As we march through life, we sometimes start off on the wrong foot.
My original interest in government focused almost entirely on politics at the highest and widest level: international relations. Because I was worried about a catastrophic atomic war, I majored in political science.
My original intent — later scrapped in favor of a teaching career — was to become a diplomat working to fend off this danger.
My obsession with global affairs led me to ignore state and local government as an undergraduate. My graduate work included only one class on this subject.
It now appears that my priorities were nearly upside down.
Last September I attended a lecture at Oxford University in which King's College professor Kieran Mitton argued persuasively that the world's future will be dominated by urbanization and that local governments are becoming critically important.
Perhaps they always were.
My original mistake was to assume that large scale institutions and events are inherently more important than small scale ones. Twenty years later, when I wrote a college textbook, it had already become clear to me that small-scale personal relations are more humanly important than large scale political institutions.
The text's concluding chapter discussed "the unimportance of politics."
It argued, not that political life is unimportant, but that it is not as important as our small scale relations with family and friends. But it still didn't occur to me that it was fundamentally incorrect to assume that local government had little interest or importance.
When I arrived at Adrian College in 1964, the dean assigned me to teach a class on state and local government.
This was awkward, since I had so little background in that area.
How could students possibly take an interest in it?
Fortunately I found two excellent casebooks featuring interesting court decisions arising out of conflicts at the state and local level level: "Proximate Solutions" and "Insoluble Problems."
Because I had studied constitutional law, it was easy for me to teach about local government using court decisions.
Court cases always involve specific parties with specific conflicts, but appellate judges must explain their decisions in terms of general principles. This neatly avoids seeing the trees but not the forest, or vice versa.
My early experience teaching state and local government convinced me that analyzing judicial decisions is an excellent way to understand many aspects of government and politics. Later on, I even used a collection of court decisions as one text in my course on Soviet government.
Professor Mitton's Oxford lecture noted that in 1950 only 30% of the world population lived in cities but that by 2008 most people did. He predicted that by 2050 two thirds of the world's people will live in cities.
Ominously, he also predicted that future wars will increasingly be fought in cities rather than in the lightly populated areas between cities where most major historical battles were fought.
He noted that urban battles like the prolonged one at Stalingrad during World War II, where about two million people were killed, wounded, or captured, were exceptions to the usual rule back then, but are now becoming the norm.
Mitton also predicted that 90% of urban growth will be in Africa and Asia, and that much of that growth would constitute urban slums. Therefore, "the new front lines are the slums." Professor Mitton's lecture was one of the scariest I have ever heard, but also one of the most thought-provoking.
By the time I got to graduate school I already understood that a country's foreign policy is largely determined by its internal politics. I therefore chose to specialize in comparative government — focusing on high-level internal politics in several countries — rather than international relations.
But I now realize that in many countries developments at the national level are heavily influenced if not largely determined by politics at the local level. As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously proclaimed, "All politics is local."
My experience suggests that people should not assume that state and local governments are unimportant, that studying them is a waste of time, or that participating at that level is only a step toward ultimate participation in national or global affairs.
Our national government currently seems unwilling or unable to grapple with major problems like medical care and global warming. State and local governments may need to step in to fill the resulting policy vacuum.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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