In an Age of Washington Gridlock, the Laboratory of Democracy Is looking Pretty Good

atlantic_coverby James A. Bacon

Seventy-two percent of Americans think the United States is headed in the “wrong direction,” according to a recent AP-Gfk poll, and most of those discontents attribute their sentiment to the dysfunction of American politics. That’s no surprise given the gridlock that has beset Washington, D.C. — gridlock resulting from the polarization of the American electorate between an evenly matched “red” America and “blue” America in a constitutional system designed to thwart radical change based on slim majorities.

James Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is nostalgic for the days when an visionary effort could galvanize the country behind a national goal. But he is clear-eyed enough to see that the political will does not exist to address, to pick an example he cares about, the inequality of wealth and power in America’s second “Gilded Age.” What ever does a social reformer solver do?

After three years of criss-crossing the country in a single-engine plane, an aerial “Travels with Charlie,” so to speak, Fallows has discovered that the national funk is less pronounced in America’s states and metropolitan regions. Indeed, working at the community level, people are finding ways to solve problems and get things done. Apparently, the old “laboratory of democracy” is alive and well, with thousands of experiments occurring across the country. Communities rich and poor, red and blue, are reinventing themselves. “Many people are discouraged about America,” he writes in the current edition of Atlantic Monthly. “But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see.”

Fallows quotes University of Virginia professor Philip Zelikow, director of the Rework America initiative, as saying: “In scores of ways, Americans are figuring out how to take advantage of the opportunities of this era, often through bypassing or ignoring the dismal national conversation. There are a lot of more positive narratives out there — but they’re lonely, and disconnected. It would make a difference to join them together, as a chorus that has a melody.”

Ordinary Americans have lost faith that they can make a difference in a Washington, D.C., ruled by special interests, entrenched bureaucracies, lobbyists and political action committees. But they feel they can make a difference in their own states and communities. Thus, according to a Mary Washington University-sponsored poll taken in November 2015, while 58% of Virginians responded that the nation was going in the wrong direction, only 43%  felt that the state is heading the wrong way. I don’t know if anyone has asked that question at the metropolitan regional level, but I suspect that, here in Virginia at least, the wrong-way sentiment would be even lower. Speaking personally, I believe that my home metro of Richmond, despite many warts and blemishes, is very definitely moving in the right direction.

Fallows sounds a rarely heard tone of optimism. Among his observations:

A talent dispersal is underway. The “big sort” is short-hand for the tendency of the most highly educated, creative, productive and entrepreneurial people to migrate to the nation’s largest talent magnets like New York, San Francisco, Seattle or Washington, D.C., draining the rest of America of energy and talent.  While that phenomenon is real, there is a counter-migration, Fallows asserts. “We were surprised by evidence of a different flow: of people with first-rate talents and ambitions who decided that someplace other than the biggest cities offered the best overall opportunities.

An archipelago of creativity. Not every computer programmer with big dreams wants to move to Silicon Valley. Enough prefer to live in less expensive, family-friendly cities that technology companies can take root elsewhere. Writes Fallows: “American thinks of itself as having a few distinct islands of creativity; I now see it as an archipelago of start-ups and reinventions.”

Even “hopeless” places are reinventing themselves. Fallows highlights the forlorn communities of San Bernardino, Calif., and northeastern Mississippi as places that have hit bottom and are clawing their way back. “If you wanted a vista of American hopelessness, you might think to start in Mississippi,” he writes. “But here again, we heard that through the country as a whole was in trouble, things are home were moving in the right direction.

The assimilation engine moves forward. While national politics focuses on illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, those just aren’t pressing issues at a local level. “Red” America may have the reputation as inhabited by racists, know-nothings and bigots, but Fallows was struck by how inclusive many communities are. “The anti-immigrant passion that has inflamed this election cycle was not something that most people expressed in most of the cities we visited,” he says. “Politicians, educators, businesspeople, students, and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people.”

The arts revolution is transforming small cities. Art isn’t just for big, wealthy cities anymore. Fallows finds extraordinary energy poured into local arts in communities across the country.

