I was encouraged to try my hand at writing an article on this subject after speaking with a wonderful new friend of mine. I was initially intimidated and a bit adverse to it, given this would be my first effort at an article. Additionally, despite maybe having passion, I didn’t feel I had the knowledge or familiarity on the topic that I should, so I feared being seen in a hypocritical light.
But I’ve realized that this year (or four (or more)) has impassioned a lot of people of all types looking for ways to get involved and be a part of shaping the future of their nation. I, too, am one of those people, and have personally experienced how overwhelming and at times hopeless it can feel trying to find those ways to make a difference. So more than anything, I invite you to join in on that adventure of exploring how to play a vital and meaningful role in democracy and the direction our country takes.
Now then—where do we start? What can one person do in the grand scheme of things in a nation of this immense size and population?
The answer is: Start as small as possible. There’s a reason our system is broken into smaller and smaller units. Township/city politics are increasingly overlooked as more and more spotlight is shined upon national politics. This isn’t particularly surprising considering the continued interconnectedness of our nation (and the globe) with (semi) recent advancements like the growth of cable TV from the 60s and the internet and social media in recent times.
These technologies are designed to connect us nationwide, and it only makes sense that the majority of news and discussion you find in such places as on the national level. On top of this, online discussions are easy sources of immediate, direct, and clear feedback where something like a council meeting can feel much more opaque and require more deliberate consideration.
Meanwhile, we’ve declined in viewing local news and reading local papers. In my recent experience, it can be extremely difficult to put together ways to stay well informed locally using the internet (from local politicians being ghosts online, to horribly designed city websites, to lack of quality local news sources). A George Washington University study found that in a typical media market, the average person spends less than 10 minutes a month on local news sites. As such, people have become less informed (and vocal) of the politics of their immediate home and community and more informed (and vocal) on national issues where we have very little immediate sway.
Voter turnout in a mayoral election is often as low as one in three, and for other local elections under one in five. Remember, the United States has over a half million elected officials, only 542 of which are federal. We increasingly forget the base of our government and try to fight and enact change from the top down, which is never efficient. This has also made us more jaded in time and feel less empowered to play a role.
These things feed together to form the feeling of ennui and lack of interest and awareness regarding local politics, as well as the overall feeling of discontent and hopelessness with politics as a whole. The problem is that participation at the local level is absolutely the best bet for an average citizen to have their voice meaningfully heard. It’s at the local level one can actually make a perceptible change within their community and simultaneously stimulate others to do the same.
As our politics have become more nationalized, we as a people conversely have become more and more divided. Many have a very unrealistic expectation of how our national government should perform and consistently dig deeper into blaming the other side when it remains a standstill with mild back-and-forth deviations. Plus, the potential for anonymity in our digital age doesn’t help with that polarization in the slightest either.
One of the greatest features of local politics is that they are a wonderful educator and builder of tolerance via direct exposure. When you participate in council meetings, local organizations, and even protests, you engage with your neighbors and community. They’re the schoolhouses of democracy. You’re forced into a level of accountability and cooperation.
The Local government is the government closest to the people. It is where things like discourse, debate, and compromise are made and taught. It’s where you begin to get to really know and understand your community (and humanity) and where bridges and reason are formed. It’s where you can voice your views without it being just shouting into the ether. It’s where you can make connections with those of similar views and begin to build a formidable vehicle for change.
Cities, counties, and states should be the Laboratories of Democracy. To quote Justice Louis Brandeis (originator of the term): “A single courageous state may, if it’s citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” This has been demonstrated in recent times by Massachusetts passing health care reform in 2006 which became a sort of framework for the Affordable Care Act, the legalization of gay marriage at the state level setting precedent for landmark Supreme Court cases, or the continuing legalization of marijuana (and other substances) by states. I believe these ideas, to an extent, can extend to counties and cities/towns as well.
The changes should begin within smaller regions of government. If they’re successful and well-received, the idea is likely to spread. If Enough counties enact an idea and demonstrate it as good, it’s likely the state may as well. If enough states follow, it is more likely to get attention as something that should be in place nationally. This is the way of progress; it is often gradual and not exciting, but that’s the groundwork needed for those sudden shifts.
Find the people in your community who’ve been involved longer and best represent your views and try to connect with them. See what other ways they might know that you can get involved. Find and join or form groups of similar views so you can better organize and voice matters to the public, and invite others to get involved more easily. Find the local politicians you agree with to support, influence, and volunteer with. If you can, ask them about the things they see from within and what they think is needed. Be an embodiment and example of the human you believe should be in politics.
If you’re upset about the country, government, or politics, make sure you’re being involved the most effective ways you can. Remember that this activism and participation at the smallest level is but the stepping stone to make a difference on a larger scale.
Prove yourself locally as an exemplary citizen with good ideas, file some paperwork, and put in the effort. Then, maybe, you can get a role in your local government, which will only net you more exposure and connections you can use to go even further if you have that passion. Or get enough active and like-minded people together to build a dedicated and passionate community, and with time that too can be a powerful vehicle for change with the ability to grow and have an influence on a larger scale.
A successful democracy requires people to be actively engaged and aware of their politics. How else can it be a government of the people? Attend your local council meetings, become familiar with the issues, voice your opinion. Bring up topics that are important to you that you don’t hear addressed. This is the path, from the bottom up, not the top down.
Be inspired, participate, inspire.