Breaking Through Partisanship: Left-Right-Local (Episode 14)

Welcome to episode fourteen of the Building Local Power podcast.

In this episode, Christopher Mitchell, the director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, interviews John Farrell, Stacy Mitchell, and David Morris, directors of our Energy Democracy, Community-Scaled Economies, and Public Good initiatives, respectively. The group discusses the nature of local policies and politics versus the national-level fights and hyper-partisanship.

This free-form discussion centers around the innovative economic structures many communities are investing in and how best to connect them to policies.

“Talking about economics is one way to get there, but also, there are these shared values that we have around democracy, local control, liberty,” says Stacy Mitchell of organizing for better local solutions to national problems. “Those are things that are widely all American. I think, also, going back to those basic values and motivations are really helpful in getting past being trapped in an unhealthy partisan conversation.”

David Morris: Well, I think that, in 2017, what The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has to offer and what the country needs is a strategy around concentrated corporate power and the undermining of democracy, specifically the most intimate type of democracy, at the local level.
Chris Mitchell: Hey, everyone. Thanks for listening to another episode of Building Local Power. We’re going to start this one a little bit differently because it’s a slightly different formatted show. In the past, we’ve really talked about specific initiatives and policies. Here, today, we’re going to be talking more about how to organize and what kind of strategies are needed in this year of 2017, where we’re seeing hyperpartisanship and I think a lot of frustration and inability to talk to people that we think of as being on the other side.I’m Chris Mitchell. I do a lot of the broadband work. You’ve probably heard me on just about every episode of Building Local Power. We also have, on this show, Stacy Mitchell from our Independent Business Initiative. Welcome, Stacy.
Stacy Mitchell: Great to be with you, Chris.
Chris Mitchell: And we have John Farrell, who does our energy work and has been on the show many times.
John Farrell: Howdy.
Chris Mitchell: I want to start off with a conversation with David Morris, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, someone who we talked about the nonpartisan league in North Dakota recently, which keeps coming back in my mind. David, why don’t you give us a thought of what you think we need to be doing in the modern era right now?
David Morris: Well, I think that, in 2017, what we need to do is to focus on the concentrated power in the private sector. We all believe in a private sector, but the private sector is, right now, being enabled and encouraged and aided and abetted to become increasingly concentrated and big. The other piece of it is the reduction in the health of our democracy by undermining the local public sector. That is we are involved in a point now where the states and the federal government are preempting the right of us to make decisions at the most intimate level, which is at the local government level.
Chris Mitchell: I like that a lot. I like that framing, in the sense that we’re facing down concentrated power. Now, to some extent, I’d really like to focus the conversation on how we can go about enacting those strategies and why I think that our philosophy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance particularly fits that, because we are really focused on, I think, policy goals and respectful policy goals, in a sense of we’re not coming in and saying, “The Democrats are awesome. The Republicans are awesome, and everyone else sucks,” which I think some groups do, even though they may have legitimate policy points. Stacy, I’m curious how you’re thinking about this.
Stacy Mitchell: I very much agree with what David said at the beginning. I think that the issue of concentrated power, it’s remarkable how much unity there is among American citizens around that issue. We saw, in Oklahoma, the failure of this right-to-farm bill, which would have given big agri business a greater hold over the state. We’ve seen a lot of state initiatives, whether it’s around minimum wage, whether it’s around the power of big corporations, where regardless of whether it’s a blue or a red place, people are voting in favor of more control and more equity when it comes to the economy, and I think that’s really notable in this otherwise incredibly seemingly-partisan time period.

This issue of where we practice democracy and the importance of local democracy is so critical and why, when we see states and the federal government preempting lower levels of government, we should be alarmed in most instances. When people are engaged locally and wrestling with an issue, whether it’s energy policy or agriculture policy, there’s an investment and a knowledge at that level that makes them much better able to be citizens at the state and federal level and much more knowledgeable about that issue in a way that I think is really important.

