As much as I love voting, I will point out that these off-year municipal elections are in themselves a form of voter suppression—they are designed to maximize the power of small, dedicated groups of activists who would not usually win elections with high turnout. Those groups are often the ones I agree with (unions, particularly of public employees) but still: it’s kind of outrageous that our local governments are set by low-turnout off-year elections.
Also: our entire system of government is designed with the assumption that almost everyone will may more attention to local government than to the state government and least of all to the federal government. It’s in the Federalist Papers (#46), where James Madison expressly writes that With the affairs of these [States], the people will be more familiarly and minutely conversant. And also: The members of the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments of thirteen and more States, the justices of peace, officers of militia, ministerial officers of justice, with all the county, corporation, and town officers, for three millions and more of people, intermixed, and having particular acquaintance with every class and circle of people, must exceed, beyond all proportion, both in number and influence, those of every description who will be employed in the administration of the federal system. I don’t blame him for writing that, and in 1788 he certainly had no reason to predict how broadcast media would shake down two hundred and thirty-odd years down the proverbial, but it turns out that no, people are more familiarly and minutely conversant with affairs of far-off Washington than with their State and local government. I would find it easier to name the nine Supreme Court Justices than the nine members of my town council, and I think I could name, off the top of my head, no more than two of my six elected statewide officials. I’m not even certain I know the names of my current representatives in both branches of the State Legislature—there was a change recently and I think I remember correctly that they guy with the silly name won, it’s possible that I only remember the silly name and not the outcome of the election. The town I live in has around sixty-five thousand residents, which I would describe as medium-sized, and I don’t know the names of any of the people who work at the Town Hall and only a very small number of the people employed by the town in any capacity.
The system works much better if people really are more interested in their local and state governments, of course. And I have no sense if the change is really that there has been a substantial decline in locally-interested citizens, or it’s that the far more substantial increase in nationally-informed citizens, or for that matter in people who are considered citizens (or for that matter in people who are considered people), but it certainly seems as if the typical voter of the last couple of generations is much more concerned with and aware of national stuff than local stuff. In my town, something like one-third of eligible voters actually vote in odd-numbered years—or, to put it another way, about a quarter of the town doesn’t vote at all, about a third votes every time they can, and the largest group vote only when there’s a federal or statewide office on the ballot.
I read something recently which claimed that the late 19th Century was a period of extremely heightened political participation in the US, with not only extraordinarily high voter turnout but high participation in rallies, debates and Party conventions, and all the various messy aspects of politics in public life. It was also a time of unusually high levels of misinformation, partisan ‘fake news’ and political street violence, the writer claimed. The point being that high turnout, or even high levels of participation, are not necessarily a sign of a healthy democracy. Or, presumably, that the thing that sparks higher levels of participation may not be greater education or patriotism, either. I don’t know. It seems to me that there is so much wrong with our democracy at present that it’s difficult to really look at any part of it. On the other hand, there was always so much wrong with it… Like all other times, things are simultaneously getting much better and much worse.
Still, participatory self-government has to be at least partly local, if it is going to serve the purpose of developing our capacity for governing ourselves. And the more difficult it is to participate, the worse it will be. At the moment, it’s much harder for me to learn about my town than about Washington, DC—even if I am willing to go and vote in odd-numbered years.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
I started reading the piece you saw on late nineteenth-century politics, but didn’t finish it. A point that the article might have gotten around to but didn’t lead with is that a piece of the “cooling” off of the fierce partisanship of the period was selling out Black Americans and ending Reconstruction. Extreme partisanship is civil war by other means.
Somewhere else recently–can’t remember where exactly–I saw a claim that the issues that people care most about now, in 2021 and not the 19th century, are local issues. The government that people should be paying the most attention to is the local government. The problem is that media coverage mainly goes to national issues, so people’s political views are shaped by the conservative propaganda that passes for national political coverage and then tries to get what they want locally by voting in federal elections. (The other problem here is that local governments are prevented by the state from doing any number of useful things and are also prevented from taxing sufficiently to carry out the people’s business. That’s probably a pervasive but not universal problem in the U.S.)
In these parts, the lack of engagement with local government means that the Chamber of Commerce has vastly outsized influence because they have the money to pay people to create the policies for the elected officials to then approve, but here both unions and the Democratic Party are sclerotic, and local government is vastly underfunded. It’s hard to look at the way local government happens here and see good governance at work. Of course, the local government is a bastion of competence in comparison to the state government. As a nation, we are not taking governance with the seriousness that it merits, given the nature and the magnitude of the challenges that we face as a society. It’s grim, and it derives from (a) ignorance in general, (b) lack of skill and interest in handling the process of democratic governance, and especially (c) the ongoing success of the monied interests in keeping the people ignorant and unskilled in democratic governance so that our ostensible democracy is a plutocracy by proxy. Thus governments tend to be effective at keeping the wealthy comfortable and well positioned to increase their wealth, but not much else, because few plutocrats these days are civic-minded.
I suspect it’s true, on the whole, that people care about local issues, and then vote in federal elections based on their local concerns. It’s also probably true that they think of their local concerns as not being susceptible to local government control, which may or may not be true—is the current fuss about “CRT” in schools a version of the old “Common Core” fury? I suspect that a lot of the real anger (which I believe is real) about the schools is coming from frustration with pandemic responses as much as anything else, and I suppose from parents being compelled to listen in to the ‘virtual’ classes and learning more about what’s in them then they otherwise would. Much of the root of the problem is local and state funding, in my opinion, but that can totally come out as anger at the curriculum.
Anyway, your larger point about not taking government with the serious it merits is a good one, and I think you are correct about the lack of knowledge, skill and interest, and at the very best the monied interests being indifferent to that, if not actively promoting it. The last has presumably always been the case; the success of people at overcoming that has varied over the generations, I guess. I wish I had a better sense of what might help the generation currently coming into demographic strength to push towards political skill and interest as a means of improving the world. They are _interested_ in improving the world, far more than our generation was I think, but don’t see participatory self-government as a useful tool for that. Which, at present it kind of isn’t, I guess. Alas.