So, where do we go with this? Washington gridlock is probably with us for a long time. I see little indication in the polls either of an electoral revolution that will give either party a lock on all three branches of the federal government, or a readiness of either Republicans or Democrats to sacrifice core principles on the size and scope of government. Any action that occurs will take place at the state and metropolitan levels.

I’ve been corresponding recently with an old Bacon’s Rebellion contributor, E M Risse, who has long argued that what he calls New Urban Regions (roughly conterminous with Metropolitan Statistical Areas) are the fundamental units of economic competition and development in the global economy. The problem, he argues, is that governance structures in the United States have not evolved in sync with the underlying economic reality. He and I used to explore this issue in depth when he was active on the blog. Perhaps it’s time to revive that discussion.

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43 responses to “In an Age of Washington Gridlock, the Laboratory of Democracy Is looking Pretty Good

  1. Maybe a stretch conclusion, but there may be some merit to Virginia’s 4-yr Gov term as it applies to leading a divided state.

  2. re: ” The problem, he argues, is that governance structures in the United States have not evolved in sync with the underlying economic reality.”

    how does that get fixed?

  3. EM Risse is a genius. The debates he and I had on this blog paled in comparison to the semi-private flame ware we engaged in via e-mail. Scotched Earth. Through it all I always knew Risse had game. His long ago article on “Where is Northern Virginia” was a brilliant example of demographic understanding. Despite my visceral opposition to Risse’s socialist tendencies (and yes, Ed – you do have those tendencies) I have to say that I learned more reading what Ed wrote than I learned reading anything written by any other contributor. No disrespect to the many BR contributors – you are all quite good but Risse is brilliant.

    I hope to see the return of Ed “the Hammer” Risse to this blog. I am sure he is an ever bigger pain in the ass than he was in the past. Bad news, Eddie. I am a bigger pain in the ass too.

    Bring it, Ed. I am tanned, I am rested, I am ready. Let’s party.

    More seriously -for those who are relatively new to the blog … Ed Risse is truly a luminary on human settlement patterns. If he returns it will be great. However, Ed … as you you know – I am no shrinking violet, regardless of your intellectual powers. I am still here to agree with I thuik right and fight to the metaphorical death what I think wrong.

    Looking forward to seeing Mr. Ed again.

  4. I too miss Ed – as well as Peter G – for different reasons.

    and I’d like to see both return.

    but for all that Ed stands for – at the root of the kinds of settlements patterns he advocates – is the de-facto requirement for a Govt-operated command and control system which is the antithesis of those who of full and self-proclaimed Conservative stripes who blather incessantly of the folly of having the govt involved in anything of any consequential good… It’s the straight and narrow – “Govt is a necessary evil and that eat Detroit if left unchallenged and unchecked and I much enjoy the hypocritical contortions those folks go when trying to justify the govt’s role in …. settlement patterns – and yes they are very , very quick, as Don did – to throw the “socialist” card almost in the same breath they cluck approvingly of … oh the horror – govt-controlled settlement pattern – planning.

    It’s comical to see them one day argue hard-line, libertarian economic theory and the next argue for the govt to perform acts for the greater good!

    so ED – COME ON BACK – I just LOVE watching the ideological shape-shifting from the resident righties – here !!! You too Peter!

    • “Govt is a necessary evil and that eat Detroit if left unchallenged and unchecked” ???

      Where exactly is the pony in that one?

      • Where exactly is the pony in that one?

        ??????????????

        you KNOW the FUNNY thing about DETROIT?

        that’s WHERE Flint was getting it’s water before it decided to “save” money…

        ;-0

        surely there is parable there also, eh?

      • So you mean, it’s better to drink water from Detroit than to eat in Detroit?

        • I dunno…

          autos – gone = Detroit … righties say bad management – facts and reality say otherwise – mythology is a powerful potion on the right!

          coal – gone in SW Va = bad teat-sucking leftists spending more that they take in – right?

          Navy gone from Hampton – more liberals messing up – right?

          😉

          😉

        • Surely, Larry’s ambition to pull all these disparate parts into a coherent whole will require an exercise of inductive reasoning on a grand scale.

