Local Solutions, Federal Foundations: Collaborating for Community Empowerment

Mitch Daniels & David Brooks highlight local philanthropy's power, contrasting federal role. Daniels' Washington Post column and Brooks' NYT piece advocate local action over federal interventions, promoting community initiatives for societal improvement.

Local Solutions, Federal Foundations: Collaborating for Community Empowerment
Photo by Eyoel Kahssay / Unsplash

In his Washington Post column, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican known for his pragmatic conservatism, recently highlighted the importance of local philanthropy and community foundations. His piece, "How philanthropy can work without trying to save the world," champions local initiatives over federal interventions, a sentiment echoed by David Brooks in his New York Times column "The Localist Revolution." Both writers advocate for the superiority of local action in areas typically overlooked by the federal government, such as park rehabilitation and tree planting.

However, this perspective tends to overlook the significant role the federal government plays in supporting local projects. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service has recently provided substantial grants for urban and community forestry. Additionally, federal programs like the Federal Historic Preservation Fund, Land and Water Conservation Fund, and Recreational Trails Program exemplify the government's involvement in local initiatives through state partnerships.

The New Deal era serves as a historical testament to the federal government's capability to enact substantial change at the local level, with projects ranging from rural electrification to the development of state parks, all spearheaded by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These initiatives not only provided employment but also enhanced local communities.

Nevertheless, the current trend of neoliberalism, as discussed in the Guardian article "Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems," prioritizes private action over government intervention. This ideology, gaining momentum since the Carter administration and significantly propelled by Reagan, fosters a bipartisan shift towards minimizing governmental roles.

The Republican Party in the U.S., in particular, has increasingly adopted an anti-government stance, opposing public investment, which in turn influences public opinion against community initiatives. As George Monbiot points out in the Guardian ("To beat Trump, we need to know why Americans keep voting for him. Psychologists may have the answer"), societal values are shaped by political climates. In environments where extrinsic values, like materialism and self-interest, dominate due to political systems, these become normalized, perpetuating a cycle that further entrenches these values.

Furthermore, the federal government's effectiveness is often hamstrung by underfunding and political obstruction, with Republican administrations typically showing less efficiency in crisis management, as seen in the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina and the Trump Administration's handling of COVID-19 and the Puerto Rico hurricane crisis.

This political landscape has real consequences on quality of life, particularly in Republican-controlled states. As highlighted by Scientific American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, these states often exhibit lower life expectancy and higher death rates, a direct result of conservative policies on health, gun control, environmental protection, and labor rights.

While local action and philanthropy are vital, it is crucial to recognize the indispensable role of federal support in enhancing local initiatives. The discussion should not be about choosing one over the other but understanding how both levels can effectively collaborate for the greater good of communities.

We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the cues and responses we receive from other people and the prevailing mores of our society. They are also moulded by the political environment we inhabit. If people live under a cruel and grasping political system, they tend to normalise and internalise it, absorbing its dominant claims and translating them into extrinsic values. This, in turn, permits an even crueller and more grasping political system to develop. 

If, by contrast, people live in a country in which no one becomes destitute, in which social norms are characterised by kindness, empathy, community and freedom from want and fear, their values are likely to shift towards the intrinsic end. This process is known as policy feedback, or the “values ratchet”. The values ratchet operates at the societal and the individual level: a strong set of extrinsic values often develops as a result of insecurity and unfulfilled needs. These extrinsic values then generate further insecurity and unfulfilled needs. ~