When we don’t have that local democracy and that local engagement, people’s information about an issue and the way that they engage with that issue is filtered through the media, or it’s filtered through what the Republican and Democratic parties want to say, or it’s filtered through what corporations want to say. All of those things, I think, can sometimes work to disconnect us and create this sense of toxic partisan politics around issues.

Chris Mitchell: John, I’d like to throw it to you to see what you have to say as an opening comment.
John Farrell: My thoughts on this notion of this moment in time are really shaped a lot by something that recently happened in Minnesota involving a monopoly utility company getting around public oversight by the use of its 50 lobbyists at the state legislature to get a bill to exempt it from oversight. Just thinking about this bigger picture of concentrated power, the thought is, “50 lobbyists at the state level can buy you, in this case, a billion-dollar power plant. 50 lobbyists at the federal level could probably get you a long way to getting something you want on a national scale. 50 lobbyists at the local level is actually quite inefficient,” because there are so many different municipalities in so many different places where decisions are made. It’s very difficult for concentrated power to compete with people power at that level and to compete with local economies.

I think when we talk about localizing power and where we make decisions, I think that’s one of the dynamics we have to be aware of, is that the more that these decisions are made at the national level, the disproportionate power we give those concentrated interests a chance to have influence.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I think is interesting about the local level is that I think people have a different perception at the local level of what’s happening than they do at the national level. I have a sense of what’s happening in my community because I drive around in it. I talk to people from there. I’m in it. I’m reading the local newspaper. I have a sense of what’s happening across the country from my media habits.

To some extent, I think my thinking gets shaped by James Fallows, who’s done some really good work in the Atlantic and elsewhere, talking about how when he talks to people about immigration … and he’s visited cities that are hard hit by what we might call the hollowing out of the manufacturing economy, the highly-paid, low-skilled jobs … he finds that people in areas that might be voting for candidates who are anti immigration, they don’t have a problem with immigrants in their community. They’ll say things like, “I think that immigrants are really contributing to my community and our economy, but nationally we’re just getting killed by them,” and things like that.

This is a sense in which, from my point of view, there’s just a pragmatic sense of organizing locally may help us to actually be getting political power where we have experience and where it’s not so much shaped by a media that both the left and the right, at this point, are very frustrated with. I’m curious if that resonates with anyone else.

Stacy Mitchell: I agree with that. If you serve on the local school board, you have to wrestle with … If it’s a budget cut, you have to wrestle with the implications of that. You really have to deal with the hard realities of what things cost and the taxes that one has to raise in order to fund those. Whereas, when you’re talking about the federal budget, I think it’s very easy to abstract and to have an idea that, “Well, we can cut taxes endlessly and still somehow get the things that we need paid for.” There’s a way in which the rubber meets the road at the local level, that if participate in it, it naturally requires you, as a citizen, to wrestle with these complexities and the fact that things are not black and white.
David Morris: I would also add to that, that at the federal level, half of our discretionary budget goes to the military, which means at the federal level, you’re forever having to justify a huge expenditure on the basis of a terror, which tends to be very far off. The conversation is fear inducing. At the local level, we also have a military budget, I guess. It’s for the local police, but that’s a conversation that is much more intimate, and it’s a conversation that really links the fact that we need a police force, because we do have crime internal to ourselves, rather than something that’s going on 10,000 miles away that’s going to take half of our taxes. I think that there are many reasons why it is healthy, really, to bring as many issues as we can down to the local level for resolution.
John Farrell: Chris, I would agree with that sentiment you expressed previously about the media playing a really important role in coloring our perceptions of what happens outside of our community versus our ability to have our own objective view … Well, maybe objective isn’t the right term, but we’re able to inform ourselves within our own community, from our own experience, that we don’t have to rely on the media for that, and I think that’s a very important tool in maybe tamping down a little bit of the partisan perceptions that we have about different issues.

