In June 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation blocking local governments from requiring that gas stations in their jurisdictions provide electric vehicle charging stations. It was a classic DeSantis move, like his effort to ban certain books from school libraries: aggressively use state power to overturn decisions by local officials that he doesn’t like.
Six months later, Joe Biden threw those local officials a lifeline. The $1 trillion infrastructure bill he signed includes billions of dollars in grants for municipalities to build EV charging stations—and, in a major break with past federal practice, it routes those funds directly to local governments, rather than through state departments of transportation. Wayne Messam, the Democratic mayor of Miramar, Florida, is planning to apply for one of those grants. “DeSantis claims that Florida is the free state, but every time you turn around, he’s telling us what we cannot do,” Messam recently told Washington Monthly editor Will Norris. “Yet you have a Biden administration that has worked hand-in-hand with mayors across this country … I just think that it’s just a difference between the two parties.”
This policy duel between Biden and DeSantis over EV charging stations has garnered zero press attention (aside from Norris’s story about it in the current issue). But it will almost certainly become national news, especially if the two men wind up facing each other in the 2024 presidential race, because it perfectly highlights both their governing philosophies and the place where the tectonic plates of American politics are colliding: local government.
Rhetorically, conservatives love to defend localities against an overweening state. Open any of the loftier right-wing political journals and you’ll find essays, complete with their own nomenclature—“subsidiarity,” “little platoons”—praising the virtues of localism. In practice, conservative politicians have spent the past decade using state power to crush local initiatives. That’s because the more populous municipalities in GOP-controlled states have become bluer, and attacking their progressive policies plays well with voters in the increasingly red rural, small-town, and exurban parts of those states. In addition to DeSantis’s actions, Republican governors in Texas, Georgia, and elsewhere have overridden municipal efforts to mandate paid sick leave, protect LGBTQ rights, expand voter options, and regulate oil and gas drilling within their own borders.
Liberals, by contrast, have long been wary of local government sovereignty because, back in the day, municipalities were often resistant to civil rights and environmental laws. Yet in practice, Biden has spent his first term engineering two major shifts in federal policy to empower local communities. First, the big spending bills he has signed—on infrastructure, green energy, and COVID-19 relief—target far larger portions of their funding to local governments, as opposed to states, than any federal legislation in generations. Second, his administration has stepped up antitrust enforcement—and thereby begun to undo four decades of Washington green-lighting the growth of oligopolistic corporations that have put smaller locally owned companies out of business. That consolidation has gutted the economies of smaller towns and cities across the country and been especially damaging to local news outlets, whose purchase and plunder by hedge funds, Steven Waldman notes elsewhere in this issue, have measurably diminished the ability of local communities to function democratically.
Ever since the political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone 20-plus years ago, evidence of the economic and civic evisceration of local communities—other than the most prosperous ones—has become overwhelming. There’s also a greater understanding that changes in federal policies can reverse the decline. That has been a consistent theme of this magazine for more than a decade. It is also the thesis of a 2020 book Putnam coauthored, The Upswing. It argues that Progressive Era and New Deal reforms at the federal, state, and local levels led to dramatically greater income and geographic equality and social and political cohesion during the middle years of the 1900s, until those trends reversed in the latter third of the century. Strengthening local communities outside the most affluent zip codes is one of the greatest challenges America faces. Undermining the capacity of local governments to deliver the policies their voters want is not, to say the least, helpful.
DeSantis’s style of manhandling local governments has nevertheless benefited him politically in Florida. But it could be a problem for him nationally. Polls consistently show that voters, conservative and liberal alike, have more confidence in local government than in government at the state and federal levels.
But it is only a vulnerability if Biden exploits it. For that to happen, he needs to make clear that his spending and anti-monopoly policies are specifically designed to empower local communities. This he has not done, for reasons that remain mysterious. And so, we have a situation in which Republicans talk glowingly about local control even as they undermine it, and Democrats stay silent about local control even as they strengthen it.