I have become mildly obsessed with the AMC show TURN: Washington’s Spies. I got sucked into this drama on Netflix and have now made it nearly through its four seasons, sneaking in an episode almost every day in the early evenings.
The show is historically challenged in many respects, but — taken on its own terms and merits — it is compelling. It represents 18th Century America quite well in several ways.
TURN visually captures just how rural Colonial America was. Long Island wasn’t a suburb; it was the boondocks. And, while New York and New England c. 1776 were no longer a wilderness, the landscape was, in many places, still heavily wooded and semi-wild. Distances were great; roads were mostly poor and communications slow.
And the human population was small and localized. This point is critical to understanding the evolution of the republican principles that imbued the founding of the United States. (Hat tip to historian and author Dr. Brion McClanahan for articulating this nicely in a podcast on TURN).
The largest city in the American Colonies in 1776 was Philadelphia, with 40,000 residents. Bustling New York City was home to 25,000 souls; Boston, the hotbed of the rebellion, boasted a population of 15,000 people.
As of 2017, the population of Bend, Oregon was 94,520. Sisters, Oregon, had a 2017 population of 2,701 — but counting its outlying residential areas, it has a population roughly the size of Colonial Boston or maybe Newport, Rhode Island (11,000).
The aphorism that “all politics is local” was genuinely true in Colonial and Revolutionary America. The republican form of government designed by the founders operates optimally when it is operating at a manageable scale. The structure has actually been remarkably adaptable to massive growth and change, but it was never designed to be a centralized bureaucracy responsible for managing 320 million people’s lives on a continental and transcontinental scale. It was, in short, supposed to remain a Republic, not an Empire.
Politics was never meant to be a full time obligation or occupation — it was supposed to be a matter of public service to deal with the public business, with long and frequent retreats back into the private sector (and not the kind of “private sector” represented by the deep state national-security-government-industrial complex, either).
We should not wax romantic about localism — local politics can be mean and petty (as anyone who has been involved in a homeowners association beef can attest).
But, allowing for the necessary evil, political action should rightly be as “local” as it can be made. This is the principle of subsidiarity: “Matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”
This means that, instead of seeking political saviors to sit in an imperial Oval Office, we should be worrying a lot more about who is running for school board or city council or planning commission or county commission. And we should be taking advantage of the politics of scale to wield our individual influence at that level, where our voices might actually be heard and heeded.