A New Look at an Old Tension in American Politics

George Sibley, Headwaters Conference Coordinator

In America we have always endured an unresolved tension between the national and the local, the centralized and the decentralized. This tension is not always before us in an articulated way, but it is always there waiting, and can emerge seemingly out of nowhere to take center stage in the political forum for a while – then, as suddenly, drop below the public consciousness for another period of time.

This tension was probably most articulated and argued in the founding years of the Republic, when the strange coalition of bedfellows thrown together for the revolt against the British began to try to sort out what they had won.

Was America going to be the strong independent industrial and mercantile competitor in the world market that the Alexander Hamiltons and Sam Adamses wanted, with a strong centralized economy linking the growing coastal city-states into an economic nation-state? Or was the future going to be shaped by those who had come to America and gone inland to escape all that Anglo-European industrializing and urbanizing, and envisioned Thomas Jefferson’s federation of decentralized agro-pastoral regions linked by a postal system, a few roads, and not much else?

Jefferson believed that an “energetic government...is always oppressive,” going on to observe that “every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers...alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.” He argued that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” and claimed that “the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” His faith in the people seemed at times almost dangerously naive: “I have such a reliance on the good sense of the body of the people and the honesty of their leaders that I am not afraid of their letting things go wrong to any length in any cause.”

Hamilton countered with the observation that “all communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people” who are governed by “their passions.” He wanted to create a “firm Union” of the states with “a distinct, permanent share” in that governance for the first group, the rich and well born “few,” as a way of checking what he believed to be “the turbulent and changing...unsteadiness of the second.” According to legend, he established the extreme opposite to Jefferson’s faith in the people, allegedly telling someone who was espousing the virtues of the people: “Your people, sir, is a great beast.” (Bailey)

But however persuasive the “decentralists” might have been in their arguments, it was not to be their time. The “idea whose time had come” in Euro-American society was the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the fabulous promise of European-style capitalism. Seven years before the American Declaration of Independence, James Watt had developed the steam engine that would set industry free from dependence on water, wood, muscle the other limitations of solar income, and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of beneficent self-interest had declared capitalism free from conscious social responsibility the same year that the Declaration of Independence declared America free from England.

To the extent, then, that the American Revolution was “Jeffersonian,” it was probably better described as a counterrevolution against the Industrial Revolution, and despite the efforts of Daniel Shays and his followers in Western Massachusetts and the Whiskey Rebels in Western Pennsylvania, that counterrevolution was soon forced into a long retreat, all the way across the continent and the 19th century.

Everywhere Americans went, through the 19th and 20th centuries, there were Hamiltonian revolutionaries advancing the urban-industrial frontier with its centralized “back-East” networks of finance, and Jeffersonian counterrevolutionaries trying to establish and hold locally sufficient agrarian beachheads against those massive and coordinated networks of the Industrial Revolutionaries.

Sometimes, like in Oregon and Utah, the agrarians got there before the industrialists; sometimes, like here in the Southern Rockies, the industrialists got here first. And politicians thrived to the extent that they could keep the dialogue muddied and appear to be on both sides; thus this great unresolved American debate remained mostly just an unresolved and unarticulated tension – only occasionally did it get articulated enough to actually erupt into political conflict, as in the populist uprising of the 1880s and 90s, the socialist movement of the 1930s, and most recently, the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1980s and “county movement” of the 1990s to “take back” the public lands.

But the real story of this philosophically unarticulated tension has been told most clearly in American demographics – people voting with their feet. From around the second quarter of the 19th century well into the third quarter of the 20th century – a century and a half – the American people moved steadily into the cities from the countryside – and by the end of the Civil War, the countryside itself was so captive to urban markets and national transportation and finance systems as to be only nominally Jeffersonian. America’s country cousins observed wryly that they exported everything they raised to the cities, including their children and (given the value-added differential for goods manufactured from their raw resources) most of their incomes. Sometimes the flow of immigration went faster (usually in times of general economic recession or depression) and sometimes it went slower (in good times all around), but it never let up.

So no matter what the people believed in their minds, their votes with their feet all served Hamiltonian centralization and nationalization. And the country-to-city migration was accompanied by a growing disregard for and low opinion of the rural life. Americans continued to pay a kind of slobbery lip service to “the family farm” and “the small town” in a nostalgic Currier-and-Ives manner, but in real matters there was a significantly diminished respect for the local and rural. Writers like Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis damned it with faint praise at best, and outright contempt often enough.

