Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Local Politics

Last night I took in a spirited political debate. McCain/Obama? No. I went to see the candidates for my city supervisor seat duke it out at a historic theater in the neighborhood. There were hisses, boos, applause, and plenty of opinions from the audience members. Years-old grudges were aired, making me, a relative newcomer to the city, feel frankly ignorant about San Francisco politics. But it was fun, and invigorating too. One candidate said there was no other place like San Francisco's District 9 anywhere in the country, and another candidate talked about how grateful he was for San Francisco values, certainly not something you'd hear at a political forum anywhere else. And after two years being bombarded with an endless and oftentimes uninspiring presidential campaign, it's great to be able to make a choice in a race where I get to meet all the candidates, and where "reaching across the aisle" is what a Green party member pledges he will do if elected.

I know that several contributors to this blog are very active in local politics. I am thinking of Bimbo and Koko specifically, but I'm sure there are others. So I'm hoping you can help me answer a question that drives me nuts: why is it that so many well-educated people who closely follow national politics have little interest or involvement at the local level? I invited about a dozen friends to go to the debate last night and only one showed up, and he didn't even live in the district. Many of them probably wanted to watch the presidential debate, but all of them are certainly voting for Obama and won't be swayed at this point, whereas many of them don't even know who the candidates are in the local race. This used to bother me a lot when I lived in DC, where many people I knew didn't even read the Washington Post, in my opinion the country's best newspaper and one that provides top-notch local coverage of a very troubled city. Yet they define themselves as politically engaged and are often active on the national level.

I include myself in this criticism: I'm far less informed about local politics than I should be, but the longer I live in a place the more attached I get. Is it because our generation is so transient that we haven't put down the roots that would give us an investment in local issues? Or have national affairs become a sort of entertainment that we follow for fun, without considering the ramifications all the way down chain?


venus infers said...

Good for you Nancy! What's up with all those hipsters, moralizing about eating local and forgetting to vote for their local school board members!

I guess part of it is that a lot of people a) move around so feel disconnected from the places where they live b) it does take an effort to educate yourself on local politics c) it's all quite unglamorous.

Another big factor is how voting is organized. That's why electoral reform is so important. As usual, SF got it right-- they've really simplified the way that the elections work, so that you get to choose on a whole range of issues in one go, thanks to the instant run-off system, for example. NC is also trying to carry out electoral reform, but the current political climate (at the national level-- and I'm thinking particularly the judiciary) makes it very difficult to move forward in that direction. The point being that in the case of less "charismatic" elections (say, for labor commissioner, or school boards), whenever these get divorced from the big national elections, voter turn-out is extremely low, even when these totally unglamorous positions actually have a huge impact on the way that national policy is applied at the most immediate level.

Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

Here's a local blog that makes much the same point.

Betty and Bimbo said...

Superb post, Nancy D.!
I will wager a couple of answers to the question you pose.

One, I think that local politicians don't engage us ideologically as much as national ones. And it's ideology more than issues that really get some of us going. In both red and blue states. Ideology speaks to something larger and grander that the day-to-day problems that annoy us and require real, boring thought and work and fundraising, etc.

Two, if we live in cities (especially the kind B&B bloggers live in), everyone tends to be a Democrat, so you DO have to lift a finger to figure out the difference between candidates. Around here we have Sheldon Silver, a State Rep. who B&B voted again in the last election because of his non-progressive views. But he won by a large margin, because he is a "reliable" and familiar Democrat. I am sure you would find plenty of "harmless", status quo-endorsing, non-ideological Democrats running for the even more local seats too -- none of them really distinguished themselves for good or bad, though. Again, ideology trumps issues when you're trying to get people who don't have a direct stake in the thing you're in charge of (like schools, or police) to vote for you. Does that make sense?

Finally, I think the entertainment value (propped up by the big money involved) in national politics is difficult to resist. It's like the difference between watching high school basketball and the NBA. The stakes are higher and the equipoise required is, too, though these two factors often clash against each other in interesting ways.
Also, I think national politics give us a fake fuzzy sense of national unity.
BUT -- local politics are extremely important and a real way to participate in change-making and leadership-making. The Obama story is a high-speed example of this. We should keep talking about this.

Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

I like your point about the NBA vs. high school basketball! One of the things I like about local politics is that ideology can take a back seat. Like, we all know we're progressives here, we all believe in sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and gay marriage (and for god sakes, two of the front-runners in my district are gay Latinos), so can we please talk about how we're going to handle this spate of murders that has everyone in the neighborhood freaking out? Or getting the goddamn buses to run on time? Or how the hell can we afford our rent? That seems more real to me.

Betty and Bimbo said...

Please keep is posted on your ongiong engagement with local politics -- it's totally fascinating. I think one interesting question local politics brings up is, where does the line of "the political" begin? Which I guess is the same line where "individual responsibility" ends.