Politics may be national, but civic engagement is local

Why we think local context matters

There’s an emerging conventional wisdom that American politics is polarized, in part, because of the “nationalizing” of politics, that all elections are, in essence, proxies for a presidential election. Just the other day, on The Ezra Klein Show, the oft quoted “all politics is local” refrain was discarded as no longer relevant.

Some of this has to do with parties consolidating power and rejecting bipartisanship in the interests of party dominance. Some of it has to do with the decline of local journalism and the rise of fragmented news consumerism. Some of it has to do with how demographic coalitions influence party identification, and how these demographic groups cluster geographically.

There are plenty of organizations, journalists, pollsters and scholars who are working on these theories of political alignment and voter behavior.

But because we are more interested in a broader definition of civic engagement — any activity to which a citizen has been called that contributes to a collective good — we think there is still a good deal to learn about the local context, the lived experience, and the filters they create through which national politics and media is refracted.

Pollsters and campaigns are focused on predicting electoral outcomes; political journalists are focused on the narratives and assumptions that surround and underpin those predictions. And all of them are concerned primarily with what we think of as the last mile of civic engagement — what motivates a citizen to vote a particular way.

We are concerned with the context, the backstory, with all the steps that lead up to the day someone registers to vote.

What is it that calls people to contribute to a collective good? People who are civically engaged rarely jump right in to the deep end of national electoral politics. Most people who become civically engaged start small, close to home or heart, where they can see the system and understand their place in it. In this way, politics is still incredibly local, and the primary drivers of the public narrative about voting are not set up to understand or account for these local factors.

We want to change that. Here’s where we think the work needs to take place.

Geography matters

Where a person lives still matters. I once did focus groups with moms about shopping for their very young kids. While most of the moms lived in apartments in urban areas, some lived in suburban homes outside the city. These moms were unlike urban moms in one important respect — they had more stuff — more clothes, more supplies, more bags, more carriers, more strollers, more everything. They bought more bulk items, and they bought more kinds of things.

They weren’t more or less affluent than the others; they weren’t more or less frugal. They weren’t from significantly different ethnic or cultural backgrounds than the other moms. But the fact that they lived in the suburbs meant something important: they had more room. Their houses were simply bigger than the other moms’ apartments. They had cars they could drive to big box and discount stores. While the other moms felt crushed by stuff, sequestered in their apartments because public transportation is scary and laborious, and you can only carry what you can carry — suburban moms were more likely to talk about enjoying variety and being able to store some items in the car or garage, about having “backup” everything.

It’s not the zip codes that mattered, it was what living in those zip codes entailed. Urban living simply comes with different affordances than suburban living, than rural living. We all know this, but we don’t give nearly enough credence to it.

I live part time in a rural community that is also a summer vacation destination. There are real concerns about sea level rise, flooding, agriculture and aquaculture, the use of public lands and waterways, traffic, sewage, water quality, low-income housing, mass transit, public education, wages, health insurance costs and access to care, and so on. Pick up the local paper and the town is constantly engaged in debate and discussion about how to plan for sea level rise and how to mitigate it — and whether even to try if it interferes with how things have always been, or always looked.

The county itself has consistently voted for Republicans for Congress, but the farthest east end of the county appears to be increasingly liberal, despite plenty of our neighbors supporting Trump and Lee Zeldin. But living here with these environmental and economic realities, means that many of those same folks are believers in climate change, supporters of city planning efforts, and concerned about quality of life for the fishermen, farmers, and workmen who live and work out here year round.

It’s not the political designation of the 1st Congressional District or the County of Suffolk in the State of New York — it’s the experience of living here, the physical realities of the land and the climate, and the infrastructure that serves it.

We believe that how people live day to day is a prism through which they refract the political messaging they receive.

Governance matters

If you pay local taxes, send your kids to local schools, use local roadways or transit systems, pay for garbage and recycling collection (or in my case, drop-off), use local parking lots or meters, pay local utilities, deal with a local zoning board for permits and variances, receive mail or take things to the local post office, license your pet or your car or your firearm, you have dealt with local government.

How you feel about the costs of these interactions has to do with how you were personally treated, and how you perceive the money you pay for access to these services is being invested. For example, we have a very high electric bill (our house was built when electricity was very cheap, so it is entirely electric, heat, water, everything). The bulk of our energy use is for heat in the winter time. As I write this, we’ve had a rain and wind storm, and a sudden freeze, but our electricity hasn’t gone out. For months, the utility has been trimming trees and upgrading lines. When a storm does occur, they email or text us to let us know they are prepared and give us instructions on reporting outages; they also notify us via text if outages are detected. I’d love the bill to be much, much lower, but I feel like the money is invested reasonably well.