I always laugh at the fact that Obamacare became such this political hot subject, even though it used to be more of a Republican idea, in terms of how to approach health insurance. It was different media sources that have changed our perception of whether or not that was a liberal or a conservative idea, and I think that’s less likely to happen when we’re talking about things close to home, where the people and the ideas are much more concrete.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I think we sometimes get into trouble with, from a partisan point of view, is when we’re trying to tell others what to do. I’m curious. David, in particular, I’m curious how you’ll react to this because, in my mind, local self-reliance is this sense of … and I think a lot of the ideas behind Building Local Power is what we can do locally ourselves, rather than saying, “Hey, you people over there, you have to do it this way.”

I happened to be in Idaho the day that they changed the law, the day that the new law went into effect, that they had open carry. You had hidden carry, the ability to carry weapons about your person without a permit, I believe. That’s the kind of thing where I think, in my mind, a lot of liberals would think, “Well, I don’t want them to be able to do that.” To some extent, I think organizing locally and working on local issues may mean foregoing certain policy preferences that apply to other people. I’m just curious how you react to that, David, and then everyone else.

David Morris: Yeah. I think that that’s true. I think that, at the local level, where … The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is not necessarily trying to tell people what to do. It’s giving people the space to do things that they need to do, which is something very different. I think that the conservatives have called the liberal governments the nanny state, but in fact, what we’re finding out right now is that with the preemption of local governments by the state and the federal government, that in fact it is becoming the nanny state. It’s saying to us, “We will let you drive the car, but only if that car goes to our favorite places.” I think that we can, in fact, argue that we shouldn’t be treated like children at the local level, unless we’re doing something at the local level which either harms human rights or that interferes with things beyond the boundaries of the city.
John Farrell: I think there’s an element here of considering what limitations starve action at the local level, and I think about this a lot in energy, where most of our energy system is regulated at a state level. A lot of the challenge that we have right now is that, as things change, as technology is giving us choices to act both individually and collectively at a local level, whether it’s solar energy or electric vehicles or community solar projects, we have to figure out how we can change the rules at the state or the federal level to open up that opportunity for local action. I think we’re in this interesting place.

On the one hand, as David alluded to, there’s this nanny-state preemption going on where the state and federal government are saying to cities, “You can’t do things that don’t go in the direction that we want you to go.” Yet, there’s also this tension, especially in the energy industry and in other areas, where the technology and the marketplace is saying, “There’s all this opportunity for local action and individual and collective action on a small scale, and we need to have the authority to match up with that. We need to be able to make those decisions locally.”

I think that is going to be an ongoing tension, is that, in many ways, the work that we do offers solutions at the local level, and yet, we have to be able to have that authority centered there in order to make those decisions effectively.

Chris Mitchell: As you were saying that, it made me think about a conversation that I had recently with Olivia. We were talking about this very issue, of organizing, and I think, to some extent, as we were talking about scaling up, to make sure the rules are correct at the state and federal level, a question might be, “How do we go about doing that, and how do we get beyond partisanship?” Olivia said that one of the things she likes about us is that we try to do a real strong economic analysis.

Stacy, as someone who’s worked with local businesses across the political spectrum, I’m curious about this, in what way you think that really trying to focus on the economics of a policy, rather than perhaps just the easiest way to get Democrats to agree with you, might be a better way of organizing.

Stacy Mitchell: I think that’s true. I think a lot of it has to do, really, just with language. I think that the differences in people’s viewpoints are perhaps less than we imagined, but we often use different language, depending on where people are in the political spectrum. For me, I try to avoid anything that signifies a particular political position, and I find that it’s much easier to get to common ground when you strip that stuff out. I think you’re right. Talking about economics is one way to get there, but also, there are these shared values that we have around democracy, local control, liberty. Those are things that are widely all American. I think, also, going back to those basic values and motivations are really helpful in getting past being trapped in an unhealthy partisan conversation.
Chris Mitchell: This is something that I often think about with David as well, because it’s a story that David actually recently retold, and I remember it from one of my first months here. David, you talked about how in an analysis that you did, and perhaps others did here at ILSR, of a favorite policy of ours 30, 40 years ago … I believe it was around solar … we admitted that it would be a loss of jobs for several years, and then, in the end, it would be much better for the local economy. I think a lot of people would not have necessarily been so forthcoming with that analysis.
David Morris: Yes. Actually, we started in Washington, D.C., and Washington D.C. is treated as a state by the federal government when it comes to data gathering and analysis. There are input-output models that are appropriate to D.C., as both a city and as a state. What we did was to gather the data to look at what the economic impact would be if we began to move toward energy efficiency, and especially solar energy, in Washington D.C.

