Cover Story

The revival of localism

"The revival of localism" Continued...

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

After graduating from law school Stegall had job offers from all over the country. He and his wife "thought really long and hard about going and there was a lot of attractiveness, not the least of which was the starting salary, but in the end we decided to stay or stay committed to our place. I took a job in Topeka."

Why? They had two sons at that time (three more now) and wanted a good place to raise kids, but also a good place to raise themselves: Stegall says, "We lose and leave behind a lot when we conceive of society as this great ladder to climb. Our eyes are always on the next rung up, and what is left behind never gets a backward glance. This has led to a tremendous amount of dispossession and displacement: spiritual angst, and also real-world destruction and exploitation of different places and people. I didn't want to have any part of that, so we made the decision to stay."

Stegall has seen dislocation and disruption in the lives of kids he grew up with who headed to the bright lights: Most "have been very dissatisfied." Stegall himself became dissatisfied with his work in commercial litigation at a Topeka law firm, where he represented "large corporations suing each other most of the time." He didn't want to be "just a cog in this economic machine," so after a few years he returned to his rural county, hung out a shingle, and practiced law in a town of 900 people, "using my tools to fix problems. That's gratifying, and that's what it means to be part of the community."

Stegall recently did take a job a few miles down the road as chief counsel to new Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who himself was coming home after 14 years as a U.S. senator. Stegall has no Washington plans, though: "The powers of a centralized economy and state are so great that your chances of effecting change are much greater in a place where you actually wield some influence, as opposed to just being a small, small piece in the big machine."

Victoria Cobb, 32, offers a similar comparison of Washington versus state capitals. As a college student in Richmond, the losing capital in the Civil War, she was excited about an internship in the winning capital where power now resided: "It's a glitzy thing: You think, 'Wow, everything happens in D.C.'" But in the last semester of her senior year she worked for the Family Foundation of Virginia, a state level affiliate of Focus on the Family, and "saw the tremendous difference between what happens in Washington, D.C., and in Richmond."

Cobb is now president of the Family Foundation but still recalls that difference: "In Washington you trail a lobbyist to wait, to wait, to wait, to get to an aide of an aide of an aide of a congressman. As an intern in Richmond I'm walking in a state senator's office and we're talking about substantive issues. I learned that if you're a person who really wants to make substantive change, you ought to start at the state and local level. There may be more that you can accomplish there."

Ned Ryun, 38, is another young leader with Washington experience who does not approve of conservative groups' "thinking they have to go to D.C. to beat D.C. Many become very bureaucratic, very much like what they came to change. I don't believe the answers to our problems are in D.C." The son of former world record runner (and congressman) Jim Ryun, he views his calling as a long-distance run: Ten years ago he was answering correspondence in the Bush White House, but now he heads American Majority, which encourages people to run for school boards, county commissions, and so forth with the goal of "creating a groundswell from the bottom up."

Christian and conservative women are well-positioned to be part of that groundswell. Liberals have an advantage among single, full-time-professional young women in cities like Washington and New York, but conservatives do better with married women with children in most of the country. They should be dominating school boards and other part-time positions that do not cut into family time. Ryun's American Majority also trains older people, including retirees, and there again conservatives have an advantage.

A fourth Christian I interviewed, Ryan Messmore, 36, has moved around a bit-but he grew up at first in Tennessee and still remembers his sense of displacement when his dad moved the family to New Jersey: "We went to the train station to pick up my dad. We stood at the bottom of the stairs as the commuters were coming down. We were making eye contact and saying hello and offering Southern hospitality and, whoosh, they went speeding by."


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