Preamble-On with Calvin Coolidge

Authored by Ray Nothstine

“Preamble-On” is a recurring segment of quotes and thoughts from historic and contemporary public figures on federalism, the free society, and American political life.

Society is in much more danger from encumbering the national government beyond its wisdom to comprehend, or its ability to administer, than from leaving the local communities to bear their own burdens and remedy their own evils. Our local habit and custom is so strong, our variety of race and creed is so great, the federal is so tenuous, that the area within which it can function successfully is very limited. The wiser policy is to leave the localities, so far as we can, possessed of their own sources of revenue and charged with their own obligations.

 —Calvin Coolidge annual message to Congress or State of the Union, December 8, 1925.

Context: Calvin Coolidge’s State of the Union address reinforced the proper spheres of government and outlined a general prosperity and progress being made by the nation. In the previous paragraph he called local government “one of our most precious possessions” and warned against “any encroachment upon the rights of states or their various political subdivisions.”

Before becoming president, Coolidge served as a state legislator, mayor, lieutenant governor, and governor.

New data out shows growing divergence between US levels of trust in national institutions and other similar countries. And the gap is huge.

While many will blame politics and polarization for this trend, I believe the “loss of the local” matters even more. America once had the world’s most dynamic local associations, giving millions the chance to lead and everyone the feeling that they had a stake in society. Today, most of us live in places with few if any associations. We don’t know our neighbors, and we don’t have much influence over the institutions we interact with. Too much is nationalized or made distant – shopping, schooling, praying, government, media, etc. And you cannot easily trust something that you feel you have no control over.

These trends are more apparent the farther you get from the dynamic parts of our most dynamic cities – where our leaders live mostly unaware of how most Americans experience life. Fragile neighborhoods and regions populate the country.

Reversing the decline in trust requires ensuring every locale matters and that everyone has the chance to participate in improving their place. This requires rethinking how so many of our institutions work today – they may be trying to help but are too often alienating us instead.

Seth Kaplan, LinkedIn, 2024

Context: Kaplan is a leading expert on fragile states and is the author of “Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One Zip Code at a Time.” Kaplan’s book looks at the breakdown of communities and how it can be addressed through local revitalization and community building. Kaplan reminds us that the greatest poverty many of us face is not the loss of material goods or comforts but a poverty of lasting community and friendships.

Authored by:Ray Nothstine


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