What we found out was that, in the short term, jobs would be lost because D.C. is an incredibly high labor-intensive economy. It operates on paper, essentially, and meetings. In the short run, you would have a loss of jobs, but in the long run, as the savings from those jobs rolls into the local economy, you would have a significant increase in jobs. When we publicized that, we got calls from some economists that said, “Okay. Now you’re credible, that you’re willing to understand the dynamics of the economy in a way that most are not.”

Chris Mitchell: I think that this might involve a trade-off, and I think, John, I’d like to get your reaction to it, in the sense that there’s a danger of us trying to be so pure and not being as political, in part because we’re trying to get beyond this partisan, left-right dynamic and trying to create a new dynamic that focuses on local, but to some extent, I always wonder, “Are we undermining our ability to be effective by trying to be so honest and rigorous with details?” You know that I often come into your office, and I’m like, “Am I being pedantic, or is this an important distinction?”
John Farrell: I think the issue of partisanship is one we have to take very seriously, because the arguments that we make and the analysis that we make and our focus on local economies is not a partisan issue among most people. I think that we inevitably, though, have to talk about things that are political because this issue of concentrated corporate power is a political issue. It plays out in the political sphere. That, I think, is the distinction here that I find important and useful, is that we absolutely have to think about these things, not just in terms of the economics, but in terms of the politics, but we also need to think about not necessarily how it plays with a particular partisan audience, but rather what is the message that appeals to folks on those universal values that Stacy mentioned?
Stacy Mitchell: That’s a really critical point, if I can just jump in, because there’s an impulse to try to fix what’s wrong with our economy by focusing on local enterprises and forming co-ops and forming other kinds of businesses to address local problems. That’s all terrific, but if it doesn’t connect, actually, to politics, we’re not going to change the larger policy structures that fuel corporate power and make those kinds of local models not really viable and not going to go beyond the one or two places that they start. While we want to maybe not trigger these natural partisan dividing lines, this ability to connect what we’re talking about with politics, and particularly with votes on actual legislation, is really critical. I think that piece is so important to preserve.
John Farrell: I wanted to add to that, too. I think just a little more color on what this means to act in a politically savvy but not partisan way is to think about, “What are the organizations that influence the perceptions of people of both parties?” For example, in Minnesota around energy issues, rural electric cooperatives play an enormously important role in rural areas, and they’re influential in both parties. No matter who is holding that office, the co-ops play an important role. They’re a center of, a generation of, a big portion of the economy. The members of the board are significant leaders within the local community. Understanding that, separate from even the energy issues that might be up before the legislator, is crucially important.
Chris Mitchell: I’d like to pile on with that, in a sense of how … John, what you were just saying made me refine what I was thinking, and maybe I can say it a little bit better, in a sense that political versus partisanship, in a sense that, ultimately, we want our policies to succeed, and we need people that are elected to put them into being. But in my mind, we are going to be dealing with Republicans in rural areas and Democrats in urban areas, with some exceptions, but for the most part, if you have an R on your name and you’re in a rural area, you are probably going to get elected. If you have a D behind your name and you’re in an urban area, you’re probably going to get elected.

I’m not as concerned with who those people are as I am with them having a sense that, “I have to enact policies that are going to create local wealth and preserve local decision making.” I want them to be afraid, no matter whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, that if they enact a corporate-friendly agenda, they’re going to be punished.

David Morris: I would agree with that, but I also think that we also need to take into account the issue of responsibility. When we talk about responsibility, we do start stepping on toes, whether they’re liberal toes or conservative toes, and I mean being responsible for those people who are needy, responsible for those people who are disabled, responsible for future generations. That’s the point at which we are essentially requiring sacrifice, and that is the point where we need to talk about values in order to be the bridge for that. In cities, you’re talking about affordable housing. In rural areas, you’re talking about healthcare, and in urban areas as well.

