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The arguments for and against more powerful local government

Recently, NewsHour analyst David Brooks wrote a New York Times column arguing that it's time for a resurgence of localism, flipping power and decision-making away from the federal government. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, another NewsHour regular, says that idea fails to take account of the elephant in the room in America: race. They both join Judy Woodruff to talk about it.

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  • John Yang:

    Now, how blowback to a New York Times column on localism led to a conversation on race with two “NewsHour” regulars.

    It’s the latest installment in our Race Matters series.

    Judy Woodruff recorded the discussion earlier this week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It’s no secret that American politics is polarized today, starting here in Washington, with a bitter partisan divide on display every day.

    Our own Friday regular analyst David Brooks wrote a column for The New York Times recently arguing it’s time for a fundamental, even revolutionary shift to a resurgence of localism, flipping power and decision-making on its head, directing it to people in neighborhoods and towns and away from the federal government.

    His column drew a sharp critical response from someone who’s a familiar face to the “NewsHour.”

    So, we thought we would invite both of them here to talk about it.

    And here they are.

    I’m joined by David Brooks of The New York Times, whom you normally see here on Fridays, and Sherrilyn Ifill, who is the president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, David, revolutionary idea, turn power on its head. Why?

  • David Brooks:

    First, it wasn’t that sharp a response.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Several months ago, at the Aspen Institute, I started something called Weave: The Social Fabric Project.

    And our job is to find people who are doing community work and to illuminate what they’re doing to try to change the culture around them. So, I spend half my days doing — talking to national politicians, who are miserable and getting nothing done, and just locked in this media circus and abstract ideological warfare.

    And then I spend the other half my time around the country with local organizations ,with local cities and towns. And they’re all happy and fulfilled because they’re actually getting something done.

    And 66 percent of Americans think their own locality is doing well. And only 18 percent trust the federal government. And so what occurred to me was that it’s not only local power, but it’s a different kind of power. It’s not abstract. It’s not ideological. It’s much more pragmatic. It’s much more personal, and it’s much more tangible.

    And it seems to me, in an age where nothing’s getting done in Washington, it’s a better kind of power being wielded at the local level. So it was just sort of saying, let’s do that. Let’s move down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you think it could work practically?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, not for everything. Not for national defense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    But for schools, even for immigration. Let’s take — immigration is a tough issue. It’s a national issue. People move around.

    Some people, including me, really love immigration. We want to welcome a lot of immigrants into our communities. And some people don’t like it. They don’t think diversity is more — on net a negative thing.

    So you could have an immigration system, as some have proposed, where people, their first step, they have to have a community sponsor. And so some cities could say, yes, come to us, we want you. And some cities could say, no, don’t come to us.

    And that at least with defuse some of what has become this bitterly divisive issue. It would defuse it a little. And different communities could solve — could solve — even on an issue of immigration, which is pretty national, they could sort of lean toward their own best methods.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Sherrilyn Ifill, your reaction was, whoa.

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    Hold up.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    Well, because I also think it’s important for local communities to find and feel and exercise their own power.

    It’s actually critically important, particularly at this moment, for the communities that I represent around civil rights issues, because the federal government is so hostile to civil rights issues.

    But to say this without recognizing that local forces are not always as benign or as integrated and — as the way David described in the piece, I think, fails to take account of the elephant that sits in the middle of the room whenever we talk about politics and divisiveness in this country.

    And that is race. And that the history of this country demonstrates that, actually, racial politics have been fought most passionately at the local level and most divisively at the local level, and sometimes most dangerously at the local level.

    If we think about the kind of watershed moment of Brown vs. Board of Education, what the court said is, local voices have to control the process. They should proceed with all deliberate speed, taking account of local conditions.

    And we all know what happened. Massive resistance happened. It actually opened the door to localities to resist the federal imprimatur that came from the Brown decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you’re — you’re really saying you can’t look at government without looking at race.

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    You can’t. It’s the elephant sitting in the middle of the room.

    And it makes people act against their own interests. So, even when you have local matters that should — that everyone should be on board with, you find these blockages happening because of the issue of race and because we’re so unresolved around race.

    And so what it seems to me can happen is that local communities, if we celebrate this, if we romanticize it, without the pragmatism about the role of race in local politics, is that we’re essentially leaving African-American and other minority communities disempowered.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David?

  • David Brooks:

    Well, so my first reaction was, good point.

    And that’s why some people speak of what they call constitutional localism, where you emphasize some parts of power that devolves to local level, but you make it very clear that the Constitution, the constitutional protections for civil rights are still maintained at the federal level.

