The Small Community Revival: Solving Social Problems On a Human Scale

The revitalization of our federal system of government promises to be one of the enduring legacies of the administration of Ronald Reagan. Certainly it has been an essential ingredient in its electoral success. Ronald Reagan has understood the essence of federalism in a way that few other conservative public figures have in recent decades. Until he came on the scene, the conventional conservative view of federalism was that it served primarily to fragment the power of government, thereby protecting the realm of individual freedom. Federalism, in short, was simply a part of the broader doctrine of “rugged individualism” that characterized conservatism for so long.

The problem with this doctrine of rugged individualism and with the view of federalism it suggested was that it was profoundly unappealing to the American public, in spite of the fact that individualism is an important part of the American political tradition. It was unappealing because it neglected another important aspect of human character, namely, the yearning for community. As sociologist Robert Nisbet put it, “The quest for community will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature — needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status and community.”

Liberalism, on the other hand, understood and capitalized upon precisely this aspect of human nature. For much of the twentieth century, it successfully counter posed to conservatism’s doctrine of individualism a doctrine of national community. According to, that doctrine, Americans must put aside selfish interests, and come to think of themselves as members of one great, unified national family — a national small town, if you will. This vision of national community has been at the center of liberal presidential rhetoric for much of this century; perhaps the prime example being President Kennedy’s exhortation to us to ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Candidate Walter Mondale tried to fit himself into this tradition, with a similar exhortation; again and again in the course of the 1984 campaign, he urged, “Let us be a community, a family where we can care for each other.” And one of the Democratic Party’s greatest orators, New York Governor Mario Cuomo takes as his chief metaphor the vision of America as a great family.

Furthermore, all the great liberal programs of this century flowed from this vision of national oneness: a massive federal welfare system and a progressive income tax would level out income differences, thereby promoting national homogeneity; an active regulatory system would tame the potentially disruptive business corporation; and an aggressive federal judiciary would strike down archaic local laws and customs, in the name of integrating previously marginal religious, ethnic, social, and political groups into the broader national community. Needless to say, all this implied an ever more powerful central government, and a de-emphasis, or even a denigration, of the states and local government.

The doctrine of national community — building so successfully upon the yearning for community — kept liberalism in power and provided it with an agenda from 1932 until the early 60s. But during the 60s, the full price of this vision of national community began to become apparent. For our purposes today, that price was a heavy-handed, federal interference with the customs and ways of life of the states and local communities. The South particularly resented the former variety of intervention, and the blue-collar, white ethnic neighborhoods of the East and Midwest particularly resented the latter variety. During the Johnson Administration’s version of national community (aptly named the “Great Society”), those groups revolted against liberalism, fueled George Wallace’s presidential ambitions, and ultimately began to move over into the Republican party column.

Unhappily for liberalism, it had run up against another great truth about human nature and the American character: namely, while Americans are willing and occasionally even eager to respond to appeals for national community, they also have a fundamental attachment to local community. Within local communities — in the churches, block clubs, lodges, and ethnic and voluntary associations that compose them — Americans truly find that sense of rootedness, belonging, and community for which they yearn. Essential to the preservation of the local community, however, is the ability of its members to define for themselves a way of life, a moral and social structure that will bind them together. It may be idiosyncratic, parochial, and narrow-minded, but it is theirs, and it will be fiercely defended.

During the 60s, the federal government — through bureaucratic edict and judicial fiat — seemed to have launched a massive assault upon those particular ways of life. States and localities were told they could neither pray in the local school, nor ban forms of expression considered pornographic and offensive, nor enforce standards of sexual conduct considered appropriate, nor deal efficiently with their criminal elements. In the name of integrating marginal racial groups into the broader national community, local housing convenants fell, seniority lists of union locals were disrupted, and, above all, children were bused from the hallowed neighborhood school to distant destinations. The reaction to all this was a revolt of the neighborhoods in the 60s and 70s, and a dramatic revival of the spirit of the small, local community.

During this period, it was part of Ronald Reagan’s political genius to understand this small community revival, and to move it to the center of his political messages and campaigns. And he did so by linking it to the idea of federalism. Nowhere is this linkage clearer than in his “Let the People Rule” speech (better known as the “Ninety Billion Dollar Turnback” speech) from the 1976 campaign. (As Michael Deaver noted in his biography of the Reagans, that speech served as something of a charter, not only for that unsuccessful presidential bid, but also for the first term of his presidential administration.) The heart of that message, as you may recollect, was a call to “reverse the flow of power to Washington,” through a “systematic transfer of resources to the states — a program of creative federalism for America’s Third Century.” But the important element in the speech was that he defended this program of federalism not as conservatives theretofore typically had — namely, as a way to shore up rugged individualism — but rather as a way to accommodate the small community revival. As he put it in the speech, “I am calling also for an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale — the scale that human beings can understand and cope with; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church congregation, the block club, the farm bureau….It is this activity on a small, human scale that creates the fabric of community.”

