The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Twelve
ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL

THE PERSISTENCE OF LOCALISM IN
TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICA

Thomas J. Sugrue

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY witnessed a remarkable expansion of the power of the federal government. An increasingly powerful executive branch supplanted the state of “courts and parties.” Im- perial ventures, two world wars, and a cold war dramatically extended the power of the military and the state’s influence over key sectors of the economy. After World War II, a new “proministrative state” consolidated power in the hands of bureaucrats and experts. Witness the profusion of new government agencies, the alphabet soup of federal social and eco- nomic programs, and the staggering growth of public-sector employ- ment.1 Despite the irrefutable expansion of central government power, particularly in the executive branch, one of the most distinctive features of the twentieth-century American state remains the persistence of localism.

In the early twentieth century, it seemed that localism would soon be a vestige of the past. In a complex, interconnected society, linked by rail, automobile, telephone, and telegraph, local identities were increasingly attenuated. The face-to-face contacts that dominated commerce and poli- tics were profoundly disrupted by modernity.2 Political parties, long tied to the local world of ritual and participation, waned as new forms of advertised politics took their place.3 It is something of a historian’s cliche´ to note that already by the late nineteenth century, the singular “United States” had supplanted the plural “these United States.” But explanations of government growth that rest explicitly or implicitly on modernization theory are belied by a far more complicated reality. Despite the pulls of modernity, the dramatic growth in the federal government’s power and administrative apparatus, and the decline of local political parties, lo- calism remained surprisingly resilient. As Eric Monkkonen has forcefully argued, the American state stands apart for its “system of local govern-

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