Posts Tagged ‘localism’

Local Cultures

The cliché is that modern commerce, media, and travel have washed out local cultures. A mall anchored by a Bloomingdale’s in Massachusetts is just like one in Arizona. Starbucks here is like Starbucks there. Everyone coast to coast listens to the same songs and watches the same cable and streaming channels. Except for the weather, the American experience is just about the same.


Curry, Baptism in Kansas, 1928

And yet: We repeatedly run into evidence that at some level, perhaps a quite deep level, America’s local cultures are persistently different, perhaps increasingly different. One example is politics. There is some evidence that Americans increasingly cluster by political leanings–gerrymandering aside–as they look to be among folks who share their tastes. Another example is how interracial and same-sex couples prefer to live in large center-cities. Localities thus become more culturally distinct because “birds of a feather” more easily flock together, sorting themselves into homogeneous enclaves. Beyond that process, however, there is evidence that localities themselves still–even in this globalized era–shape cultural tastes, actually “coloring” the birds’ “feathers.”

Two recent papers from different corners of the social sciences make bold claims about very long-lasting psychological effects of centuries-old local cultures. One study, published in a psychology journal, finds that residents of what were long ago coal-fueled industrial regions of Great Britain have especially “adverse” psychological profiles today because of that history. The second study, this by economists, finds that residents of what were long ago frontier counties of the United States are especially likely today to be “individualistic” and hostile to government because of that history.

Claiming that historical cultures reproduce themselves for generations is not new. Historian David Hackett Fischer (no relation), for example, argued in great detail in his 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, that regions in the U.S. vary culturally today in ways based on who settled them centuries ago. That the Puritans landed in New England and the Quakers in Pennsylvania still matters. Similarly, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen argued in their 1996 book, Culture of Honor, that variations in local rates of lethal violence can be explained by where groups from particular places in the British Isles came ashore–specifically, that immigrants from highlands herding regions brought with them a predilection to respond heatedly to personal challenges which lasts to this day. Long stretches of generations begetting generations and yet cultural distinctiveness lasts.

The two new studies expand the claim.


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Extremely Local

So many people seem to be into being “local” these days. We are urged to shop locally, to eat locally, to act locally (even if we still think globally). This is a new enthusiasm of the left. The ideological right has always tilted local — opposed to the “cosmopolitan.” Americans have generally focused on the local anyway. Just pick up almost any newspaper (aside from that two or three that have tried to be national papers) and see what grabs the headlines.

American political ideas have long reinforced what some might consider people’s “natural” attention to the local community. More strikingly, American political structure reinforces this localism — with some dubious consequences.

This is the topic of my July/August 2013 column in the Boston Review here.

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LeBron & the 10th

Fm: Keith Allison via Flickr

Sports commentators have suggested that one reason LeBron James chose Miami over Cleveland and New York is that Florida has no state income tax while Ohio and New

York do – a difference likely to make quite a difference to someone who will make gazillions of dollars.

This sort of choice, a political scientist might note, would not have happened in almost any other country in the world. I don’t mean hopping teams for tax reasons; apparently soccer players react similarly to tax differences between countries. I mean hopping teams within a country for tax reasons.

And that brings us to the 10th Amendment.

Voices are being raised to amplify the force of the 10th Amendment to the constitution, the plank in the Bill of Rights reserving much authority to the states. It is a plea for more states’ rights,  more local control – more cases like the income tax case, where states have their own laws.

Here is the irony: The U.S. is already one of the most politically decentralized nations (perhaps the most) in the modern world.  The unusually high degree of local authority is one of our distinctive features. Is that good or the bad? That depends.

The historical trend has been away from localism – although not much by world standards. Is that good or bad? That depends.


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