Solving our civic challenges: A Q&A with Andy Smarick

Written by Derek Monson

November 18, 2021

Many disagreements in politics and public policy come down to differences in “fundamental principles and priorities,” according to Andy Smarick, senior fellow at Manhattan Institute. That is a natural feature, not a flaw, of America’s civic fabric. “It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about tax policy, school choice, welfare programs, the Second Amendment, trade, or something else – people will see such debates as reflections of values they hold dear. This isn’t a problem. This is what it means to live in liberty and to be able to self-govern.”

The problem, he argues in a recent American Purpose essay, is not our disagreements. Rather, it’s how “today’s political discourse is misleading us about our state of affairs, making us believe that things are far worse than in fact they are.”

“The people leading our public discussions need to better understand and reflect public service in America,” concludes Andy. In our Q&A with Smarick about his essay, he offers various additional prescriptions for our civic problems.

We must solve problems with civic institutions, for starters. “We … need institutions that are worthy of trust, institutions that are clear about what they are aiming to accomplish and have leaders and members … that advance the public good over private interest,” says Smarick. “This used to be commonly understood as ‘republican virtue’ or ‘civic virtue.’ We need to recover that commitment.”

We also must solve problems with our media coverage of politics and government. “One of the biggest problems we face is the loss of local media, particularly local newspapers,” according to Smarick. “We need to revitalize local media. That’s ultimately a necessary condition for improvement in public affairs.”

For Smarick, one of the leading solutions for these problems is localism. “It is easier to know, and therefore easier to trust, entities that are nearby – entities with which you can interact … a big part of the answer is decentralization,” he says. For institutional problems, “Americans have higher levels of trust for close-to-home institutions, like local governments and local police, and principles-based institutions, like the U.S. military.” While in the media realm, “close-to-home news keeps our eyes on the issues we can control, it gets us engaged with real people and real events, it encourages participation, and so much more.”

“A major challenge of our time is reestablishing Americans’ sense of community and solidarity,” says Smarick. “Those are founded on local loyalties and local engagement.”

Read the full Q&A between Smarick and Sutherland Institute vice president of policy Derek Monson about Smarick’s recent American Purpose essay below.

Monson: You argue that the distorted portrayal of our public life is undermining faith in America and its institutions. Assuming we can fix the problem of inaccurately portraying America to Americans, how do you restore that lost trust that is a critical component of America’s civic infrastructure?

Smarick: Surveys show that trust in institutions generally is down. That should concern us. Distressingly high percentages of Americans think Congress is doing a poor job and don’t trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. But Americans have higher levels of trust for close-to-home institutions, like local governments and local police, and principles-based institutions, like the U.S. military. It is easier to know, and therefore easier to trust, entities that are nearby – entities with which you can interact, entities with leaders you can know personally. So a big part of the answer is decentralization. If we invest more authority in institutions closer to the American people, we will feel a whole lot better about those institutions – we’ll also be better equipped to watch over those institutions and make sure they are doing what we want. We also need institutions that are worthy of trust, institutions that are clear about what they are aiming to accomplish and have leaders and members who behave in responsible and honorable ways – ways that advance the public good over private interest. This used to be commonly understood as “republican virtue” or “civic virtue.” We need to recover that commitment.

Monson: You note that much of the best public service in America takes place at the state and local levels. Does this mean that more policy authority needs to move toward those levels of government? If so, how do you accomplish that? If not, how do you make federal governance better resemble the quality of public service that you note at the state and local levels?

Smarick: Yes, definitely, we need to return more power to states, and states need to delegate more authority to localities and non-governmental bodies. Part of this answer is the courts. We need to ensure the federal government is held to its enumerated powers and that executive-branch federal agencies aren’t allowed to step out of their lanes. But we also need leaders in the federal elected branches to resist the temptation to run everything from Washington. We need governors to step up, too, and take charge of the most important issues of the day – whether related to family policy, education, law enforcement, or something else. We also need to recommit to American pluralism. We live in a diverse, continental, democratic republic conceived in liberty. People want to control their own lives, and different communities will have different views about the right way to foster the good life. We have to return to the idea that it is proper and good for people to self-govern and for different communities to make different decisions.

Monson: Among the reasons you give for the distortion of public life is systematic changes in news and other media, both traditional and social. Is that a problem that must be fixed? If so, how? If not, how do you address the problem of misinformation misleading the public?

Smarick: I believe one of the biggest problems we face is the loss of local media, particularly local newspapers. Close-to-home news keeps our eyes on the issues we can control, it gets us engaged with real people and real events, it encourages participation, and so much more. When we can’t stay apprised of and connected to things nearby, our eyes wander to faraway events and figures – people and happenings we don’t know and can’t control. We see a few frightening anecdotes and believe things are falling apart; we feel like we can’t exert influence on the matters that matter most. We become alienated and polarized – even radicalized. A major challenge of our time is reestablishing Americans’ sense of community and solidarity. Those are founded on local loyalties and local engagement.

Monson: You argue that in a nation as large and diverse as the United States, “there will always be different priorities and value systems.” Many political and policy arguments, however, tend to boil down to some form of framing the values and priorities of the other side as a threat to America or Americans. Why are you right and they wrong, and how do you persuade people of that in a political environment seemingly dominated by such polarized rhetoric?

Smarick: Every issue boils down to fundamental principles and priorities – concepts like justice, liberty, community, opportunity, duty, equality, and self-rule. So every debate boils down to clashes of such principles and priorities. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about tax policy, school choice, welfare programs, the Second Amendment, trade, or something else – people will see such debates as reflections of values they hold dear. This isn’t a problem. This is what it means to live in liberty and to be able to self-govern. It’s why we have separated powers and federalism. Americans will come to different conclusions about pressing matters. We have a glorious system of government that – if adhered to faithfully – gives us ways to discuss these issues and reach settlements. So we have to be comfortable with political arguments. But we have to do a much better job of making sure people don’t think such debates mean our opponents are evil; in the vast majority of cases, our opponents are simply people who’ve reached different conclusions. Part of the solutions is doing a better job of explaining that part of American citizenship is respecting our system of government and our fellow citizens. Another part is preserving our system’s governing principles – like democracy, liberty, separation of powers, and federalism – so people can engage in productive ways. Another part is a renewed effort at national “unum.” “Pluribus” is all around us – our differences abound. But we need people to appreciate that we are all fellow citizens with shared commitments and duties. We can only hold together a vast, diverse nation if people believe in the things that unite us. 

Monson: One of the arguments of your essay is that our civic state of affairs is much better than is often publicly portrayed. How do you break through the noise to help people understand that?

Smarick: We need the people with huge platforms to have more governing experience, especially governing experience at the state and local levels. As is, we have radio hosts, podcasters, cable-news figures, columnists, and more – people who are shaping our public discourse – who’ve never participated in the work of self-government. They don’t know nearly enough about the work of governing, and they report on things from a national, abstracted perspective. They can’t know much about the thousands and thousands of local communities across our land. Worse, because of the way new media is funded, they are incentivized to cover the most radioactive issues in the most radioactive ways. We need to revitalize local media. That’s ultimately a necessary condition for improvement in public affairs. But until that happens, we need newspapers, cable news outlets, magazines, and other platforms to elevate people with governing experience, especially governing experience at the state and local levels. The people leading our public discussions need to better understand and reflect public service in America.

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