Coming on the heels of Steve Bannon’s refusal to appear in front of the January 6 Committee’s subpoena to testify, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last Thursday predictably included questions about whether the Justice Department would enforce a criminal referral for contempt of Congress. But Republicans grilled Garland on another issue as well: The Justice Department’s recent memo directing the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country to coordinate with their law enforcement partners at all levels to address the rise in threats against school administrators, teachers, and board members. Although what’s happening with local school officials might, at first glance, seem unrelated to the events of January 6, they are part and parcel of the same effort to dismantle our democracy. In fact, the ongoing erosion of democracy at the local level may be even more dangerous in the long run than the tragic spectacle we witnessed on January 6.
In his book Democracy in America, the 19th century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at what made America unique. One of these features were local “townships,” the governance of which weren’t by carefully curated politicians like the “great political assemblies” at the national level. Rather, local townships, Tocqueville observed, had to be governed by the ordinary citizens who lived there, giving them all both a stake and a role in the management of their day-to-day affairs. As such, Tocqueville believed that local townships were important schools for democracy by allowing citizens to “practice the art of government within the small sphere within their reach.” Town meetings, for example, taught people how to practice the habits of democracy and in doing so, gave each citizen a sense of connectedness not only to his local neighbors, but also his fellow citizens generally. In Tocqueville’s words, each citizen’s “co-operation in [the town’s] affairs ensures his attachment to its interest; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions.”
The act of participating in local affairs cultivated in Americans what Tocqueville called “self-interest well understood”: An inclination of each citizen to maximize their own interests, but with an eye towards benefiting the greater good, even if that meant making a small individual sacrifice. Social scientists today have another name for this phenomenon: social trust. Professor Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, has observed that high levels of civic engagement are related, in particular, to a form of social trust called generalized reciprocity. This is a willingness of citizens to have each other’s back, so to speak — even when they are strangers. (Wearing a mask is an example of both self-interest well understood and generalized reciprocity — you wear it not because it protects you, but because it protects others, and it prevents the spread of COVID, which benefits everyone.) Healthy democracies have high levels of generalized reciprocity, which is typically reflected in things like greater law abidingness, political participation, charitable giving, tax compliance, and other indices of civic virtue among its citizens.
Unfortunately, Putnam observed that civic engagement — not just in politics, but in religious, civic, and local associations — has been declining precipitously since about 1965. And so, it turns out, has social trust. According to the General Social Survey, less than one-third of Americans in 2018 believed that most people can be trusted, compared to half in the early 1970s, making the U.S. the only established democracy where levels of social trust are falling, rather than rising. This makes the U.S. especially vulnerable to attempts by actors — both foreign and domestic — to sow division and chaos in order to weaken our social fabric and democratic institutions.
This is why protecting the integrity of local school boards — or local election officials, or any other local civil servant for that matter — is as important as protecting the nation’s capital. These local institutions are the building blocks of our collective democracy, even if they aren’t ones we participate in directly. The democratic habits they cultivate, both among the officials who serve in them and the citizens who properly participate in them, have ripple effects on the nation. These local forums are where people learn to do things like come together on issues of common interest, listen to new proposals, debate opposing viewpoints, vote for their favored policies or candidates, and — importantly — accept outcomes they may disagree with.
When mobs threaten these local institutions and make them impossible to function, they are attacking the democratic scaffolding of the country. Reports of attendees yelling obscenities and epithets, throwing objects, brandishing weapons, assaulting officials, and making death threats are intended, like the events of January 6, to paralyze the democratic process. Even worse, these actions are forcing many local public servants to resign, depriving not only their communities of their service, but also further contributing to the broader decline in civic engagement and social trust. These “mini-insurrections” share the same features as their federal counterpart: They aim to throw out democratic ground rules, overrun the system using violence, and allow a minority to undermine policies and outcomes they simply don’t like.
Given this connection, it’s easy to see why the Justice Department has made investigating threats against local public officials a national priority. It’s also not surprising that the same people who have no interest in getting to the bottom of (and even celebrate) the events of January 6 are displeased with localities under siege receiving extra federal assistance and protection: Both the local and national phenomena reflect the same anti-democratic effort. While the Capitol is the symbol of our democracy, every person engaged in the local affairs of their community enable it to function at scale. Protecting and preserving the local arenas that foster cooperation, respectful disagreement, and social trust — all things that, when replicated millions of times nationwide, benefit us all — is critical.