Sunday’s Kansas City Star was the first one I’ve bothered to pick up in some time. It’s also an issue I don’t intend to throw out any time soon. Richard Montgomery’s “Against the odds, our towns endure,” was a vivid, refreshingly fair look at the spirit of small Kansas townships.
These communities, the Star reported, are eroding: in 1950, 36 percent of Americans lived outside of urban areas; fewer than 19 percent do today. Even the article’s tone made it clear that Americans are increasingly isolated from authentic communities. At times, Montgomery seemed to be writing about the friendly residents of Overbrook, Kansas — population 1,000 — as if they were the inhabitants of an alien planet.
Yet the piece held a spark of hope. “In times that seem to be against them,” Montgomery wrote, “small towns stay alive only because people want them to.” Small towns, after all, “remain deeply ingrained in our DNA.”
Montgomery is right — and not just figuratively. Our ancestors formed small communities before they could walk on two legs. According to Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, humans lived in groups of about 150 people for most of the 200,000 years that we’ve been on the planet.
Large, centralized societies, on the other hand, are a blip on the timeline of our existence. Humans have, during this blip, steadily contorted ourselves into a pattern in which we are not wired to be happy and fulfilled. There are good reasons, then, why we might wish to return to something more like the lifestyle for which we were designed.
Because our ancestors spent most of their time in small groups, for instance, they could expect to enjoy positions of relative significance; a single person might easily affect the dynamic of his whole community. To paraphrase Richard Montgomery, everybody dies famous in Overbrook.
In today’s large-scale society, however, most of us are lost in a whirling abyss of strangers. According to sociologist Robert Wuthnow, Americans are increasingly shifting away from lifelong commitments to families, neighborhoods and communities. Likewise, self-reported happiness in the U.S. has been on the general decline since we began to measure it. Some of our despondence may come from the fact that our lives do not have the significance our brains expect them to.
The 19th century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “The village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself…It is man who makes monarchies and establishes republics, but the township seems to come directly from the hand of God.”
As it happens, Tocqueville, a Frenchman, was reflecting on the townships he toured here in the U.S. America’s strong local governments, he theorized, kept democracy in the U.S. from becoming tyrannical, as it had in France under the Reign of Terror. Yet Tocqueville warned that townships are under constant threat from political centralization.
Tocqueville’s warning should give us pause. Modern America is a top-down democracy of over 300 million human beings. If Dunbar is right, each of us has the capacity to meaningfully conceptualize about 150 of those human beings as people — whether we admit it or not.
Our local legislators often share our experiences and are accountable directly to us. Yet it is federal legislators, elected by people who have never even visited our communities, that have the most power over our lives. While local governments can make bad choices, moreover, a central authority can impose its bad choices on everyone – even those localities that would otherwise have made the right one.
For these reasons, I found the most powerful anecdote in Montgomery’s article to be his interview with Overbook resident Cheryl Miller. Miller, a native of urban Michigan, did not grow up in a small town. She moved to Overbrook — where she bought a house built in 1875 and planted 13 fruit trees — to “escape the traffic.”
In the article, Miller says, “I’m hoping there’s going to be a resurgence of those simpler values, and we’ll see people move back to places like Overbrook.” Though we may pretend otherwise, a spark of tradition remains with us. When we remember the importance of genuine community and local government, it can, and should be, rekindled.
Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.