One of the missing ingredients that’s keeping the American system from functioning well is sufficient local news consumption. This is no revelation to anyone who has watched with even passing interest as the American news media consolidated and nationalized over the past two decades. The deficiency is indeed so obvious there is growing bipartisan agreement on the existence of the problem and a raft of proposals in Congress to address it. But it certainly bears reminding ourselves of the reasons why we need Americans to be better informed on local issues.
We live in a union of states, not a monolithic nation state. Our system is designed for disputes to be resolved and policies to be introduced at the most local level possible. If the town council can’t handle it, the county commission may have to come in. The state may eventually have to get involved if the costs or consequences become too great. Only the biggest or most confounding problems, though, should make it to the federal government. But that’s not what one would discern from looking at Americans’ media consumption. It is very easy to get national news—almost impossible to avoid, really—and very hard to find robust local news. The clear message to Americans is that the remote national capital is more important to their lives than their statehouse or city hall, when the opposite is—or at least should be—true.
The American doctrine of political subsidiarity means that the national government is a subsidiary of the state governments, which are themselves subsidiaries of county or other local governments. The flow is mostly supposed to go from the bottom to the top, not the top down. Consider the decades of savage cultural conflict that followed the Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade. The court shifted the polarity on the flow of power when it snatched the issue from the states before a consensus—really many regional consensuses—could be reached. Congress couldn’t enact a law pertaining to abortion that would please both Texas and California so how the heck were Harry Blackmun and six of his fellow justices going to sort it out themselves?
As the Roe decision is finally unraveling after 40 turbulent years—turbulence that warped the judicial selection process and expanded still more the power of the presidency—we look back on a clear case of what goes wrong when the national government forgets to be a subsidiary of the states. States hold a variety of policies on similarly fraught issues: the death penalty, the age of consent, assisted suicide, etc. We seldom if ever have to discuss those issues because they are being resolved by leaders in close proximity to their constituents. Californians might not like Texas’ rules and vice versa, but that causes very little aggravation compared to what we have now with Roe. The status quo on abortion and several other issues is that the blue states and the red states compete for national power to try to make the whole country live like either Californians or Texans. The result is an overpowered but still ineffectual federal government and an increasingly frustrated and excitable electorate. Much of what passes for political and governmental news these days is just about amplifying that frustration and intensifying the cycle of federal bloat and bust.