          • disparate? Au Contraire!

            it’s for sure an article of faith – when economic disaster strikes – it’s ALWAYS the fault of FAILED LEFTISTS POLICIES who have failed to adhere to letting the free market “work” … that old “invisible hand” doctrine…

            nothing “disparate” about that – right?

            Whether it’s Detroit or California or Greece – it’s the same old problem. right Reed?

            oh – and the Coal deal? total and callous ignorant “war on coal”. right?

            I’m quite sure you have a book or two that totally delves into this….

            😉 😉 😉 …………………………. 😉

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            “I’m quite sure you have a book or two that totally delves into this….”

            Ah, yes, Larry. See The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867-1984) by Karl Marx.

  5. and Don is a bit of an ODD WAD philosophically – hard to categorize because he’s often seems all over the map.

    He consistently pummels the Va General Assembly “clown car” as well as the “Virginia Way” which includes the Dillon Rule.

    And he often has similar contempt for the US Govt…

    but at the Fairfax County level – he… wobbles…

    unlike his fellow NoVa – ite TMT – who has much less love for Fairfax Govt and .. actually often seems to prefer Richmond riding herd over local govt…

    we all have these flaws including myself – but claiming such flaws as features not hypocrisy “bugs” is … amusing…. as consistency and constancy of philosophy … must surely be a virtue… with due credit for flexibility rather than absolute rigidity… certainly… but such variances do require: 1. first that one does acknowledge and 2. that one does provide substantive – consistency-supportive reasons for such apparent variances…

    I’m an agnostic – on the full range of govt – from National all the way down to local-local – it’s the full range of good, bad and ugly – at times but at the core of it is the need for and legitimacy of it’s existence as opposed to the anarchy of unchecked libertarianism. The unfettered market WILL DECIDE – and the love part of the relationship some so ardently proclaim will go to hate – even if not admitted…

  6. Kudos to local and state governments around the nation for addressing the problems and creating solutions that people need and demand. It appears that the time has arrived for the citizens of this nation to take an inventory of what services they require from each level of government. In addition, each level of government should be audited to determine its efficiency and cost effectiveness in providing necessary services to the citizens. For example, what is the role of local government in Virginia and across America? What are the demands and requirements that citizens have for local government? What is the role of state governments in our federal union? What services are required and demanded by Virginians from their state government? What can state and local governments do for themselves that the Federal government is presently involved in? In the 21st century, the devolution of government roles and responsibilities has to occur in order for our nation avoid bankruptcy and end the gridlock in Washington, D.C. Debt (national and state) that is out of control, taxes that are too high and getting higher, and special interest groups (promoting paralysis in government) are issues that have to be confronted now in order for us, the citizens, to get the country back on track.

    My hope is that the presidential sweepstakes (“The Circus”) before us will help to focus the public’s attention on the real issues: the economy (including immigration, i.e. cheap workers depressing wages), a bloated and inept national government (elimination of duplication of services and a waste of resources – Dept. of Transportation, Commerce, Agriculture, Education; to mention a few), and national security (defending our nation and not creating a jobs program for the next four years).

  7. So, Jim, your correspondent EMR argues that “New Urban Regions (roughly conterminous with Metropolitan Statistical Areas) are the fundamental units of economic competition and development in the global economy.” And Larry asks, “re: ‘ The problem … is that governance structures in the United States have not evolved in sync with the underlying economic reality’ — how does that get fixed?”

    Regional government? We’ve talked here about the lack of coordination on so many levels between our fractious, factious jurisdictions, especially when it comes to public transportation, commercial tax base and zoning and cultural assets; yet, having a “regional” government (as in some of the Hampton Roads jurisdictions created in those 1950-1960s mergers of cities and ‘voting bears’) may have avoided the kind of racial and economic polarization epitomized by Richmond vs. Henrico, but hasn’t exactly created a vibrant, walkable urban metropolis anywhere in Hampton Roads that our brightest and best young people are flocking to move to. With all due respect to The Tide streetcar project and ODU’s neighborhood stabilization efforts, Norfolk hasn’t overcome its Urban Renewal Wasteland reputation. I have no basis for saying this but anecdocal observation: Williamsburg/York County seems like the overall-most-attractive area of Hampton Roads to live in and, strikingly, that is an example of one 1960s-era city-county merger in the region that didn’t take place.