This anti-rural contumely seemed to become public policy around the turn of the century when presidents, beginning with Benjamin Harrison and culminating under Theodore Roosevelt, began setting aside public lands in large quantities. At that point in time, the real damage to the nation’s forest had mostly been done by good industrial capitalists working under the Hamiltonian vision for America, but the rhetoric accompanying the forest reservations indicated that the reservations were all being done to protect the nation’s forests from rural woodcutters, tiehackers, ranchers and other local users. It seemed somehow necessary to elevate the urban-industrial paradigm by doing and saying whatever could be done and said to diminish rurality.

For the first half of the 20th century, non-urban, non-industrial America was all but invisible – noticed only as a source of problems unsolvable by the hick populations still stuck in the hinterlands. The urban-industrial mainstream was reminded of the countryside only by figurative “clouds of dust” out on the urban horizon like the Teapot Dome scandal that President Harding escaped by conveniently dying, and then the literal clouds of dust of the Dust Bowl.

From a global perspective, the 20th century could be looked at as an almost universal experiment in centralized industrial economies. By the middle of the century, the “civilized” parts of the world were divided into two massive experiments in centralized economics contending for control of each other and the “Third World”: in Eastern Europe and Asia, the communist model, and in Western Europe and North America, the regulated corporate capitalist model. Both models were grounded in the conviction that through centralized professional planning, regulation, monitoring and “fine-tuning” by experts, a global economy could be constructed and run like a great machine.

Late in the century, the communist model died in a head-on collision with the corporate capitalist model – the appropriate analogy would be the often-cited advantages in a wreck of a high-end spare-no-expense SUV over an economy-size Trabant. But the corporate capitalist machine didn’t exactly escape that head-on collision unscathed; massive debt was passed forward, and today it seems to be firing on about half its cylinders while practicing serious denial about long-term prognoses about eventual oil exhaustion. Economic and political centralization on the scale pursued in the 20th century may not be as viable as it looked in 1950 – or the 1780s when the Hamiltonian nationalists and the Jeffersonian (true) federalists were duking it out over the Constitution.

But wherever one’s mind and heart stand on that issue today, the American demographic foot-vote has now begun to shift away from the industrial city and that level of imperial centralization. In the 1970s, American demographers noticed that, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, nonmetropolitan America had been gaining population faster that metropolitan America. They called it the “nonmetropolitan population turnaround”: rural America was, for the first time in American history, gaining population rather than giving it up to the cities.

With the recession that began in the early 1980s, this demographic phenomenon disappeared as a general thing, and some demographers declared that it was probably just an aberration rather than the beginning of a new era in American political and economic history. But then, as America came out of that recession in the late 1980s, the “turnaround” began to show up again, and has persisted – a trend toward demographic, if not cultural, decentralization.

In a paper on this phenomenon, demographers Glenn Fuguitt of the University of Wisconsin and Calvin Beale of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture try to hypothesize why this has happened, not once but twice now in 30 years. They suggest such economic factors as booms in rural extractive industries (rather modest, actually, in the 1980s and 90s), the shift of metro manufacturing away from cities, and “technological and social trends supporting a more deconcentrated settlement for jobs and residences, coupled with the preferences many people hold for low density living” (12).

Beale, however, also collaborated with another demographer, Kenneth Johnson of Loyola University, on a more focused 2002 study of a specific part of “nonmetropolitan America”: what they called “recreational counties” outside of the standard metropolitan statistical areas (SMSAs). They identified “327 nonmetropolitan counties with significant concentrations of recreational activity,” which counties contained 16 percent of the nonmetropolitan population in 2000. According to Beale and Johnson, between 1990 and 2000 these 327 counties increased in population by 20.3 percent, compared to a 13.2 percent gain for the United States overall.

And, in contrast to the nonmetropolitan counties as a whole, the “turnaround” did not disappear in most of the recreational counties in the 1980s. According to Johnson and Beale, “Data spanning three turbulent decades in nonmetropolitan history demonstrates ... (that) although the recreational counties were not immune to temporal variability in the factors that influence demographic change, they consistently had population and migration gains that far exceeded those in most other types of counties” (Johnson & Beale,1).

