Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory last week has many hydra-headed explanations, with no shortage of pundits with perfect hindsight to proffer them. Joel Kotkin, the author and Chapman University geographer, thinks he has part of the answer: A strong distaste for the federal power exercised by President Obama activated an element of Trump supporters that many underestimated. ”If you put all your faith in an administrative executive dictatorship,” Kotkin writes in an email, “sometimes things break a different way than you expect.”
In our recent CityLab interview (and live debate with Richard Florida, recapped above), Kotkin called for a “return” to a mode of governance he calls “localism,” in which political decisions are largely made by and for community members and their direct representatives. Kotkin maintains that Obama “governed from above,” making decisions on planning, housing, environment and education that were once reserved for decentralized local governments. (This is, to be sure, an arguable point.) Such “hypercentralized” federal governance tends to adhere to the urban planning ideals promoted by “new urbanism,” with its emphasis on denser housing, mass transit, and walkable streets—all of which stand to limit Americans’ personal freedoms, he thinks.
The particulars of this philosophy are still under construction, but the vision is framed by Kotkin’s belief that suburban homeowners are more likely to feel invested and committed to their community’s success than urbanites. Kotkin sees “localism” as a bipartisan stance, noting that he also objects to move by conservative legislatures that reduce the power of more liberal cities. “Localism means experimentation and embracing diverse policy options,” he writes.
I followed up with Kotkin on our first conversation, because so much of what we discussed resonates with the themes of this post-election season—the deepening urban, suburban, and rural divides, the extent of government intrusions on Americans’ private lives, and the questions around what voters really are calling for. Two weeks ago, “localism” might have been understood a weapon for conservative rural and suburban Americans to wield against a left-leaning Federal juggernaut. Now, Kotkin hopes his philosophy might also be embraced by liberals—yes, including those in pro-density cities—to push back against a president-elect with an authoritarian bent. “I would hope now that progressives will rally to decentralization, and fight attempts by the new administration to centralize power,” he writes via email. “In a country that is so divided by ideology, lifestyle, economy and religion (or lack of), it seems that localism provides the best way to accommodate differences.”