With so much attention on the presidency, foreign policy and the supreme court, we shouldn’t be surprised that our attention is being pulled away from local level politics. Data shows that voter turnout for local elections in the US is ‘plummeting’. But civic engagement at the lower levels is critical. A couple of reasons why:
1. The issues are important.
Do you care how infrastructure, firearms, education (including sex ed), or reproductive rights in your community are managed? These rules vary by state and locality, even when existing national policy sets high level parameters. Then even after the rules are on the books, judges (elected) at the state and local level put them into practice.
They put national politics into practice.
For example: The Affordable Care Act provided incentives for states to expand Medicaid, but the choice was ultimately up to those states. The hope of ACA advocates was for all citizens to qualify for Medicaid or the ACA subsidies. When many states chose not to expand (or fully expand), some people fell in ‘the gap’ between subsidy and Medicaid eligibility. Those people in the gap were impacted and so were the those states’ insurance marketplaces.
My point isn’t about the expansion decision being right or wrong, but a lot of power over how the ACA work resides at lower levels of government. Having your voice represented appropriately in these kinds of decisions is arguably as important as your representation at the national level.
2. State and local politics are a space to reduce partisanship and break up homogeny.
It’s no secret that partisanship at the national level is increasing. The issues at stake are so dynamic and we’re generalizing them to two sides–neither of which can accurately represent us all. The good news is, state and local legislation provides opportunities to account for that dynamic nature of politics and civic life. But if we don’t invest in getting to know our local leaders and the issues at hand, we will fail to make use of this opportunity: by not participating at all or only voting when it’s your party against the others.
State and local politics are more than executors of federal decisions. State-level policies can be used to pilot legislation that has potential for national implementation in the future (helllooooo, Massachusetts-based Romneycare!).
No law is an island. To be civically engaged it’s important to understand how policies, sectors, people and culture all work together to create the ecosystem in which we live.
Your unsolicited advice for the week:
- Wherever you’re already engaged, take one step down to get familiar with issues that might have visibility in your everyday life or that of your neighbors.
- And don’t stop at identifying who belongs to which party–honor the spaces within that broadly sweeping identity of liberal or conservative. Figure out where different candidates and policy proposals within your party might align more to less with your own values.
- Then talk about it! Bring your friends and family into the fold. You don’t have to know it all to be a consciousness raiser.