    I guess we all realize today, better than in the 1960s and 70s, that there is more to this need for ‘regional’ coordination and consolidation than schools and racial diversity. But our better knowledge is part of the problem: back then, our single focus on the obvious need to maintain a cohesive regional tax base and regional school system was enough to overcome the opposition (except when the GA interfered, as in the case of Richmond), whereas today we don’t have a widely shared regional vision anywhere in Virginia to drive political consolidation forward. So, back to Larry’s question: given the opposition of bureaucrats to change, the tremendous institutional inertias that must be overcome, how do we get to new ‘SMSA-wide’ governance structures anywhere in Virginia, and what are the first elements we should be tackling?

    • Acbar, The first step is to conceptualize the appropriate form of government. The second step is to figure out how to get there. You can’t do the latter until you get some consensus on the former, so I’m not terribly worried about the practicality at this point — although, I do acknowledge that evolving to a metropolitan-wide government is likely to be a Herculean task.

      Second point, let’s call it a metropolitan government, not a regional government. Metropolitan conveys the idea that the goal is to overlay economic reality (metropolitan areas as unified labor markets and competitive units on the global scene) with political reality.

      Third point, government functions should be delegated to the appropriate level of government. For example, there is no debate that national defense and foreign affairs should be delegated to the federal government. Some functions should be delegated to state government, such as a system of higher education and a statewide highway system. Some functions should be delegated to local governments, and some to regional governments. As a general rule, government that is closest to the people is the most responsive and, thus, the best. I would argue that education should be delegated to the local government, although some might disagree.

      The obvious functions that should go to the metropolitan level government are land use, local/regional roads, water/sewer/waste-water and economic development.

    • One obvious problem overlooked in this discussion is that the current course of progressive policies as mandated on the Federal level during the last two administrations and as now proposed to be continued by the two Democratic candidates (at the very least), will directly thwart and overpower many state and local initiates both public and private.

      • what has happened at the Federal level according to some has little to do with these issues – like how settlement patterns and regional/metropolitan governance is done – or not.

        Unless someone wants to try to make that argument – then do it convincingly with real facts and evidence and not with conspiracy theories, innuendo and anti-govt idiocy.

      • The Power of the myth of the Omni-competent State:

        “Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often regard it as beneficial. Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society.

        It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd.

        It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born;

        It is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

        See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835-1840.

  8. if not Mistaken – back during Massive Resistance – there was talk of Richmond/Henrico/Chesterfield becoming a regional entity to sorta make things better, but of course that talk went nowhere fast especially when they decided to name a school in Henrico after the revered Harry Byrd, and sent black kids there.. to get properly “schooled”.

    bite my tongue!!

    re: figure out what to do – then figure out how to get there.

    how about a post on how the free market gets us to better settlement patterns rather than top down government imposing it’s will on folks who don’t want it?

    The right has spent the last 8 years stirring up the crazies… and now we got what we got… which ain’t exactly conducive to govt of any kind other than the kind being espoused by the top candidates on the right which don’t sound much like what it would take to “get there”.

    so how about it? how about a post regaling us on how righties and the free market can get us to a “better place” on settlement patterns ?

    we could start with the Grand Poobahs in the General Assembly helping to rearrange regional governance for the 400K who don’t have access to medical care.. and go from there, right?

    then we could figure out how to make sure all those illegals and Syrians don’t take advantage…. right?

    😉

  9. it’s NOT LIKE the General Assembly has not passed a good variety of laws that do much encourage consolidation and “regionalism” to begin with.

    there are – already – ample existing tools to get govts to consolidate de jure and de facto.

    For instance, they could all adopt model ordinances – i.e. the SAME models. They COULD – and, in fact, DO – have REGIONAL transit, libraries, jails, water/sewer, solid-waste and more – but much less so – police, fire and schools…

    but in other states (and even in some parts of Va)- there ARE “consolidated school systems and even police!

