Civic engagement is horrifyingly low given the number of people who have some political opinion. With this article, I hope to motivate at least one person to attend a meeting at a local event, write to a representative, or at the very least research issues that matter most to the people they see on a daily basis. Here are three reasons to ignore the pomp and circumstance in D.C. and refocus your energies towards your community.
3. Ignore the tendency to withdraw from stressful situations
There is a growing literature in American Political Psychology that studies why people tend to disengage from politics particularly in the face of a high-stakes election, court case, or bill. One study, by William and Mary Assistant Professor Jaime Settle, tries to understand the physiological reactions, felt by subjects with a wide range of political interest, to politically divisive debates ranging from Tea Party organizers to Occupy Wall Street. The researchers found that when asked to engage with a physical person in political conversation, many of the subjects had noticeable physiological reactions akin to engaging in a very stressful situation. That being said, civic engagement at the local level does not necessarily have to be face-to-face. Most offices have staff that receive, sort through, and respond to constituent mail, social media posts, and email. Don’t let our innate reactions to anxiety stop you from engaging with local officials… you would be surprised how much they appreciate feedback.
2. Local Politics matters more in your daily life (in most cases)
In the United States, we have a federal system of government. The federal government has a well-defined list of powers enshrined in the Constitution and morphed and modified through federal law. All other powers, thanks to the 10th Amendment, are reserved to the states. Because of this, many state constitutions have progressive provisions that many, even political wonks, do not know exist.
For example, each state has a clause defining a ‘right to education.’ 30 states have clauses relating to the establishment of higher education. Because most school-age children in the United States (regrettably not all) attend K-12 schooling, everyone has a vested interest in ensuring that schools are properly funded and administered. Everyone is invited to attend the many public hearings on education spending and standards held in every state. For those living in New Jersey, Democratic lawmakers are holding a total of nine public hearings on the topic of school funding in the coming months. If you are interested, check it out!
1. Change comes when the individual realizes he or she CAN make a difference
I have heard this line countless times from students to adults: ‘I don’t vote because my vote doesn’t matter.’ Admittedly, when the conversation turns to presidential politics, that person has a point. In a majority of states, the outcome of a national election is not in doubt. New York has been voting for the Democratic candidate for quite some and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future (this is because New York City and the surrounding suburbs hold nearly half of the state’s voting population).
Let us take an issue that many do not even know about, our primary election structure. In many states both state and federal primary elections are restricted to allow only members of the two major parties the right to vote. Independent and third party voters are shut out of the process. Open Primaries, a non-profit headquartered in New York City, advocates for an open primary election structure which allows all voters, regardless of party affiliation the opportunity to vote in primary elections. Thanks to the work of countless canvassers, advocates, and volunteers, states like Colorado have passed open primary reform.
The moral of this story is that change in Colorado came about thanks to the tireless work of INDIVIDUALS dedicating their time, even if it is half an hour a week, to a cause that they were passionate about.
For those who have been deeply impacted by the election and inauguration, engagement in local politics can be a cathartic experience akin to completing a “mental” marathon. When people engage in politics at the national level, the results tend to enter a ‘black box’ of politics where change is slow and at many times unobservable. The psychological benefits of readjusting focus to the local level may feed your passions, make them stronger, and encourage you to spend more time and more effort on more issues that you care about all because the results are tangible.