When U.S. House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill said that “all politics is local,” he couldn’t have been more correct. The problem is that hardly anyone listened. Instead, most Americans shrugged their shoulders, smiled politely, and walked away, grumbling about the latest controversy in Congress, the president’s latest remark, or worse, what the first lady was wearing.
If all politics isn’t local, the vast majority of it surely is. The problem is that we’ve simply learned to ignore this vital truth.
Case in point: local elections, especially in large municipalities or cities, have abysmal turnout rates. In New York City, Bill DeBlasio won the mayoral race with the lowest voter turnout since the 1950s. Only 25 percent of voters turned out for the District of Columbia’s mayoral election which, by all accounts, was hotly contested.
It seems that the only time locals vote is when there’s a referendum on increasing property taxes for the local schools. That is a significant bone of contention for many, with both sides digging in. Even then, well under 30 percent of registered voters turn out, but at least they do. These numbers are getting worse on the local and state levels as more voters are becoming apathetic.
State and municipal elections are the lifeblood of this country and affect citizens far more than the results of national elections. Everything from gas prices and electric rates to property taxes and public parks and libraries are controlled by the local government.
Yet when it comes time for elections, most people don’t bother to vote. They stay at home and continue and complain about how government is failing them, not realizing that their vote in a local election carries exponentially more weight than it does in a national election. A good comparison would be dropping a boulder into a lake from a height of six feet versus a stone from the same distance.
So, if local elections are so important, why are citizens apathetic? There are studies that address a number of concerns, but it boils down to one word: drama. Americans love big, earth-shattering events. We love the spectacle – being part of something that might change everything. We magnify everything. We like to think that every political event is like the World Series or the Super Bowl. Even our circus acts, now mostly defunct, had the same mantra: “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We love this stuff. It gets our adrenaline going and makes us feel as though we are on the cutting edge of something so important, so grandiose, so spectacular that everyone has to watch or be part of it. It’s who we are, whether we like it or not.
We all too easily forget that, in the end, it’s the small things that matter. Ask anyone who leads a team of any sort. The major concepts are the easiest to teach, but if details aren’t taken care of, the product on the field will suffer. Think of your local elections that way. They are the details, the small things that make the car shine, the machine function as it should. The problem is that we‘re so concerned about the big, splashy events that we forget what really counts is what’s in front of us on a daily basis. That last sentence applies to more than just politics, should we think about it for a moment.
In this election cycle, there are many seats being contested. Candidates are running for state representative, the school board (maybe the most important position yet least paid attention to), mayor, and city council. If you really think about it, which has more effect on your daily life: national or local elections? If you didn’t say local then you’re not paying attention.
Michael DiMatteo has taught American, European, and world history and political science in the Illinois school system, both public and private, for over 32 years. In 2010, he was recognized as an Illinois Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction. His writings can be found at Think31.com.