I used to live in Studio City, California, where many residents felt that their property tax dollars went over the hills into Los Angeles proper, and never came back. If you couldn’t see the investments in schools, libraries, roads, and other services, it was hard to know what the money was for — and easy to imagine someone else was benefiting. At the same time, while we were on LADWP for electricity, people living an hour’s drive from us were Enron customers dealing with rolling blackouts — we were happy with our service, because we could see how bad it could be so nearby.

I grew up in Oregon, where there was often talk that the property tax money for universities went to the larger towns and cities, and never returned to the rural counties. If you lived in Portland, Salem, Eugene, Corvallis or Ashland, you could see the investment; if you or your kids went to the colleges and universities you could see it. But if you lived in a rural area with a small population, no local community college, state college, university or extension program, and few students likely to attend a 2 or 4-year in-state college, you might feel like you were paying for an education system that wasn’t even available to you and your community.

When we did focus groups in Pennsylvania last spring, one of the first words we heard when we asked how things were going was “potholes”. Potholes were a nuisance, a hazard, and evidence that government wasn’t doing its essential job — proof that government was dysfunctional. It was an easy leap from potholes to a gridlocked state legislature, even if local roads were a county or municipal matter. Potholes were the metaphor for bad government.

People reason by analogy. If we look at town boards and state legislatures who can’t seem to take care of the basics, it’s easy for us to give the same diagnosis to a much larger, more distant, more complex federal government, much of whose work is invisible to the average citizen. Stories of gridlock, corruption and incompetence are easy to believe.

If, on the other hand, your locality has pretty good governance and you feel heard, you might be terribly frustrated by these narratives and believe that government is better than reported or, at least, it could be if the right people were elected. Both groups are right, and we should try to understand how their experiences influence their behavior, rather than trying to explain to them how they’re right or wrong.

Inequality matters

Regardless how you might feel about so-called identity politics, and regardless of how diverse your city, town or village is, most places are living with the legacy of racism and discrimination. Policies put in place at the state and federal level, commercial practices that were enshrined as “just good business”, work to deepen social divides and widen wealth gaps. Their aim is not especially true — they have a tendency to hit poor white people almost as often as they hit poor people of color and immigrant communities.

In my little town, we need more affordable housing. To have more affordable housing, we need to increase some areas’ housing density. But the town building codes exist to prevent that kind of density — and in any event, the city’s water and sewer infrastructure can’t support multi-family dwellings. At a certain point, the unwillingness to change building codes or install a municipal water and sewer system is as much about wanting to preserve the status quo as anything else. And preserving the status quo is usually code for: keeping those gaps and divides right where they are, to the continued benefit of a few. Our building codes are meant to preserve the status of mostly-white land owners at the expense of the mostly Latinx and Caribbean workers who work that land, repair the homes on them, and work for wages in the businesses those land owners also own or frequent.

In the meantime, the town is adding last mile shuttle service so that people who are coming from middle island can get to their jobs in the east end. Rising housing prices and housing scarcity, especially after the financial crash in 2008, drove many laborers out of the area. There aren’t enough people to do the work on the pools, patios, extensions and small businesses that make living out here pleasant for white-collar residents and summer visitors. These decisions reveal that we want people to come and work here, but we don’t really want them to live here.

A place’s laws and infrastructure aren’t accidents and they aren’t neutral — they indicate who and what we value, and what we think the “natural order” of things should be.

We want to know what calls you to civic engagement — and what keeps you from it

We’re beginning to reach out to people who will speak to us about their own local contexts and how that has affected their level of civic engagement. If you’d like to be interviewed — or know someone who should be — about your own experiences, we’d love to talk to you. In the coming months, we’ll write more stories about how these contexts affect participation, and we’ll be producing podcast episodes featuring the people we interview, in their own words.

Get in touch with us at 1stpersonprojects@thedifferenceengine.co if you’d like to help out.

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First Person Projects is a research project from The Difference Engine, whose objective is to tell the stories of what drives — and what prevents or obstructs — participation in American civic life.

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Farrah Bostic

Farrah Bostic

Founder of The Difference Engine @DifferenceNGN. I listen to humans so I can help businesses all over the world make important brand & business decisions.

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