    Finally – where EMR and Bacon could really get discussion going – is to be specific about what in particular are the obstacles that need to be overcome.. and be honest and realistic as to what truly are those causes …. and what needs to be done to “fix” it.

    Realistically – changes of these kinds are done in large part by referenda – i.e. “consent” of the people not centralized govt from afar – not without those who seem to believe otherwise.

    Now – YES the Feds DO MANDATE MPOs … that’s true and perhaps that’s a good part of this discussion.

    Remember also – Va created more than 50 years ago – Planning Districts for uber regions and they exist to this day and are effective in coordination and collaboration:

  10. here are the MPOs in Virginia:

  11. As a point of reference, an Iowa state legislator has introduced a proposal that would reduce Iowa’s 99 counties and 100 courthouses (Lee County has two county seats – Keokuk and Fort Madison) into 40 counties, with 40 courthouses, to increase the efficiencies for local government. http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/iowa-legislators-wants-to-cut-full-grassley-by-more-than-half-20160211

    Having lived in Des Moines for 5 years in the early 1980s, I don’t expect this will pass. Changing governmental boundaries creates uncertainty and the risk of power shifts.

    I sense similar consolidation in Virginia would receive a similar reaction. And in larger jurisdictions, such as Fairfax County, I see more of a push to breaking up the county into more sovereign units for more local control. Local control being DR’s favorite.

    I too like local control, but, as Larry notes, also want to see checks and balances that limit just how far local government can go. Doing nothing often produces the best results.

    • Excellent comment TMT:

      There is a pressing, indeed urgent, need to break up Fairfax County.

      The long and ugly history of the Fairfax County’s irresponsible exercise of raw political power in service of a small cabal among its ruling business class has over the past 45 years reeked immense harm throughout the entire Washington Metropolitan Region. And not least in Northern Virginia.

      Now the horrendous consequences of this damage hang like a poisonous cloud over a vast region of Virginia citizens – from Point of Rocks to Winchester to Front Royal to Strasburg to Little Washington to Culpeper to Fredericksburg and south past LadySmith and east though Bowling Green to Port Royal on the Rappahanock and on to Dahlgren on the Potomac.

      That center of damage increasingly focuses, however, on Fairfax County as the bad habits of a generation who have for far too long been in power there in Fairfax now settles into intractability that costs its good citizens daily, sucking their free time, their health and hard earned money out of their pocketbooks, their lives, and their families, daily.

    • The crux to solutions rest in territorial democracy with its roots in place.

      This is so because the alternatives are fatally flawed as history has proven to us over and over again. For example:

      The adherents of Pure Democracy never fail to reject their society’s reverence for its traditions, its cultural and spiritual mores, its rituals and prescriptions, its faith in matters outside government. This destruction they must do over time to pursue and maintain their own personal power.

      Hence the pure democrat never fails to assault those traditions so as to ultimately destroy the order in their society that resides outside of themselves. And along with it, to destroy the historic means of fellow citizens to live under due process and justice in a pluralistic society, until the tyranny of those few in the former majority that are left standing have destroyed the order of all society, including themselves, after the public laws and independent courts, and the churches, and families, and private charities and wealth of others have been burned up by the many on the altars of their own envy, and thereafter burned up on the alters of power and hidden wealth left in the hands of the final few.

      Hence the pure democracy first resorts to dictates of the many imposed on the few that morph over time into the dictates of the few imposed on the many by an ever more centralized power controlled only by an ever smaller group of people, all for the benefit of those few. Pure democracy, the dictatorship of the majority, invariable over time achieves its reverse.

      For example, Jeffersonian Democracy morphed into the Jacksonian Age that, for a time, skated close to this edge of gross disorder until saved in the nick of time by Lincoln and what made Lincoln.

      Another variant is socialism. Its adherents also hijack traditional mores. And does so the name of equality for all in all things. Hence socialists destroy private property. Hence they destroy distinctions between individuals and groups. Things G0d given – as between sexes, between the wise and foolish, between the prudent and reckless, the industrious and the slack-lard, the tall and short,the stout and the thin, all are erased as the tyrants widen their power to include all differences, real and imagined, as such destruction is always necessary if the leaders in an increasingly lawless society are to maintain power and means to deploy it for themselves for their own benefit, against an ever increasing list of potential enemies.

