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A Way to Tamp Down the Toxic Politics of National Identity

Rather than end our 'uncivil war,' our efforts to find a shared American identity have left us more divided than ever. In the search for unity, we should look to a revived focus on local identity.

Indianapolis skyline.
Indianapolis, an example of a city with a strong local identity. (Shutterstock
Shutterstock
A central promise of the calls for unity that now saturate our public sphere is that a renewed focus on American identity — not partisan identity — will usher in a more humane politics. If only we could remember our shared national identity, it is said, we could reduce polarization and end what President Biden has called our "uncivil war." Numerous well-funded initiatives with this goal in mind have sprung up, such as the Aspen Institute's Citizenship and American Identity Program, whose aim is to "promote a shared sense of national identity."

But here we are, despite widespread emphasis on national identity, more divided than ever.

The persistent "national identity" framing might be part of the problem. In reality, settling the content of American identity isn't a prerequisite for tackling other issues — it is itself our most divisive issue. The defining political battle of our polarized age, as a trio of political scientists recently argued, is an "identity crisis" over what it means to be an American.

In a country transitioning from mono- to multi-ethnic democracy, this reckoning is unavoidable. And recognizing previously excluded contributions to the American story is noble, essential work. But premising unity on national identity is counterproductive. Besides being especially contentious, the culture-war politics of national identity is disorienting. We are asking of national identity something that, in a pluralistic society, it cannot provide, leaving us still more disappointed and angry.

There is another way: Supplement the high-stakes politics of national identity with a revived focus on local identity.

After all, national identity is not our only source of commonality. We are also all residents — in effect, members — of states, and most of us of cities or towns; some of us identify the counties we live in as home. This simple fact has been greatly neglected in conversations about both polarization and unity, a victim of the relentless nationalization of American politics. A commitment to localism promises ready-made practices, institutions and narrative resources to lower the partisan temperature and reorient American politics for the better.

'The New Localism'

Local governance has recently enjoyed a renaissance of ambition and hope that starkly contrasts with national-level polarization. This spirit, which urban scholars Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call "the New Localism," has already realized impressive and pragmatic progress in such areas as transit and inclusive-growth economic policy. It's time to harness localism in service of an ethic of community civic pride.

Cities and states ground us with sources of affection more concrete than inscrutable national identity — something closer to hand and to heart. The coronavirus pandemic has encouraged a great re-centering of attention, reminding us of the irreplaceability of proximate contact — neighborhood block parties, co-ops, mutual aid networks. These are inklings of the broader shift in the sources of common meaning and understanding that localism allows.

Localism isn't just supporting your professional sports teams. It's organizing local festivals and civic traditions; frequenting public spaces; supporting small businesses; learning about local history. Localism is a patriotism of place, an ethos of civic pride in the idiosyncrasies and particular values that distinguish your city or town from all others.

My hometown, Indianapolis, celebrated its bicentennial last year with an unprecedentedly inclusive planning process about the principles and values that will guide "the community's collective vision" on land use, transit, housing, development and much more. "Plan 2020" describes what Indy "can become" with firm roots in the particular of what it means to call this place home, such as punching above our medium size to host world-class sporting and conference events and nurturing our deeply collaborative, friendly spirit.

But localism doesn't mean provincialism. Plan 2020 reveals how Indy's identity isn't grounded in a monolithic understanding of this place, but rather in an ongoing conversation. At its best, localism makes room for experiment and critique, within enough visible commonality to anchor feelings of attachment, belonging and pride.

Making Partisanship Irrelevant

If this sounds sentimental, or merely aesthetic, it's meant to, at least partly. The point is to mobilize the symbolic resources of more proximate homes that are easier to rally around, combating the social alienation many have identified as a core contributor of zero-sum politics.

And this is key to local identity's ability to ease polarization. Social scientists increasingly emphasize the importance of "crosscutting identities": associations that increase contact between typically siloed groups. The beauty of encouraging civic engagement at the level of cities and (perhaps especially) states is that it provides the diversity required for those forms of contact, and it does so within a community identity whose meaning is typically less controversial than that of national identity.

Moreover, these are modes of interaction in which partisanship and other channels of division are not so much dampened as irrelevant, facilitating the kind of pre-political trust and conversational competencies required to productively discuss national identity. So while localism won't replace national political cooperation, it suggests, perhaps, a stronger foundation.

Besides invigorating civic spirit and dampening polarization, localism offers overlooked solutions to other major political pathologies. Consider federalism, the relationship among levels of government. Our dismal coronavirus response is only the latest breakdown in intergovernmental coordination, thanks to a system in which, because state elections increasingly turn on national divisions and issues rather than local ones, "state government lacks meaningful accountability or representation," as legal scholar David Schleicher documents. Affirming the importance of local identity is the first step to rebalancing our attention and energies to cities and, building on that, to states. Otherwise, newly fashionable efforts to devolve power out of gridlocked Washington will only transplant national polarization to local soil.

The local lens can help shore up governmental legitimacy and trust, too. In an age of political alienation and populism, the abstract principles of liberal democracy — separation of powers, respect for rights, the rule of law — need tangible embodiment to sustain citizen allegiance. They need visibility. A place-based focus promises to ground policy discourse in a vocabulary that speaks to everyday concerns. Moreover, local engagement often produces quicker results with a more obvious link to citizen action.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of localism is also the simplest: Politics doesn't have to feel this way. The toxicity of the past decade notwithstanding, we are wrong to equate political life with endless, demoralizing struggle. It needn't be so. To see how, we should look not up, but down.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford
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