    But the thing — the second thought I had was — and I really wanted to ask you about this — in, say, Brown and those era — in the ’50s and ’60s, it was very clear the national government was much more a force for civil rights than states, especially in the South.

    What’s happened since is that our national political alignments now overlap with our racial divisions. And so it seems to me now it’s as much and maybe more national politicians who are whipping up racial animosities for their own political gain.

    And I think — I can’t think of a governor, for example, who is as racially divisive as Donald Trump is. And it could be that..

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    The Maine governor, LePage?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    Well, OK. I didn’t want to go from one case by case.

    But it seems to me that, in general, right now, Donald Trump is the center of whipping up racial animosity in this country. And the federal government is no longer as benign, I guess, is the word I want to use, no longer has the advantage over state governments that it used to have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that?

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    So,I think this is important, because the role that you talk about, the history of the federal government playing this role, and now it being kind of flipped on its head, is not really one about feelings and choice. It’s actually constitutionally compelled.

    People talk about our First Amendment rights and our Second Amendment rights. Our 14th Amendment rights are that it is the role of the federal government. And to the extent the federal government through Donald Trump is choosing to abdicate that responsibility, what I’m suggesting is, it would be very nice to say, you know, we’re going to put in our marbles and we’re just going to go to the local.

    I think, for some things, we can do that. But for many things that go to the core of civil rights, we cannot. It’s when we talk about community policing and the importance of the relationship between communities and law enforcement.

    But the recognition that deep and substantive and structural racial problems in police departments require the intervention of the federal government, that’s what we have seen since Ferguson. That’s what we seen in Baltimore. That’s what we’re seeing in Chicago.

    It was the federal government, because the locality would never have addressed what was this very — and is this very serious problem of police violence against unarmed African-Americans.

    So, when you have then Attorney General Jeff Sessions say, we will no longer, in the Department of Justice, investigate patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing, to say we’re going to just return it to the local, it’s not going to happen at the local level.

  • David Brooks:

    And so that’s why I — the emphasis on the Constitution, I think that’s something we both agree on.

    But I guess I would say first that Jeff Sessions is not an accident, that he could have — he could — and the policies that are now not coming in Washington could be a more or less permanent part of our national government, just because of the way politics is now racially aligned.

    And it seems to be a lot of our big problems having to do with segregation other things, and all the racial animosities, do not have primarily a political solution. They have a communal and sociological solution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a middle ground here, where we — you could see, David, doing some of the things you’re talking about, but respecting the things that Sherrilyn outlined?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes. I wouldn’t say it’s middle ground. There’s a patchwork.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    OK.

  • David Brooks:

    There’s things that clearly have to be done…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Brooks:

    … from the national level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Better.

  • David Brooks:

    But, to me, the — one of the things undergirding a lot of the, frankly, resentment, which is racial and economic and comes out in every different way, is just loneliness, isolation, distrust, and alienation.

    And that core sense that I have no friends, I’m lonely, I distrust my institutions, I distrust the people around me, that sense is a sociological sense. And that is what really inflames racial resentment, us-them thinking, zero sum.

    And so to me, at the bottom, it’s racism expanded and exaggerated by the sense of distrust of alienation. And that’s a social problem as much as a political problem. And it only hasn’t a social solution.

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    Yes, but I think the animating feature of racism is, for white people, the fear of being displaced, the fear that this a zero sum game, the fear of getting mine, and also the stoking — and this is what’s most scary, that it’s coming from the national — is the othering of black people, and the idea that black people are somehow not fully human.

    This really is not about one’s internal loneliness and angst. This is a true and very serious sociological force in the U.S., and always has been. And it is being expanded in ways that I find quite frightening.

    So, I do think that there are places and instances where local power is important. And, in political talk, we spend too much time talking about the national, and not enough about the local.

    What I want to do is just pump the brakes on the idea that we can romanticize the local without first overlaying race and recognizing the way in which race makes all of what would be the logical conclusions, all of the ways in which we would bind together around our shared loneliness not happen.

    And they don’t happen because of racism. And the history of this country is that we have required the intervention of the federal government, went to that post-Civil War reordering, to ensure the protection of the rights of racial minorities to be full citizens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, whether it’s a quilt or a mosaic or something else…

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    You can’t leave it out.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … it’s the beginning of a really important conversation.

    David Brooks, thank you for bringing it up.

    Sherrilyn Ifill, thank you for engaging.

    And we’re going to come back to this. Thank you both.

  • Sherrilyn Ifill:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • John Yang:

    You can find all of the stories in our Race Matters series on our Web site.

    That’s PBS.org/NewsHour.

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