      Often too the same dreary result is achieved by starting at the opposite extreme. The survival of the fittest, the court of unrestrained competition. In such a court, the results are driven solely by the talent, strength, greed, and ruthlessness of those who seize and wield the power of government for their own private and selfish ends. So, here again, everyone else ends up working for the benefits of their rulers who pretend to be looking after the public interest, while they feed themselves like pigs at the public trough, stealing for themselves ever more public monies, flavors, benefits, and handouts, and well as the livelihoods and labors of others.

      • Reed – did you answer the question about what to do – instead?

        Bacon does the same thing – he lays out in chapter and verse the problems but then he just stops… and leave it laying there like a dead blame-game mackerel stinking up the room…

        jesus guy

        Acbar – can you please weigh in here? PLEASE!

    • Hint: Store that mackerel in ice while you brush up on The Works of Orestes A. Brownson (1882-87).

  12. re: ” I too like local control, but, as Larry notes, also want to see checks and balances that limit just how far local government can go. Doing nothing often produces the best results.”

    we know how Don feels about Richmond “control”. I don’t think remember what Jim B’s view is or the others who weigh in..

    how about it – what do others think?

    should Richmond control land use and/or tell localities that they cannot?

    re” nothing produces best results”.

    now there you go again TMT….

    I bet you’d SUPPORT this change – that local Schools could not spend more than what the SOQ mandates are unless they account for every penny of it on a line item basis.

    I bet you’d support that….

    😉

    • Larry I said doing nothing “often” produces the best results. I’ve long believed that elected officials can provide significant benefits to the public and set course for economic growth simply by managing government efficiently. Putting together a string of budgets that spend tax dollars efficiently and provide existing services effectively is likely to attract business growth and new firms as well as any other strategy.

      And I have always liked checks and balances to keep government from going overboard in any direction. Checks and balances have resulted in two big compromises on gun issues and tolling I-66 inside the Beltway/expanding I-66 eastbound by one lane between the Beltway and Ballston. That’s not a bad result.

      • did you say “compromise”?

        holy moly…

        change from the status quo and now compromise..

        be still my heart!

      • TMT –

        While I agree with you generally on both paragraphs above, I suspect the devil is in the detail. For example, you say “that checks and balances have resulted in two big compromises on gun issues and tolling I-66 inside the Beltway/expanding I-66 eastbound by one lane between the Beltway and Ballston. That’s not a bad result.”

        With regard to the road issues, how can we now say that the full consequences of the current proposals are now fully known, outlined vetted and explained to the public? Is it not the obligation of good government to insure that this open and full discussion happens? How do we insure that it does, particularly given past history?

        • re: ” How do we insure that it does, particularly given past history?”

          more important – do we not go forward until that answer is provided to the satisfaction of those asking it?

  13. Fallows was on CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS show yesterday. Basically as stated by Jim: he feels America is doing well on the whole, except for dysfunctional national politics. I was given some hope of the manufacturing renaissance that seems to be too slow to arrive.

  14. TBill says:

    “Basically as stated by Jim: he feels America is doing well on the whole, except for dysfunctional national politics.”

    I suspect that in Virginia the root of the problem might be the reverse:

    Namey the dysfunctional of Virginia’s local politics.

    And that this dysfunction is so deep and has been going on for so long that while Virginia citizens can “feel it” they have a hard time seeing it or putting a finger on it, namely: the gross immaturity of effective and open representative government in their state of Virginia, a dysfunction and immaturity that starts on the local level and infects the entire system of governance to its top in the capital city of Richmond.

    The genesis of this never corrected problem going on for hundreds of years is that, from the beginning of the Commonwealth, its center of political power has resided in and around the County Courthouses of Virginia.

    Lawyers have always ruled Virginia in their ordinary practice of law daily from top to bottom and those lawyers too often still rule today, doing their work every day. The problem is that Lawyers answer to no one but special interests. Those who pay their fees, whether hourly and/or contingent, and to often its a mix of the two, based on results or arrangements of mutual benefit.

