So this happened at a pizza restaurant in my hometown.
My family was dining at a table adjacent to our friends, the Kings. Rick and Sherry King are the people for whom they made up the term “salt of the earth.” As in typical small towns, our lives have intersected in dozens of ways. Our kids played ball together. We’ve served up hot dogs in a concession. We’ve sought each others’ help and expertise in various manners throughout the years.
In chatting with our lifelong friends, it happened that the president’s name came up. I said, “I know you love him, Rick, so I won’t go there.”
He said, “No, Susan, I love you, so I won’t go there.”
In that very sentence, localism won.
Localism is a term journalist David Brooks used in a 2018 column in the New York Times entitled “The Localist Revolution.” In a nutshell, localism is the belief that the best and most effective political and civic change happens on the local level, not the national. He writes, “People really have faith only in the relationships right around them, the change agents who are right on the ground.”
Brooks believes “localism is thriving — as a philosophy and a way of doing things — because the national government is dysfunctional while many towns are reviving.” In my hometown, for example, we are facing numerous challenges trying to recover from a devastating flood and move the town forward. Most of our challenges — political and bureaucratic — have come from outside the town. Our successes are a result of our putting political, social and economic differences aside and working together. “[U]nder localism,” Brooks writes, “the crucial power center is at the tip of the shovel, where the actual work is being done.”
What’s saving Richwood is not so much outside help from the state or federal level; instead, it is local investment in nearly 20 new businesses. Community efforts to operate a biddy basketball league. A yoga class. A cooperative arts and crafts center where artisans take turns running a gift shop and museum. A project that is building a hostel for trail bikers in the former depot. A tech expert who’s repurposing an 80-year-old five-and-dime building as a shared workspace for things like coding, gaming, high speed broadband and more.
Here’s what’s tearing at our nation: the binary, either-or, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us casting of terms like “conservative” or “liberal.” The national media loves this divide. In the same way ESPN knows it will get higher ratings if the game is close, the national media gets higher ratings if they keep everyone in two opposing camps. Various forces — some innocent, some dark — that control the internet for one purpose or another make up hateful names for us and our opponents. They “click bait” us. It’s a war, and we keep looking at our iPhones to see who’s winning. Guess what? We are all losing.
Locally we know we can’t live that way. We have to face each other in the check out line at Walgreens. We have to give the handshake of peace at church. Localism challenges us to make our communities livable and viable and more beautiful for everyone. As Brooks writes, “People are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.”