Over the next four decades, American governments will oversee a much larger and far more diverse population. As we gain upward of 100 million people, America will inevitably become a more complex, crowded and competitive place, but it will continue to remain highly dependent on its people's innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.
In 2050, the U.S. will look very different from the country in 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium. By mid-century, the U.S. will no longer be a "white country," but rather a staggering amalgam of racial, ethnic and religious groups, all participants in the construction of a new civilization whose roots lie not in any one country or continent, but across the entirety of human cultures and racial types. No other advanced, populous country will enjoy such ethnic diversity.
The implications of this change will be profound for governments-perhaps in ways not now commonly anticipated. Many "progressives" believe a more diverse, populous nation will need more guidance from Washington, D.C., but a more complex and varied country will increasingly not fit well into a one-size-fits-all approach.
Although the economic crisis of 2008 led to a rapid rise of federal power, there has been a stunning and largely unexpected push-back reflected, in part, by the tea party movement. Some states have passed laws that seek to restrict federal prerogatives on a host of issues. More importantly, public opinion, measured in numerous surveys, seems to be drifting away from major expansions of government power.
Of course, most Americans would accede to the federal government an important role in developing public works, national defense and regulations for health and safety. But generally speaking, they also tend to believe that local communities, neighborhoods and parents should possess the power to craft appropriate solutions on many other problems.
This also reflects our historical experience. From its origins, American democracy has been largely self-created and fostered a dispersion of power; in many European countries, and more recently in parts of Asia, democracy was forged by central authorities.
Other periods of massive government intervention, most notably after the New Deal and the Great Society, also elicited reactions against centralization. But the current push-back's speed and ferocity has been remarkable. Yet the often polarizing debate about the scope of federal power largely has ignored the longer-term trends that will promote the efficacy of an increasingly decentralized approach to governance.
Perhaps the most important factor here is the trajectory of greater growth and increasing diversity of who we are and how we live. Not only are Americans becoming more racially diverse, but they inhabit a host of different environments, ranging from dense cities to urbanized suburbs, to smaller cities and towns, that have different needs and aspirations.
Americans also are more settled than any time in our history-partially a function of an aging population-and thus more concerned with local developments. As recently as the 1970s, one in five Americans moved annually; in 2004 that number was 14 percent, the lowest rate since 1950. In 2008, barely one in 10 moved, a fraction of the rate in the 1960s. Workers are increasingly unwilling to move even for a promotion due to family and other concerns. The recession accelerated this process, but the pattern appears likely to persist even in good times.
Americans also prefer to live in decentralized environments. There are more than 65,000 general-purpose governments; the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200-small enough that nonprofessional politicians can have a serious impact on local issues. This contrasts with the vast preference among academic planners, policy gurus and the national media for larger government units as the best way to regulate and plan for the future.
Short of a draconian expansion of federal power, this dispersion is likely to continue. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of all metropolitan growth in the last decade took place on the periphery; at the same time, the patterns of domestic migration have seen a shift away from the biggest cities and toward smaller ones. As Joel Garreau noted in his classic Edge City, "planners drool" over high-density development, but most residents in suburbia "hate a lot of this stuff." They might enjoy a town center, a paseo or a walking district, but they usually resent the proliferation of high-rises or condo complexes. If they wanted to live in buildings like them, they would have stayed in the city.
Attempts to force major densification in these areas will be fiercely resisted, even in the most liberal communities. Some of the strongest anti-growth hotbeds in the nation are areas like Fairfax County, Va., with high concentrations of progressives-well educated people who might seem amenable to environmentally correct "smart growth"-advocating denser development along transit corridors. As one planning director in a well-to-do suburban Maryland county put it, "Smart growth is something people want. They just don't want it in their own neighborhood."
The great long-term spur to successful dispersion will come from technology, as James Martin first saw in his pioneering 1978 book, The Wired Society. A former software designer for IBM, Martin foresaw the emergence of mass telecommunications that would allow a massive reduction in commuting, greater deconcentration of workplaces and a "localization of physical activities … centered in local communities."
Technology would allow skilled people to congregate in communities of their choice or at home. Today not only knowledge workers but also those in construction trades, agriculture and other professions are home-based, conducting their operations out of trucks, vans or home offices.
Many leading-edge companies now recognize this trend. As much as 40 percent of IBM's work force operates full time at home or remotely at clients' businesses. Siemens, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Merrill Lynch and American Express have expanded their use of telecommuting, with noted increases in productivity.
At the same time, employment is shifting away from mega-corporations to smaller units and individuals; between 1980 and 2000, self-employed individuals expanded tenfold to include 16 percent of the work force. The smallest businesses, the microenterprises, have enjoyed the fastest rate of growth, far more than any other business category. By 2006 there were some 20 million such businesses, one for every six private-sector workers.
Hard economic times could slow this trend, but recessions have historically served as incubators of innovation and entrepreneurship. Many individuals starting new firms will have recently left or been laid off by bigger companies, particularly during a severe economic downturn. Whether they form a new bank, energy company or design firm, they will do it more efficiently-with less overhead, more efficient Internet use and less emphasis on pretentious office settings. In addition, they will do it primarily in places that can scale themselves to economic realities.
Simultaneously the Internet's rise allows every business-indeed every family-unprecedented access to information, something that militates against centralized power. Given Internet access, many lay people aren't easily intimidated into accepting the ability of "experts" to dictate solutions based on exclusive knowledge since the hoi polloi now possess the ability to gather and analyze information. Even the powerful media companies are rapidly losing their ability to define agendas; there are too many sources of information to mobilize mass opinion. The widespread breakdown of support for climate change is a recent example of this phenomenon.
Once the current drive for centralization falters, support for decentralization will grow, including progressive communities that now favor a heavy-handed expansion of federal power. Attempts to impose solutions from a central point will be increasingly regarded as obtrusive and oppressive to them, just as they would to many more conservative places like South Dakota. In the coming era, in many cases, only locally based solutions-agreed to at the community, municipal or state level-can possibly gather strong support.
This drive toward dispersing power will prove critical if we hope to meet the needs of an unprecedentedly diverse and complex nation of 400 million. New forms of association-from local electronic newsletters to a proliferation of local farmers markets, festivals and a host of ad hoc social service groups-are already growing. Indeed, after a generation-long decline, volunteerism has spiked among Millennials and seems likely to surge among downshifting baby boomers. In 2008, some 61 million Americans volunteered, representing more than one-quarter of the population older than 16.
It's these more intimate units-the family, the neighborhood association, the church or local farmers market-that constitute what Thomas Jefferson called our "little republics," which are most critical to helping mid-21st-century America. Here, our nation of 400 million souls will find its fundamental sustenance and its best hope for the brightest future.
This article originally appeared in GOVERNING Magazine.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.