    Hence cabals of private interests come to dictate the terms of what should be public debate but occur within the format and forums of negotiations held in camera as if they were private and so are treated as private, when in fact they reach over into public matters on which decisions are covertly made, and so too easily are corrupted, if only by the process they are arrived at, although surprisingly virtuous at times in Virginia as well.

    It is system so old that it left its legacy to the Byrd machine that thrives today far more than realized. This legacy is likely the root of many of the problems most recently spun off by the poor land use and development decisions of Fairfax County that today reek so much harm to an entire region from Richmond Virginia to Frederick and Baltimore Maryland.

  15. Reed – ” Namey the dysfunctional of Virginia’s local politics.”

    there are 133 “local” govt in Virginia….

    are you making a blanket statement here?

  16. One cannot understand the governance of a jurisdiction, and what is going on in that place politically, socially, culturally, or economically today, without knowing the history of that place.

    This is because our history defines our present and our future far more than we realize and/or are willing to admit. That is always the case. But it is particularly so in a jurisdiction as rich in history and tradition as Virginia.

    Hence, to best understand what is Fairfax County today, and what is going on there today, one must grasp key elements of Virginia history and Fairfax County’s place within that history. This is a highly unusual story, one that has produced highly unusual results, a place of odd and eccentric extremes.

    Here, very briefly, using extremely broad and general strokes, I will try to paint a picture of that remarkable past as it has and still does drive Fairfax County’s present. This will take more than one comment to this article.

    Russell Kirk described Virginia’s local system of governance from colonial times as follows:

    “In the Old Dominion, county governments overshadowed towns; indeed, the typical county center was scarcely even a hamlet, but instead a courthouse in the countryside with an inn, a grocery, a few straggling houses nearby …. (so) The Virginian counties were controlled by the county courts-which were justices of the peace (perhaps eight to twelve of them), meeting as a body.

    These county courts amounted to benevolent oligarchies, powers unto themselves; even the House of Burgesses had to defer to them on occasion, and did not venture to interfere with their authority … (and) as the pattern of local government developed in Virginia, these justices became virtually a self-perpetuating body, for the governors found it unwise to appoint new justices except (from) candidates on a list submitted by county courts, or to interfere with what became life tenure in office. The justices (who received neither salary nor fees), and therefore the members of the county courts, were men of large landed properties, usually well educated, and sometimes trained in the law: Virginia gentlemen.

    These county courts selected, indirectly or directly, all other county officials; they had jurisdiction over most criminal cases, as well as civil, and they possessed in fact judicial, legislative, executive, and electoral powers in their counties. Thus most of the practical business of government in Virginia was carried on by men who were neither elected nor, in reality, appointed, but who chose their own successors.”

    Quoting Virginia historian Charles Sydnor, Kirk goes on:

    ” The semi-independent status of the counties had long run effects on American history as well as immediate effects on the choice of political leadership in Virginia … (given) the advantages of strongly fortified local positions during conflicts with the King’s representatives in Williamsburg … the Virginia courts were undemocratic, but they served democracy well (helping the Virginian’s build the American Federal system of government.) See The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk. (1973, 2003)

    Next I will suggest why Virginia’s system of court governance had an unusually strong and very long lasting impact the governance of Fairfax County, and how that impact combined the geography and other historic events to achieve the eccentric results we find in today’s Fairfax County.

    TO BE CONTINUED.

    • of course Fairfax and places like it have now become the ultimate in socialistic enterprises, right?

      roads, transit, schools, parks, water/sewer, sanitation, all govt-operated and funded by taxpayers…

      • “of course Fairfax and places like it have now become the ultimate in socialistic enterprises, right?

        roads, transit, schools, parks, water/sewer, sanitation, all govt-operated and funded by taxpayers…”

        Yes you are right except that it is now government sponsored and taxpayer paid, but privately operated for the benefit of a few in business. This is crony capitalism on steroids on Fairfax County. It’s a scandal that has been going on there in Fairfax County for a very long time in plain sight. It is, for one of many examples, what the governors recent 16 million dollar gift to facilitate recent deal on Exxon site was all about.

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