It has been Ronald Reagan’s ability to articulate this idea of small community federalism over the years, I would suggest, that explains a large part of his political appeal. Through that doctrine, he has attracted to conservatism and to the Republican party, possibly for decades to come, a significant part of the small community constituency that had risen against the federal government in the 60s and 70s. But it is important to note that this idea of small community federalism is more than a political slogan — it is in fact the beginning of a return to the understanding of federalism held by many of the Founding Fathers of the Republic. As Herbert Storing has pointed out, the states were important to many of the Founders precisely because they were capable of being genuine communities, within which a coherent moral and social structure could be defined, full participation in political life encouraged, and a true republican citizenry thereby shaped. The small community impulse, in other words, was very much a part of the Founding of the Republic, and accounts for the federal features of the Constitution. It is no accident, then, that President Reagan should have turned to those federal features as a way of responding to the revival of the small community impulse almost two hundred years later.

Notwithstanding the centrality of small community federalism in President Reagan’s message, and in his two presidential terms, I fear that many of those who serve him, and many of those who would carry on after him, do not fully appreciate the importance of that idea. The problem is, of course, that the idea of community was, for so long, the exclusive province of liberalism, that conservatives remain profoundly uncomfortable with it. It is so much easier, so much more natural, for them to speak the language of individualism, and so to explain federalism in terms of economic efficiency — as a cheaper way to collect the garbage and fill the potholes.

The danger here is that, if conservatives abandon the idea of small community federalism and fall back on rugged individualism, they leave their constituency perilously exposed to a renewed communitarian appeal from the left. As I noted earlier, Governor Cuomo is waiting in the wings with just such an appeal. The yearning for community will not be denied; President Reagan successfully articulated a conservative way to respond to that yearning; and it will be unfortunate, indeed, if those who would follow him do not grasp the centrality of federalism in that response.

Whether or not this administration appreciates what it has wrought, there has been, over the past six years, a dramatic revival of the states and local government as active, effective agents of the nation’s welfare. Washington has been, and is likely to remain for some time to come, wholly preoccupied with a massive federal budget deficit. Meanwhile, in area after area, the states have taken on some of the most perplexing and difficult social problems before us. They are experimenting with workfare programs as a way to address the problem of welfare dependency; they are developing innovative ways to hold down the growth of Medicaid costs; they are experimenting with new approaches to job training; they have raced ahead of Washington in the creation of “enterprise zones”; they have begun to launch venture capital programs to provide seed money for new businesses.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the revival of the states and the decline of the role of the federal government is to be found in the area of education. Several years ago the National Commission of Excellence in Education released a report claiming that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Twenty years ago that statement would have provoked a massive and costly federal education initiative; one can only imagine what a Lyndon Johnson could have done with such a study. But today, there is not — because there cannot be — a costly federal response. Instead, the states took charge, and tackled the problem energetically, with countless initiatives involving teacher training and certification, teacher career ladders, “master teacher” programs, and student testing for minimum competency. Over 250 task forces were formed at the state level to study every aspect of the education problem, and thousands of education bills were introduced into state legislatures. The result of all this activity, I would argue, is a widespread feeling that the tide of mediocrity has crested, and perhaps has even begun to fall — and for that we have to thank our revitalized system of federalism.

The task before this administration over the next year and a half, I would suggest, is to focus national attention on this outpouring of innovation from the states, and on the fact that “new federalism” is alive and well, the absence of authorizing legislation to the contrary notwithstanding. That activity should be linked to the revival of the small community sentiment, and to the constitutional framework that gives expression to that sentiment, through our system of decentralist federalism. The doctrine of small community federalism — and its realization through a rejuvenated state system — could well be the enduring legacy of this administration. It will be appreciated as such, however, only if that administration understands what brought it to office, and what it has accomplished, once in office.

We have heard much about the need to develop a new way to “package” federalism. It would be un-necessary — indeed, it would be unwise — to do so. The president has done that for us. All that’s necessary now is that we try to understand the secret of his success.


William A. Schambra is the director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. At the time he wrote this article, he was Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.