When a topic like local control comes up, most historians rightly think of modern conservatism. As a convenient device to couch exclusionary policies, a deference to local control often meant preserving the race and class-based homogeneity of white communities. However, local control has not been universally supported in all cases. A deeper look at the politics of local control suggest that supporters of local control only support such measures in specific instances—situations in which local control is vested to the “right” people. When LBJ empowered poor urbanites via the Office of Economic Opportunity, traditional supporters of local control lambasted his administration for bureaucratic waste in the name of “handouts.” Perhaps LBJ had a point. Perhaps local control can be used as an inclusive policy initiative for populations traditionally excluded from the political processes shaping their own communities. This is most obvious with respect to policies addressing local crime and drugs.
In thinking more about this issue, I re-visited Lisa Miller’s work, The Perils of Federalism. Miller powerfully argues that the structure of contemporary federalism in the United States squeezes out the local. Privileging voices less familiar with problems on the ground—policy bureaucrats and moral entrepreneurs eventually make substantial decisions shaping the lives of those previously silenced. Thus, those that feel the daily brunt of criminal violence and aggressive crime control policies have no recourse. Perhaps more troubling, such citizens have little reason for hope, a sense of agency, or a sound rationale for believing they hold a meaningful stake in the life of their community. As issues loom larger and more important on the national stage, more and more opportunities for voices apart from the grassroots emerge. This leaves local voices stage left when issues reach the state or national level. For grassroots activists who toiled tirelessly to get their issues to state or national congress, this is particularly painful.