ Democratic. Only Maryland has anything like it — and Maryland, like Massachusetts, is essentially a city state dominated by its major city and thus a ready candidate for dynamic localism. In most states of our nation today, partisan warfare is the rule, similar to that in Washington. I doubt that this situation can continue. Even in states sharply divided by party, localities are making policy decisions regardless of those divisions. As cities in these states — Atlanta in Georgia, Omaha in Nebraska, Salt Lake City in Utah, Minneapolis in Minnesota, Madison in Wisconsin, Columbus in Ohio, Birmingham and Lee County in Alabama, and several cities in Texas — become huge economic dynamos, local autonomy in all of them ramps up. Governor Baker will soon have imitators of his success, because there will be more and more voters who promote local politicians for local reasons that will bring back to our two major parties (and especially to the Republican party) the diversity of interests that characterized them during our long period of “union and liberty, indivisible,” as Daniel Webster once orated.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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