Jun 15, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Everything is local again

Illustration of a giant telescope lens looking at a tiny city

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The twin crises of coronavirus and systemic racism in policing have suddenly turned the national spotlight on local governments, and are forcing local leaders to make many of the most important decisions in the country.

Between the lines: Elected city leaders — many of whom do the jobs on a part-time basis — certainly weren't prepared to respond to multiple crises at once. But they have no choice.

Where it stood: For years, national narratives have dominated and overshadowed local agendas.

  • National political fights have subsumed state and local issues, and with local media gutted, readers have been left primarily with national news from Washington and New York, with less understanding of their own communities.
  • High-value industries consolidated along the coasts, draining the inland states of jobs and workers. And the economy's health has been measured with national statistics, often ignoring those being left behind.

Where it stands: Now, though, local governments are calling the shots that will have far-reaching ramifications for Americans, from re-opening their economies amid the coronavirus pandemic, to reforming police departments and responding to protests. And they're back in the spotlight as a result.

  • The crises facing cities are inherently local, requiring a detailed, block-by-block understanding of neighborhoods' needs.
  • COVID-19 has affected communities of color at alarmingly high rates. Police are under fire for mistreating many of those same communities. And lower-income workers have borne the brunt of job losses as local economies have crumbled.

"One consequence of this pandemic is the clear message that cities, and to some extent states, are on their own," said Peter Atwater, an adjunct lecturer at William & Mary who studies the impact of confidence in decision making.

  • "It speaks to inequality broadly, and a sense of voicelessness that goes along with that. You have massive amounts of people unemployed, furloughed, in limbo. Psychologically, people are drowning," he said.

What to watch: The power lies in grassroots momentum, applying pressure to leaders who are close enough to feel it.

  • "Our residents are becoming more concerned about how their local communities are governed," National League of Cities CEO Clarence Anthony said. "As much as they feel they don't have an impact on national policy, they clearly feel they can have an impact on their neighborhood."
  • "This is likely to lead to a massive change in American voice," Atwater said. "Grassroots community civic leaders are the ones that come up from the bottom, who will gain a growing and growing following."
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