All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization.
Last February, before our school year was so unfortunately interrupted, the Campus Republicans hosted conservative writer David French for a lecture. In his closing, he gave a short summary of one of the maladies affecting our country. To paraphrase, “The citizens from Florida are too concerned with the Senator from Alaska.” He was hinting at a larger issue underlying many of the political debates, issues, and policies dividing the country. Our political system has been so nationalized that the word “politics” has become synonymous with Washington, the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court. But politics is more than Washington, and it’s certainly more than just the President. Every day, politics is waged in the cities, counties, and states across the country. When the vast majority of politics is focused on what happens nationally, we lose a sense of the unique circumstances that make each city, county, and state different.
This has been exemplified by the national debate and policy response to the coronavirus. In a rare turn of events the country has shifted, for several months, the focus from the actions of the President to the actions of state governors. Since April, leaders like Governors Whitmer, Cuomo, Kemp, and DeSantis, of Michigan, New York, Georgia, and Florida respectively, have grabbed the national spotlight with their decisions on how to balance economic considerations with containment of the pandemic. Indeed, leaders whose decisions hold zero authority outside of their own state garnered intense scrutiny, praise, and criticism from millions of Americans outside of their jurisdiction. Take stay-at-home orders for example. The first order was issued in March by Governor Newsom in California on March 19th. My state of Missouri was the 49th state to issue one, almost three weeks later on April 6th. New daily cases in Missouri were at 14 on March 19th. In California, they were over ten times that amount. Different places require different treatments. Yet, for the last 4 months, I’ve been exposed to more news stories about the leaders of the coasts than I have right in my own city. This is an example of how nationalized our focus is. In 2019, Pew Research Center reported that for Americans living in rural areas, only 41 percent said local news media mostly covered the area in which they live. For those in urban areas, it was 62 percent, followed by 51 percent in the suburbs. How can people focus on local issues when less than half of the news is local?
When Michiganders protested Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s policies over the virus, they were supported by thousands of people from around the country. As recently as the end of June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was still involved in verbal spats with leaders from other states, and it was a sentiment echoed by millions who continue to speak out against the response from leaders who they did not elect. Before March, how many non-Michigan residents could tell you who Governor Whitmer was? Yet, when accusations are hurled about the position of one state it becomes “Well, look at Florida and Georgia!” for the left, or “Look at New York and Michigan!” for the right.
This shows what I believe to be one aspect of our politics that is driving polarization in the United States. We have gotten to the point where every single issue has become so nationalized that those that impact us most directly and clearly (and which we have the most influence over) are a second thought to the national platforms. In his book, The Increasingly United States, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Political Science Daniel J. Hopkins finds that election platforms have been increasingly nationalized. He writes that while “the platforms in earlier eras focused more on state-specific topics,” modern platforms “now emphasize whatever topics dominate the national agenda...Rather than asking, ‘How will this particular bill affect my district?’ legislators in a nationalized polity come to ask, ‘Is my party for or against this bill?’” When we solely think in terms of national platforms and politics, we may end up sacrificing the immediate interests of our communities.
One way to decrease our reliance on national leaders is to increase our engagement in local politics. For many Northwestern students, this has entailed marching in city-wide protests or focusing efforts on reforming local police departments. However, many others either don’t subscribe to the same movement or live outside the urban environments where large-scale demonstrations take place. For those who wish to be involved in local politics, the biggest leap is often simply showing up to vote.
In June, I voted in the first election I was eligible to participate in. It was for our city council and school board and also involved a school-bond issue and county tax proposition. My town is not small; there are at least 50,000 people in the city itself and much more in the total area. When I showed up at my voting location, there were two people in front of me. There was one person behind me when I left, and none of them were under 25. When they tallied up the votes at the end of the day, there were 3800 votes cast in the city council races. In the county election, there were about 7000 votes cast, good for 17.6 percent of registered voters. In the most recent presidential election, there were around 27,000 for the county, which is almost quadruple the turnout rate from the most recent local elections. I come from a decently sized, heavily Republican area. My hometown did not even issue a mask mandate until three weeks ago, only two weeks after voting one down. When my city put the mask mandate in place, there were hundreds--if not thousands--of people who protested, both by continuing to go mask-free or by railing against the city councilmen in the Facebook “comments section.” Yet, how many voted in 2016 but not last June for the same men and women who passed the mandate?
The coronavirus crisis has brought to the fore unique policy positions and ideologies afflicting our political system. We have the opportunity to address a problem that impacts every single community differently. The President can’t (or won’t) issue a nationwide mask mandate or stay-at-home order. Governor Cuomo of New York can’t make me wear a mask in Missouri. My city councilmen can. So let’s seize the moment and permanently give our local politics more importance.
There are several ways to make local politics and elections more important. As Richard Boylan notes in a recent article for the City Journal, cities that transition to at-large elections rather than by district see more educated leaders who are more likely to work for the city as a whole. Making leaders accountable to the whole populace rather than a set district incentivizes necessary spending and actions that benefit the entire city. In addition, local leaders should increase connections to community leaders and ordinary citizens. Whether it’s increased input at council meetings or joint projects with business leaders, there must be some incentive for citizens to actively participate in their communities. Working to reinforce confidence in local leaders while simultaneously increasing the share of citizens that vote locally can encourage accountability and transparency among local politicians. An active, engaged citizenry has the power to change communities from the inside out.
None of this is to say that we should disregard national policy. We most certainly should not. However, too much of the focus on governance is shifted to our national officials and party platforms, and too much scrutiny is placed on leaders from states where many people haven’t even been. It’s looking at the speck in our neighbor’s eye instead of the plank in our own. I think that the recent social movements and pandemic responses have begun to bring a lot of attention to our local leaders, and I am optimistic that our generation will remain civically-engaged in the future. Yet, sometimes we must recognize the point at which we have no political influence and shift our focus to where we do. All elections have consequences, not just the ones every fourth November. We must not be more concerned with the Senator from Alaska than the city councilman from down the block.
Will Secker is a Weinberg Sophomore studying Economics and History. He serves on the Political Union Events Team and is interested in US Foreign and Economic Policy.
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