I think that we’re preaching local authority and local capacity, but we’re also preaching mutual aid. I think that the mutual aid can and should extend beyond our borders where that’s possible. For example, Chris, in your work, in terms of municipal broadband, there are cities that have created their own universal fiber-based networks, and they would like to extend out to the suburbs. A number of those suburbs are conservative suburbs, but they really want to connect to a publicly-owned telecommunications network because it’s proven superior to their own. That’s a form of mutual aid.

A more direct form of mutual aid is one that I am actually trying to promote when I’m here in California, and that is that the federal government would like to probably zero out funding to public radio. That’s really only about $80 or $90 million a year, and I am trying to persuade the state of California that not only should they make up the cuts internal to their state, but they should extend out beyond their state and say that they will make up the cuts to any city in the United States where they are embracing public radio and are willing to support public radio and to states as well. I’m thinking more about extending that mutual aid to those places in the country which take public radio seriously and see it as an important communication vehicle independent of either political party.

John Farrell: I’d like to jump in on this concept of mutual aid because I think it’s useful in thinking about it in two different ways relevant to my work. One is that the term is actually used in the utility business to describe a situation where, for example, one city-owned utility is subject to some sort of natural disaster and has an enormous amount of clean up to do to get the power back on, and other municipal utilities from around the country send their line workers in, in order to help that city out, recognizing that they’re all going to be in that boat at some point, and that sometimes an individual city has a limited amount of resources. I think that’s very much in the spirit of what David’s talking about, and it applies both to this issue of media, but also to this issue of energy services.

The second thing I think is important to recognize is that sometimes mutual aid is actually a benefit and not a sacrifice. One of the things that we’re seeing crop up more and more is this conversation about folks who are on energy assistance, which is to say that there’s a public fund that we all already contribute to that helps pay energy bills for people who can’t afford to. That fund is, in some ways, a subsidy to the industry that provides that power at too expensive a price for the folks who use it, and there is now an opportunity to invest in things like energy efficiency or solar. They can actually reduce those folks’ dependency. It can increase their own self-reliance and also reduce the amount that collectively we have to put into that form of mutual aid.

I think there’s a couple lessons there. One is that absolutely there are lots of ways to provide this mutual aid that makes sense, but another one is that sometimes when we do it, it actually pays back.

Chris Mitchell: I would throw into this discussion that mutual aid can, of course, be nongovernmental. This is something that I often think of Mormons, in that they tend to vote pretty conservatively, if you look at Utah, but they also are incredible when it comes to mutual aid. I wouldn’t say that we should get rid of all forms of governmental mutual aid, because my sense is that the reason we have governmental mutual aid is because our nongovernmental mutual aid didn’t actually do enough to make sure that everyone had what they needed. I would say that I’d be open to reevaluating that if we got back into a good economy without such corporate control and, I would say, such extraction of wealth from our communities, but until then, those are some of the things that I think about.
Stacy Mitchell: The other thing to keep in mind about the difference between private mutual aid and public mutual aid is that private mutual aid often comes with strings attached and is discriminatory in how it’s available to people based on race, gender, moral ideology, whatever it may be. The public is the shared space and the thing that we all equally control.
David Morris: I would say that there is also, in terms of the question of mutual aid, but also the question of responsibility, is that 50 years ago, if you voted on a school bond to raise the property taxes to support the school system, you probably had a child either in the school system or one was about to be or one that would have just graduated. In 2017, the majority of people who vote on school bond issues do not have children in the public school system. Yet, consistently, these bonds do win around the country, and that is a form of self-sacrifice, if you will, for the greater good. That is somebody who is saying, “I’m willing to raise my property taxes in order to benefit my neighbor or other people, because I think that, in the long run, that helps the public good, which helps me.”
Stacy Mitchell: It’s interesting because, as a parallel to that, one of the arguments that I’ve often made in favor of locally-owned business is that, in the same way, a local business owner who’s voting on a tax increase that would go to the schools often has kids in the schools or at least is part of the community that has kids in those schools, and so has to weigh the cost to his or her business against the value that’s generated for the kids in the community.

