In one corner, there is Kentucky’s upbeat governor, whose attractive wife, five biological children, and four adopted children compose a family too large to fit into the traditional governor’s mansion.  New England-bred Matthew Bevin speaks out for religious freedom, promotes infrastructure on behalf of orphans in Africa and India, and has tried every trick in the book to thwart abortionists in the Commonwealth—all the while justifying his decisions via the rhetoric of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.  Put simply, he is the very model of a modern evangelical.

In the other corner is Louisville, a blue city mortified to find itself stuck in the first red state to board the Trump train this past November.  Rather than embodying a refinement and completion of the life of the countryside, Louisville more often than not represents a wholesale repudiation of the state in which it is embedded.  For instance, the first University of Louisville Rhodes scholar happens to be an eastern Kentuckian, an Appalachian who after her tutelage in the university decided to correct the American public’s misconceptions about a stereotyped people and their rich, underappreciated religious heritage by pursuing . . . Islamic studies.  As for the slogan of Louisville’s localist movement—“Keep Louisville Weird”—it seems to have been borrowed from a similar campaign in Austin, Texas, and in practice denotes self-consciously quirky clubs and expensive ethnic restaurants whereby the progressive-minded consumerism of Seattle gets reproduced as faithfully as the Model Ts spat out by Henry Ford’s assembly line.  In small Kentucky towns like Lawrenceburg there are prayer walks; downtown Louisville has zombie walks.

An adversarial relationship between Louisville’s leaders and the evangelical Bevin—backed by the first Republican-dominated statehouse in nearly a century—seems to have been inevitable.  In particular the phrase “War on Louisville” began to be thrown about a few months ago in regard to a number of bills that directly affect the life of the city.  Senate Bill 222 accords Kentucky’s governor the power to step in and appoint someone of his own choosing in the event the legislative council fails to fill a vacancy in the mayor’s seat in a timely fashion.  House Bill 151 declares that as of the 2019-20 school year parents “shall be permitted to enroll their child for attendance in the public school nearest their home,” thereby abolishing compulsory busing in Louisville public schools.  Senate Bill 88 unravels some of the still-controversial 2003 merger of Louisville with Jefferson County by returning to formerly self-governing cities like Shively, St. Matthews, and Prospect some of their independent status.  Senate Bill 12 was aimed at retroactively legalizing Bevin’s controversial decision to replace the University of Louisville’s board of trustees when that strife-riven entity proved incapable of delivering the university budget on time.  Unsurprisingly, Louisville’s mayor Greg Fischer and others have denounced the bills as an attempt to micromanage the city.

Given the long-standing liberal penchant for regarding state governments as mere rubber-stamping offices of the federal government, outcries about Louisville’s right to home rule are a little hard to swallow.  If we appreciate local identity we must likewise recognize that a state of existential enmity divides cities like Louisville from the surrounding countryside.  When we speak of Louisville what we are talking about is less a subsidiary community of the Bluegrass State than an outpost for what might be called the “War on Kentucky.”  However many decent neighborhoods and families are still to be found within the bounds of the I-265 loop, Louisville’s dominant voices frequently cry out with hatred against the ordinary Kentuckian’s old-time religion, ostensibly bland ethnicity, and refusal to go gentle into that good night of globalism.  We should not return hate for hate, yet neither should we delude ourselves with futile fantasies about coming to any kind of understanding with the left.  In a real community where a people (or peoples) are held together by meaningful pre-political bonds of blood, history, and faith, subsidiarity can indeed harmonize relations between citizens, town magistrates, regional governors, and parliament.  Subsidiarity cannot be expected to harmonize relations between Romans and barbarian invaders, however, nor can it by itself draw together Bolsheviks and kulaks into a single functional society.

In Kentucky, it is not the city but the county that has always been the pivotal political unit—or at least Robert Ireland so concludes in The County in Kentucky History.  “Nineteenth-Century Kentucky in many ways resembled medieval Germany,” Ireland observes, “which was essentially a loose collection of miniature states, duchies, principalities, and other constitutional subdivisions and only in the loosest sense a political unit.”  Just to be clear, Ireland was not a Romantic à la Novalis or Schlegel; he takes medieval as a synonym for antiquated.  A progressive himself, he notes sadly that “legislators and administrators in Frankfort feared the consequences if they tampered with local tradition,” and were thus unable to impose changes running contrary to the characters of the communities involved.  Those of us who are glad that Kentucky does not look entirely like a module in an utterly standardized Proposition Nation should consider that resistance to centralization depended not on carefully crafted arguments but on “the political power of the stand-patters”: “Undergirding the opposition to reform were hundreds of thousands of rural Kentuckians who derived special pride from their spirited loyalty to their counties.”  Ireland’s reluctant admission that the county is central to Kentucky’s political tradition in turn leads the conservative to take a dim view of Jefferson County’s assimilation by Louisville—an event driven partly by Louisvillians anxious to recapture from Lexington the title of Kentucky’s biggest city.

Louisville’s leaders would have done better to heed Aristotle’s warning that “it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for an overly populated city-state to be well governed,” for even if an overgrown city-state proves “self-sufficient in the necessities, the way a nation is,” on the other hand “it is not easy for it to have a constitution.”  On this side of the French Revolution constitution signifies something you could fold up tidily and tuck in your pocket; historically, the word may be seen as denoting the organic life and personality of a political community, something that cannot be captured on any piece of paper.  That life suffers, continues Aristotle, if it swells without limit:

[I]n order to decide lawsuits and distribute offices on the basis of merit, each citizen must know what sorts of people the other citizens are.  For where they do not know this, the business of electing officials and deciding lawsuits must go badly, since to act haphazardly is unjust in both these proceedings.  But this is plainly what occurs in an overly populated city-state.  Besides, it is easy for resident aliens and foreigners to participate in the constitution, since the excessive size of the population makes escaping detection easy.  It is clear, then, that the best limit for a city-state is this: it is the greatest size of multitude that promotes life’s self-sufficiency and that can be easily surveyed as a whole.

Far from being committed to the ideology of inclusiveness, a serious Louisville localist would be concerned at the prospect of too many people flooding in from Wisconsin, to say nothing of the bid by Catholic Charities of Louisville to provide an entry point into Kentucky for Syrian migrants.  Instead of single-mindedly pursuing growth, growth, and more growth, those devoted to a given metropolis would do better to listen to the man who wrote the book on cities around the time when they possessed sovereignty and were formidable enough to face the Persian Empire.  (As for those who would brand Aristotle xenophobic for not wanting “resident aliens and foreigners to participate in the constitution,” are they not the same people who gnash their teeth at alleged Russian meddling in the last U.S. presidential election?)

Unfortunately Governor Bevin is not much better suited to champion the reenergized cause of states’ rights than Mayor Fischer is suited to champion localism.  In the wake of the anti-Confederate feeding frenzy that followed the Charleston church murders, Bevin applauded the South Carolina governor’s decision to pull down the flag from the Carolina statehouse, suggesting at the same time that “it would be equally appropriate for Kentucky to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from our capitol.”  The Davis statue escaped the purge thanks not to the Connecticut Yankee now serving as our governor, but to a committee of historians, who upon reviewing the situation chose to brave political correctness and let the native Kentuckian’s likeness stand.  There is a lesson here: We shouldn’t get so excited by who’s sitting in the White House that we forget that Republicans are still Republicans.  Nolite confidere in principibus, which is to say that if we want our homes conserved we mustn’t count on politicians to do it for us.  It is instead up to each man, in his own sphere.