Book Review: Sarah S. Elkind How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy

Sarah S. Elkind, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011)

Reviewed by Art Menius August 13, 2015

I came upon Sarah Elkind’s How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles from 2011 quite serendipitously. I am grateful that I did because she covers a vital and under explored period in American localism history before, during, and after the Anti-Chain Store movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Elkind also examines how public attitudes toward progressive federal government action on the ground level changed after World War II in ways that would emerge powerfully after 1980 in neoliberalism. Most important for localism, the methods studied by Elkind suggest ways that twenty first century localists can wield greater political power.

Elkind, who teaches and manages the Public History Internship Program at San Diego State, worked through a mass of primary sources to examine environmental policy disputes related to southern California from the 1920s to the 1950s. She moves from the most local – protection of beach fronts from oil drilling and private developments – to the nationwide impact of local interests on water resource management policy. Her goal is to explore how local business associations achieved a status that made them the most influential of all urban interest groups to such a degree that during mid-20th century they weren’t considered interest groups. This lofty position far surpassed their numbers and economic power.

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce had such power that the general public had little civic voice. Government officials treated the Chamber as the voice of the people, creating a feedback loop where the Chamber could support the very policies they had written. During the New Deal such business groups gained power in federal policy making. “With this new power,” Elkind writes, “American business groups recast private enterprise, localism, and fragmented government authority as the best guarantors of American democracy.” Through this power, during the second quarter of the 20th century, commonwealth liberalism of the progressive era gave way to corporate neoliberalism. Elkind deftly traces this through public beach policy and public attitudes in Los Angeles County that resembles efforts in the Carolinas today to prevent off shore drilling. From that topic she moves to increasing reach of local forces in air quality, flood control, and hydroelectricity

The rise of the antigovernment New Right led to a rejection of government regulation and of government itself. This process was supported by business groups’ claims to speak for the general public and celebration of government-business collaboration. By creating the perception of the growth of excessive, unchecked federal authority combined with wasteful spending federal funds, they convince citizens, especially after the New Deal and World War II to embrace local control and a strong private sector as the solution. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers blatantly engineered local politics of approval of the Whittier Narrows Dam near El Monte, California, in ways that built resentment and contributed to future rejection of federal programs.

Controversy erupted over the construction of, ownership of electricity produced by, and distribution of the water from the Boulder (now Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River. Arizona used state sovereignty arguments to delay the Hoover Dam and force concessions. This led to an eventual resolution in which the public sector was to check the private, which was expected to balance the public. This put the private sector into the role the American founders had planned for the various states in creating the federal government. The process culminated in the 1950 defeat of President Truman’s attempt to create a coordinated national water planning policy indicated, Elkind surmised, that the public “looked to business to direct and contain the power of government.”

Thus local politics would shape water resource policy with local power brokers wielding great influence. American business groups who complained about inefficient federal spending simultaneously supported those inefficiencies that gave them local control and advantages. This local influence, moreover, did not make federal policy making more democratic. It simply shifted control to local elites

Unfortunately, even though Elkind titled Chapter Five “The Triumph of Localism. The rejection of National Water Planning in 1950,” she never attempts to define “localism.” The inference of the monograph is that “localism” means placing local political, economic, and environmental needs over state, regional, and national priorities. She provides rich examples of municipal governments and especially local business groups advancing policy that benefits their local interests and opposing that which does the opposite.

How they did this does suggest means through which twenty first century localists can advance their goals, including reversing the expansion of global neoliberalism.

  • Local business groups first gained influence by supporting municipal officials with “a wide range of political services” that included research, policy position papers and drafting ordinances.
  • Groups controlled the framing of policy questions to their advantage.
  • They used means (now expanded greatly by the Internet), such as letters to the editor and radio advertising, to present their positions and thus sway the general public
  • Groups positioned themselves not as special interests but the voices of a majority of local citizens, and
  • They exploited intra governmental, intergovernmental, and interagency conflicts, weaknesses, and inadequate funding.

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