Does the demographic evidence that significant numbers of Americans are physically moving from urban-industrial centers, to the “hinterlands” their parents or grandparents probably abandoned a generation or two ago, necessarily imply some conscious and deliberate philosophical shift in their thinking about that old tension between the centralized nation-state and the decentralized republic?
Not necessarily – not necessarily conscious and deliberate, at any rate. There is, in fact, quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that these “turnaround immigrants” are not thinking of the move in large philosophical terms at all. Some have a clearer sense of what they are leaving than of what they think they are coming into – escape from stressful or dangerous environments, from insignificant and futureless work, from the density and intensity of urban life. Others think they are returning to some simpler, purer way of life, untouched by modernity. Some – retirees, many of them – are making economically rational decisions involving costs of housing, energy, medical care and other living expenses. And some are actually looking pretty specifically just for the recreational opportunities available in “recreational counties.” Most of the migrants into the “recreational communities” combine most of those reasons to one degree or another.

Nonetheless, most of these immigrants are somewhat cosmopolitan individuals, usually with at least some college education as well as life experience in modern economic and political spheres – a group that should be considered fertile ground for the intelligent consideration of deeper underlying cultural issues like that long-endured but unarticulated tension about the true destiny of the republic.

Johnson and Beale point out one characteristic of recreational counties that certainly most of the “turnaround immigrants” seem to have a more developed awareness of than the Americans who “stayed home” in the city, and that is the environmental implications of their own Big Move (or at least the Big Move of the next person after them). “The scenic amenities that attract visitors and migrants to recreational areas are often part of fragile ecosystems,” Johnson and Beale state. “Lakes, seashores and forests that visitors and residents find appealing may be subjected to significant levels of environmental stress by the sheer scale of human activity” (3). Much – maybe most – of the local and regional environmental activism that is part of the focus of this Headwaters Conference is either led or supported by these “new people” (many of whom have been “new people” in their communities for twenty or thirty years now).

In the event that anyone reading this has not already intuited it – every county in the mountain valleys that make up the “Headwaters Region” is on the Beale and Johnson list of “recreational counties.” Eighty-four of the 327 counties – more than a fourth – are in the Rocky Mountain states. Some of these counties in Colorado and Utah are close enough to the SMSAs in those states to be considered part of metropolitan expansion, but most of the Headwaters Region represents a true “decentralization” away from the metropolis. A show of hands would show that the majority of those attending this conference either grew up in, or have spent significant time in, the urban-industrial mainstream, and most would agree that they are here for some personal pursuit of “re-creation” in their lives.

It is also worth noting that a lot of the born natives living today in the Headwaters Region did serious time in metropolitan America, either in college or the military or some other prodigal venture, but, having “seen the elephant,” came back to nonmetro America. A lot of brothers and sisters also left and didn’t return, but some of the “turnaround” has also happened within a single generation.
So what are we to make of all this? I would suggest that the tension between these two versions of America, the centralized industrial metropolis and the decentralized “post-industrial” community, might actually be healthy – not the two visions, but the tension between them. And the more we manage to articulate the situation – both the visions, and the tension between them – the healthier American culture might be.

To the extent that the tension between the centralized and decentralized visions for America focuses on the public lands, I would argue that we don’t want to resolve it. As Dan Kemmis points out in This Sovereign Land (39), most of the public lands were created out of a kind of imperial arrogance that tried to deny the hard-earned knowledge and experience (some of it certainly hard on the land) at the local level. But for all decision-making on public lands to pass into local hands would take the political pendulum too far the other way; there is a larger picture in which local communities must see themselves clearly.

The choice between local communities disenfranchised from significant participation in the management of the environment they must survive in, and a nation with no public lands on which to work out its own balance of extractions and amenities, is a choice we don’t want to make one way or the other. Much better to work it out “down on the ground,” one situation at a time, but with both of the larger visions well and articulately represented.


Bailey, Thomas A. The American Spirit: United States History as seen by Contemporaries, Volume I. 3rd edition. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., Vol. I, 1973.

Fuguitt, Glenn V. (Dept. of Rural Sociology and Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Calvin L. Beale (Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington), 1995. “Recent Trends in Nonmetropolitan Migration: Toward a new turnaround?” Center For Demography and Ecology White Paper 95-07 (University of Wisconsin–Madison).

Johnson, Kenneth M. (Loyola University-Chicago) and Calvin L. Beale (Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington), 2002. “Recreational Counties in Nonmetropolitan America.” Found on a website summarizing their 2002 article “Nonmetro Recreation Counties: Their identification and rapid growth,” Rural America 17(4): 12-19.
Website: http://www.luc.edu/depts/sociology/johnson/p99webr.html

Kemmis, Daniel. This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West. Washington: Island Press, 2001.