One of the reasons so many of us in today’s America feel angry and hopeless is the effect of what has been called the “nationalization of politics.’ That nationalization has been facilitated by the media we consume , which reports almost exclusively on national news– local newspapers that still exist increasingly confine their coverage to sports and crime and no longer regularly cover local government and politics.
As an article from Vox recently confirmed, America may have local political institutions, but it increasingly has a nationalized politics–and for a number of reasons, that needs to change.
If you own a home and pay local taxes, have children in the public schools (or depend in any way on an educated population and/or workforce), live in a neighborhood where public safety is a concern (and that’s pretty much every neighborhood), you have a big stake in what happens locally–and as I posted a couple of days ago, those local races also matter more politically than most people realize.
So why is participation in local electoral politics so anemic?
The overwhelming majority of Americans consume disproportionately more news about national politics than about state and local politics. In one analysis, 99 percent of respondents in a typical media market never visited websites dedicated to local news. In a typical local election, fewer than one in five citizens bother to vote.
The last several decades have seen the standardization of parties across state lines. I recently saw a website in which a Republican running for a local office described herself as “pro life, pro gun, pro God.” (I’m sure God is grateful…) There was no explanation why any of this should matter–I’m pretty sure she was running for a position where she would have little or nothing to say about any of those issues. She was just signaling her Trumpist “brand.”
I’m sure this “homogenization” of partisans makes it easier for voters, who can just vote based on the R or D next to a candidate’s name. But when everyone running for office is a clone, the individual candidates themselves don’t much matter.
But the short-term convenience of standardized brands comes at a long-term cost for democratic accountability: If local candidates know that they won’t be evaluated on anything more than the D or R after their name, it changes how they think of their role. What can they do if their electoral fate depends almost entirely on national tides? As Hopkins writes, “Today’s vote choices are simply too nationalized for politicians to build much of a reputation separate from their party’s.”
The thing is, in the cities we inhabit, candidates and local institutions do matter–a lot!– and local efforts to support good candidates are much more productive than a few dollars sent to Beto O’Rourke, et al (although I hasten to say I plan to do both and you should too.)
And we have some first-rate, “non-clone” candidates running for local offices.
I became interested in our local prosecutor’s race, for example, because my youngest granddaughter–a high-school senior–has been interning in his Conviction Integrity unit. He established that process to review past convictions, to ensure that they had been dealt with properly–to catch errors or miscarriages of justice. When he took office, he also announced that he would focus the (necessarily limited) resources of the office on the prosecution of serious threats to public safety–and those serious threats didn’t include cases involving small amounts of pot.( He got a lot of flak for that from our local culture warriors, but I applauded.)
I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with that Prosecutor–his name is Ryan Mears– and I was impressed not just with his very thoughtful and informed approach to criminal justice issues, but with his commitment to Indianapolis. That commitment is based on a belief that positive change at the local level is both necessary and possible–and that improving our city matters.
I wholeheartedly agree.
Most of us are not in a position to affect national politics, but we definitely are able to make a difference locally. We can work to elect people who genuinely care about their communities–and , not so incidentally, to defeat the local Trump clones who just want to wage culture war and are clearly uninterested in doing the day-to-day grunt work needed to make our communities better places to live. I’ve begun meeting with other candidates for local and state office, and I intend to lend my (somewhat wizened) hand to selected campaigns.
if nothing else, participating in local races will allow me to actually do something–something that potentially matters.
It’s my way of fighting my feelings of political impotence. And maybe it will keep me from being so grumpy…
By Sheila Kennedy February 25, 2022