American Habits and the Case for Practical Federalism

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Ray Nothstine, senior editor of American Habits, a new publication by State Policy Network’s (SPN) Center for Practical Federalism that makes the “intellectual and moral case for federalismand its practical applications to today’s challenges.” Through sharing the inspirational stories of everyday Americans who get involved in their local communities, American Habits hopes to encourage citizens and policymakers to solve more problems through local and state solutions. 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.   

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and SPN’s American Habits? 

Nothstine: My dad was an Air Force pilot. So, I’ve lived a lot of places, which shaped my worldview and experiences. I’m 44, so I hate to admit my age, but I do remember a time during the Cold War when my dad was sitting on alert in case our country had to respond to a potential nuclear attack. I think that played a significant role in shaping my background and likely my deeper interest in the issues of human freedom. And so why do we have this nation-state? Why do we try to preserve freedom? Why is that important? I was at least thinking about those kinds of questions in my head at a young age.  

I worked for Congressman Gene Taylor (Mississippi) after college at Ole Miss. I always enjoyed reading about political history and some of my first memories [were of the] 1984 presidential campaign. I then started reading scripture more and went to seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary. The late Ellsworth Kalas, an amazing preaching professor, encouraged me to write, so I did. After some time with The Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation, I got involved in SPN and American Habits. 

American Habits is a project focusing on federalism. We have a center for practical federalism, and SPN is trying to make the case for a culture of self-government and push back against federal overreach. You can equip state lawmakers to do that, but also give people a sense of mission and purpose and not just at the national level, but at the state and local levels. 

Q: Can you share with us any highlights from the stories you’ve encountered so far? 

Nothstine: I just interviewed Bill Courtney, founder of Classic American Hardwoods, a manufacturer in Tennessee. Courtney is known more as a football coach though and is depicted in the amazing documentary “Undefeated.” He’s done a lot of great work highlighting people who are getting involved in their local communities. He told the story of a woman named Anne Mahlum, who liked to run to deal with stress. When she was working in Philadelphia, she ran by this homeless center every day. They’d say, “Why do you run off all the time?” And she’d say, “Why do you just sit there all the time?” And she went back to this homeless center a day or two later and said, “I want to start a running club.” So, Bill tells these great stories about people who get involved in their community and that running club is active in 15 or 16 major American cities right now. I think it’s just giving people a sense of purpose, right? A sense of drive, that you can get involved in your local community and make a difference in people’s lives. I think there’s a component to that, which is just so essential today, just getting off your butt and getting involved. That’s a big deal. 

Q: What role has philanthropy played, in your opinion, in state and local solutions during your career and now during your time at American Habits? 

Nothstine: From a mission standpoint, philanthropy has played an important role. I think there are opportunities all over the country to get involved to make a difference, not just in policy or D.C., but maybe in cultural aspects where you’re changing local communities and where you can network with individuals who are like-minded. In a way, that facilitates conversations and real action for change. Of course, none of this is possible without the generous donors who care deeply about their communities and country.  

Q: American Habits seeks to reignite the “capacity for self-government.” How can we restore an understanding and appreciation for self-government and decentralization in our country? 

Nothstine: It’s a hard question, right? The death of local news has played a role in this in terms of the conversation and the 24-hour news cycle and all these sorts of ideological battles that we hear about are focused on Washington D.C., but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

And I think one of the ways that we change that is through civic education. So there’s probably a two-pronged effort, certainly some renewal through storytelling at the local and state level, which is something that we’re going to do at American Habits. Also, from a civic education standpoint, it’s discouraging when you see recent survey results, even at Ivy League schools, where young college students don’t know anything about American history or American government.  

American Habits wants to play a role in changing that. We’re educating people about the history of America but also asking what is the function and purpose of our government? That’s one of the key questions we need to ask ourselves as Americans today. If we aren’t asking that fundamental question, ideological noise is going to win out.  

Q: Philanthropy Roundtable partners with philanthropists who believe the best way to safeguard the future of our democracy is to promote and defend American ideals. Do you have any advice for those who are looking to advance federalism through philanthropy?  

Nothstine: One of the things to do from the get-go is to read. I mean, you can read the Federalist Papers. You can read about American history. A lot of us idolize the past sometimes in our movement, but there’s some bad things about the past, right? I think having a comprehensive understanding of American history and American tradition is essential.  

For example, why did people sacrifice during the American Revolution? What were their motivations? Why did colonists take up arms against the Crown? And how did they understand rights? Those are things we don’t think about enough today. An important component of this is how we understand rights, what does that mean and where do rights come from? All these questions are important for entrepreneurs and philanthropists, to discover and rediscover and to get in that conversation. All these ideas are accessible to Americans and are meant to be accessible.  

It’s important to be educated on the threats that ideologues want to impose on America. I think just having a willingness to sacrifice is a key component, whether it’s your time, finances or energy. That sacrifice is for these greater ideals and purposes, so that we can offer what we’ve inherited for future generations. The spending that we see in Washington is very depressing, and this inability to put others above yourself, primarily speaking about Washington politicians, is a depressing statement about America right now. 

Q: Who are some of your mentors and favorite authors who have helped to shape your worldview? 

Nothstine: Michael Novak, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has now passed away, was a man of faith and deeply ingrained in theology. A lot of his writings were from the viewpoint of the human person and argued there’s a higher power than the state. That’s an important component for people whatever their faith, that they understand the state is not the highest element of society and is not the highest authority in our lives.  

Congressman Gene Taylor taught me a very important lesson by the way he treated the Capitol Police, Capital employees, interns and constituents. There was one time he was late for a meeting with the Secretary of the Navy and my job was to go find him in the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C. I was running around like a chicken with his head cut off looking for him. I eventually found him in the stairwell talking to, I think, a maintenance worker. When we were walking back up to his office, he says, “When I lose an election, these are the people who are still going to be friends with me.” This teaches the importance of humility, which is an essential component for life.  

Q:  What type of information do you hope to impart to readers with American Habits? 

Nothstine: One of the goals is to be interesting, because the publication space is crowded. People can go to limitless places to read content. Storytelling is an important aspect of that. We haven’t perfected that yet, but we are on our way to doing that.  

We also want to be a change agent. We want to equip state and local lawmakers with information to let them know there are avenues where you can push back against federal overreach. You have the Constitution on your side, you have a constituency out there, you have partners in other states, you have the SPN network that helps reach out and say, look, the Constitution matters, and this network of like-minded folks are a resource to you. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and there is training available, content available and there’s a way to equip people with the tools to push back against an anti-American element of centralization that we all must be conscious of today. 

If you are interested in learning more about organizations that work to protect America’s founding principles, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Clarice Smith