What is a Decentralist

A decentralist believes that power and authority should be spread as widely as possible. The goal is to prevent individuals from being swallowed by a monstrous Leviathan ruled by an elite few, and instead create a more personal political environment that emphasizes democracy, liberty, and community. Decentralists seek to return politics to a “human scale” and give it the moral and spiritual substance that was lost with the decline of Jeffersonian liberalism in the nineteenth century.

A few splinters of the old Decentralist tradition remain today. Those who share this vision of a more democratic, localized political system often find themselves at odds with the mainstream left and right. Right-wingers will see in decentralism an antipathy to big government and a respect for the sovereignty of smaller political units. The left will recognize in decentralism an antipathy to the global dominance of big business and the promotion of green economic and environmental policies.

Those who advocate for a more decentralized political system will likely be found in a variety of disparate groups: left-wing anarchists (such as Paul Goodman and Carl Oglesby), libertarians, greens (Kirkpatrick Sale’s encyclopedic Human Scale is one prominent example), Southern agrarian intellectuals, and a host of smaller regional groups and civic activists. They share a rejection of the traditional right-left ideological spectrum, and a desire to restore vibrant, self-reliant local communities that are protected from the pressures of cultural homogenization and foreign economic exploitation.

What is a Decentralist and What Do They Advocate For?

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that decentralism has found no real home among the leaders of any major political party. Roosevelt’s appropriation of Jeffersonian liberalism was the death knell for this once-dominant political tradition. The neoliberal assault on the welfare state was another nail in the coffin of this approach to public policy. Today, few politicians speak the language of decentralism and even fewer possess any serious intellectual credence for it.

Yet decentralism retains a sliver of popular appeal. Most Americans want more choice and a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives. They are tired of the nonnegotiable directives from on high that define the “rules of the game” in their professional and social lives.

They are naturally inclined to decentralize the structures of their lives, and in many ways they already do so without conscious thought or effort. In the private sphere, people want more control over their homes and neighborhoods; in business they are seeking less bureaucracy and a more flexible, competitive environment. In the political sphere, people have become weary of eight years of missed opportunity with Reagan and four more with Bush the Elder.

They may be yearning for a Bryan or La Follette to lead them down the path of Jeffersonian decentralism. Perhaps there is. But it’s unclear if America will ever find its way back to the decentralism that once gave birth to American democracy and a newfound faith in an individual’s responsibility to his or her community. And if it does, the road ahead will be long and rocky.