Our towns

Right from the start, liberalism has had trouble with places– by which I mean, the real, physical environments we live in, both natural and human-made. It’s a problem that’s reaching crisis proportions here in the new millenium, and it’s hitting both the neo-liberal, all-the-world’s-a-market crowd (now often called conservatives) and the vaguely-progressive, decent-government crowd (now often called liberals).

In some ways the problem goes back to John Locke himself, in the late seventeenth century. Most strands of today’s liberalism start from his book The Second Treatise of Government, which laid out the idea of the social contract, the mutual commitment each of us makes with the society we live in. Nature gave us full-frontal liberty to raise any kind of hell we want, Locke said there, but we all give up some of that liberty to get the benefits society gives us– law and order, schooling, roads, and all the rest. He believed it was an overwhelmingly sensible bargain, since otherwise we’d live in constant fear someone else would raise hell at our expense.

But being a smart guy, Locke also saw the obvious objection to his contract idea. Most of us were just born into our societies. We didn’t choose the place, and there’s no document where we’ve signed away our liberty in exchange for whatever benefits we’re supposed to be getting. What kind of contract is this, where there’s no free choice, no documentation, no list of obligations, not even a chance to renegotiate if the other side doesn’t keep its end of the bargain?

Locke’s answer was, we actually re-sign the contract every day, just by staying put and continuing to use the roads, schools, Medicare, and all the rest. If we think it’s a bad deal, we’ve got an out-clause: we can just move somewhere else. To his credit, Locke actually walked the walk when the time came. When he got into trouble with the British government, he skipped the country and spent five years in exile. Eventually there was a revolution and he got to come home, but he left with no guarantee that would happen.

In some ways, of course, it’s easy to dismiss Locke, or think of him as speaking to us from an alien, by-gone world. He was rich and famous, and he had ultra-rich friends watching over him, so packing up and leaving wasn’t the struggle it is for us ordinary people. Plus he wasn’t much of a family man, so there wasn’t a lot at home holding him back; and the world was more immigration-friendly back then, with more empty spaces and fewer controls on movement.

But in milder form, versions of Locke’s just-move-out advice reach us every day, from all points on the ideological spectrum. The free-marketeers are constantly telling us to move where the jobs are; if your factory shuts down or you can’t make a living farming, learn new skills and head for North Carolina or Silicon Valley, or wherever the Next New Thing is happening. On the more progressive end of the spectrum, the line is awfully similar. Democrats are as keen as Republicans on telling workers to reeducate themselves for the new jobs the future holds. Those most horrified by the Brexit vote would probably describe themselves as liberal minded and progressive– and yet just like the Republicans, they love the idea of people as Lockean birds-on-a-wire, able to move friction-free from one end of the continent to the other.

The problem is, for most people that doesn’t fit with our emotional make-up– it doesn’t even fit with our beliefs about right and wrong. Most of us actually don’t want to leave the places we live, even if we’ve got the necessary money and credentials, even if the good jobs are waiting elsewhere. We’re attached to families and communities, and most of us are attached to physical environments as well. We like our houses and streets, the background scenery, and we’ve got memories attached to them. Leaving all these behind damages us, and most of us feel some sense of responsibility to them. That tendency to get attached is actually one of the best qualities we humans have.

(Of course attachment takes different forms for different people, and one size doesn’t fit all: lots of us dislike the particular place we grew up in, yet still feel ourselves connected to the region or country.  The point remains, the attachment is there, and it deserves respect.)

Just like Brexit before it, the 2016 US presidential election has been frequently described in terms of class conflict, between the up-and-comers surfing the recent economic changes and those left behind, in the old industrial heartlands.

But another way to see it is as the revenge of the localities– because if you just go by number of places, 2016 was a Donald Trump landslide of epic proportions, way more emphatic than his Electoral College results. He won 2,600 counties across America, leaving fewer than 500 for Hillary Clinton. Of course, lots of those Trump counties have more cows, deer and antelope, and scenic beauty spots than people. Clinton’s fewer-than-500 counties had enough residents to give her about 3 million more votes than Trump, and they generated way more economic activity than Trump’s 2,600, almost two-thirds of America’s GDP. (“A massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity,” as the Democrat-leaning Brookings Institution misleadingly puts it; they also describe it as “high-output America vs low-output America”– some contemporary Democrats seem ready to adopt the nineteenth-century conservative mantra that government ought to represent wealth, not people.)

So in 2016 places basically won out over people, which from one angle is a completely bizarre result– as lots of disappointed Clinton voters have pointed out. After all, “democracy” means “rule by the people,” not “rule by square miles.”

But it’s not a bizarre outcome if you take seriously the kinds of attachment to places that I’m trying to describe here. From that angle, it’s appropriate to give places some kind of weight in the democratic process, not 100 percent, but not 0 percent either. In various moods and circumstances, all of us recognize some version of that idea. All the patriotic songs we learned in grade school say much more about land than people: “purple mountains,” “fruited plains,” “land where our fathers died,” all that kinds of thing.

That singalong patriotism usually appeals to right-wingers, but we lefties have our own versions. We support the Sioux protesters at Standing Rock, who object to having a petroleum pipeline run through their ancestral land; we take that position because we think the land’s meaning to the Sioux outweighs the desires of the millions of outsiders who want cheaper oil and gas. In the same spirit, we don’t want oil drilling in national parks, or skyscrapers in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, or freeways through Greenwich Village. We understand that places like Jerusalem have special meanings for many people, whether or not we share the relevant belief systems, and we don’t think those people just need acreage and houses; they need the spiritual attachment they feel to that specific place, and moving them to upstate New York (say) would not be an adequate replacement. Liberalism needs to incorporate some of that understanding as it pertains to less glamorous places, like all those dilapidated mill towns that voted for Brexit and Trump, and that in a few months may well vote for Le Pen as well.

Those votes ought to be crisis enough for the liberal understanding of place, but in case not, there’s also the Big One looming– the crapification of planet Earth itself. If we can’t think more seriously about ordinary places, give them more respect, what answers do we give those telling us not to get so wound up about this specific planet?