Fixing the Political World Starts at Home
For the sake of impotently railing against D.C., Americans are abandoning their immediate needs and problems.
“All politics is local.”
It’s a phrase coined by former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a speaker so former that most millennials have no idea who he was. Nor do they understand that their woeful lack of knowledge of and participation in local politics would cause the former leader to roll in his grave.
The problem isn’t just a lack of attention being paid to local school boards and city councils. The lack of civics courses in public schools, a dwindling local newspaper industry and an Internet-driven focus on national politics have worked together to take our focus away from the local. The result is our neighborhoods are more disconnected than ever — and we are suffering for it.
Throughout the past month, I’ve juggled a newborn, a sick toddler and a household in chaos. All are stresses, indeed, but none new to the age-old profession of motherhood. Throughout this time, it was my local community who sustained me. Family, fellow class parents, neighbors and synagogue friends kept me sane with hugs, food, sympathetic ears and friendly conversations.
We’d talk about kids, the weather, summer vacation ideas and playdates. The words laurel, yanny and Trump never once entered the conversation. Not because these topics are beyond our intellect, but rather they are beyond our scope. Families, when done right, take a huge amount of time and energy to maintain.
Realizing this also led me to one other key revelation: The folks devoting a huge amount of their time and energy to national politics are often being paid to do so. And in the whole scope of things, they are a very small chunk of the pie. Yet, it is national news that garners the most attention among today’s electorate.
Focusing on the Head, Neglecting the Body
The Washington Post sent a host of field reporters to “local meetings involving members of the House and Senate” in 2017. They reported congressional representatives were returning home to find that “…most voters were no longer paying much attention to core issues in their own communities.”
Instead, constituents were “forcing senators and representatives to answer locally for every national controversy,” at the expense of local issues. Voters, it would seem, cared more about their representative’s take on President Donald Trump’s Russia controversy and “fake news” than issues of local concern. The failure of public schools to teach civics — how government works — has created generations of voters completely unaware that they send senators and representatives to Washington to vote on behalf of local concerns, not answer for Washington’s scandals when they return home on recess.
No News, No Interest
The Post cites the “collapse” of local media as one big reason why voter focus has zeroed in on national issues. Without the local paper, voters rely on cable news and social media, both of which rely heavily on national stories for traffic. New Jersey is the perfect example. When one local paper ceased publishing local news, my neighbor switched to the competition only to cancel his subscription a year later. “I want to know what’s going on here,” he said, “but I’m not paying an arm and a leg to find out.”
The dearth of local news in New Jersey, a state that takes less than four hours to traverse north to south, isn’t limited to the lack of an affordable, reliable neighborhood paper. When former Gov. Chris Christie shut down New Jersey Network in 2010, he effectively eliminated New Jersey’s only statewide television news broadcast.
The state’s current public television iteration, NJTV, focuses on north Jersey issues where the show is shot. Other media outlets, like South Jersey News, only broadcast to hyper-local crowds. Most New Jersey residents are as uninformed about the local school board as they are about the issues plaguing their neighbors two towns over. It’s a state in disarray, which is probably why New Jersey’s U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance fielded more questions about Trump’s business portfolio than health care when he last returned home from Washington.
The Nationalization of Everything
In contrast to community issues, national politics often causes more friction than function at the local level. “We always tell them to turn off ‘The View’ at the gym,” one neighbor told me the other day. “It just gets everyone angry. That’s not why we’re there.”
Political grandstanding isn’t why kids attend the local public school, either. Yet, a growing number of them are being pressured, even bullied into taking a stand on national issues during school time. Courses in civics used to involve practical lessons on political procedure, followed by visits to and even internships with local government agencies. Now, students severely lacking in any civics education are being told to walk out of class, or simply boycott school altogether over national issues like gun control (pro and con) and abortion.
A reported 2,400 schools were involved in the pro-gun control walkout on April 20. Yet, as of May 25, only 23 school shootings have occurred across the country, and that’s a heavily inflated statistic including everything from incidents of domestic violence on college campuses to one kid shooting another with a BB gun. In other words, the vast majority of students skipping class in the name of gun control have never been threatened with gun violence at school. On the other hand, they have and will continue to be directly impacted by the policies passed by their local boards of education.
Which should lead us to question why these institutions are largely ignored by students altogether.
Localism Must be Lived, Not Just Advocated
It would seem that everyone is grasping for their 15 minutes of fame on the national stage. Political writers are no exception. Yet, in their pursuit of their short shot to stardom, they often miss out on the larger piece of the pie.
Sure, Kevin Williamson’s firing from The Atlantic caused a storm in political circles, but the wider audience remained ignorant of the whole event. That’s probably because most Americans tend to favor the likes of Adam F. Goldberg’s anti-politics rant on “The Goldbergs” than the polarizing politics of Williamson’s working class.
How many politicos who love arguing about flyover country actually watched the finale of “The Middle?” That was left to those of us with sick kids and kind neighbors who enjoy a laugh about suburban life. You know, the little people whose hands rock the cradles of future readers, voters and leaders.
All politics is local. And all politics is downwind of culture. In the Internet age, it’s as much of a warning to wonks as it is to the politicians themselves. But these two axioms should also serve as an empowering reminder to the tired, average folk who actually do the living and the voting in this country. Our way of life might seem simple in the whole scope of things, but it is far from powerless.
If we’re going to take the ideas of localism and federalism seriously, we need to practice what we preach, recreating a healthy society from the ground up rather than waiting for a savior in a city many of us don’t have the time to visit.