A distantly-owned corporation doesn’t have that at all, in fact has just the opposite motivation, which is to get the lowest possible tax rate that they can in that community. It’s just one of the ways in which local ownership, I think, complicates business decisions in ways that are socially useful.

Chris Mitchell: As we move into final comments, as we’re running out of time, I just wanted to reiterate that, in my mind, this is a show in which we’re dancing around a little bit, talking through what it means to build local power in a time of hyperpartisanship. I really find that focusing on the local just gives me a sense that we can accomplish things. When I look at the national, I feel like the problems are so big, but to the extent that we can solve a lot of problems locally, maybe the national problems won’t be quite so big.
Stacy Mitchell: Thomas Jefferson, when he had retired from national office and went back to Virginia, was at this point where he started to worry about the future of the democracy, and he really advocated for this idea in Virginia of breaking government down into ever-smaller units, like counties would be broken down into wards, which would be broken down into sub-wards. The idea is that just about everyone would have to serve in some sort of elected office. Of course, at the time that he was advocating that, he also owned about 500 enslaved people, so it’s a little bit of complexity, to say the least.
Chris Mitchell: Well, it’s a great point, and I guess my fear is that in a world that we would like to build, with a lot of local power, we would need more people to take responsibility. I think we need more people to run for elected office. This is something that I think the right has historically encouraged people to run for office, and the left is now starting to really encourage particularly women to run for office. That is, I think, a question, in this society that we have, whether or not enough people would want to take responsibility for making these hard decisions. Maybe we’ll come back to that on a future show.
David Morris: I think that the elephant in the room is that if you’re a local, you’re small and you’re weak. We have been talking about how, collectively, we can be strong by changing the rules at a higher level of government. The question is, “How would we change those rules?” I think of the health system. Cities are involved somewhat peripherally in the health system, although they have municipal hospitals, and they have some welfare and aid programs, but how do we want to change the health system so that it not only provides universal healthcare, but it also provides a way in which we, on the community level, can have some say and some participation?

When I look around the world, I see that Sweden, for example, is a country that has a universal healthcare system that’s financed by taxes imposed by the country itself, but it’s primarily run at the municipal level. Canada has a universal healthcare system that is essentially run at the provincial level, both in terms of income generation, in that case, and also operation. We do need to think about how we can have rules at the higher level that enable us to deal with problems that right now we can’t deal with at the local level because we don’t have the resources to.

John Farrell: I think that what Stacy said earlier is a really good reflection on this issue of to what extent we can make decisions locally, which is where that story of the big corporation and the viewpoint that they would take, for example, on a local school referendum. The issue there is to the extent that we have concentrated corporate power, we can’t confront it at the local level, but we do have policies at the federal level, called antitrust, that give us the power and the authority to confront corporate power in a way that we have not been exercising that. That muscle has grown weak over the past decades.

I think that is really the biggest challenge in the pursuit of local self-reliance, is this notion that, “Yes, we need to organize at the local level and to think about these questions of getting people to take responsibility and run for office, of identifying the ways that we can enact and enable local solutions.” Our work, in many cases, shares those models widely, but as long as there are these large entities that can throw around disproportionate political power, it will be difficult to have solutions at the local level for a system to become successful and become replicable, because they’ll continue to stand in the way.

Chris Mitchell: I think that’s a good place to end, not because we’ve necessarily solved it, but because that’s a good concluding point. Let me just ask you, if you enjoyed this open, freeform discussion and would like to see us come back and revisit this style again in the future, let us know. Send us a note to, Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We’ll be back to you in two weeks with another focus topic, and maybe we’ll have some open discussion again in the future. Thank you for listening.
Lisa Gonzalez: We encourage you to subscribe to this podcast and all of our other podcasts on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. You can also sign up for our monthly newsletter at Thanks to Dysfunction Al for the music, licensed through Creative Commons. The song is Funk Interlude. I’m Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thanks again for listening to The Building Local Power Podcast.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.