A week ago I asked my Twitter friends this question: if you’re not involved in local politics, why not?
I want to know, because I’m entering New York City politics. But NYC politics is local, and no one likes local politics.
This makes it hard for me to build my own political team, and, unfortunately, a lot of the people I’d want for my team are the same people who are politically disengaged.
So my tweet is field work. The goal? Find the things that keep people away from local politics and catalog them as constraints–to be worked around or broken if possible. And before I lay out my findings, I would like to note: I think there are plenty of interesting, novel ways of engaging in local politics. But they’re for a different essay. All right–tally-ho!
Regarding local politics…
It’s hard to know where to start.
- Local politics aren’t covered widely like national politics are, so there’s no ambiently acquired foundational knowledge. You have to deliberately go learn about it.
- When you do go learn about it, you’ll probably be overwhelmed. It’s at this point you’ll realize: you don’t know the structure of your local government, you don’t know who the political players or teams are, you don’t know where the political battle lines are, you have no idea of the political history, what the hell is a community board, and there is no book or nice graph that outlines the whole thing in sufficient, clear detail. You will think the deck is stacked against you, and you will be correct.
- Further: you are a busy professional, maybe even with kids. Are you supposed to spend your nights and weekends learning about all this stuff? And to what end–it looks like many public hearings are in the middle of the work day! This whole thing, you will think, is some big-time nonsense. Again, correct.
- Local politics is a movie that you’ve walked into halfway, spoken in a foreign tongue without subtitles.
It is boring.
- National politics is the real smack, that dragon we all wanna ride. It hits the same part of the brain that professional sports do, and awakens the tribal impulse. It is the collision of massive forces. It is a Marvel movie. You can wear t-shirts with your favorite heroes’ faces on them and break down the latest epic battle, because everyone pays attention to national politics. Name a more successful entertainment franchise, I dare you.
- On the other hand, no one wants to talk to you about local politics. They don’t know the players, they don’t know the teams, they don’t know the rules. You can’t spectate or enjoy a game if you don’t know any of that stuff, and dear god don’t the words “city clerk” just make your ears bleed? What are you going to do–spend your nights and weekends learning about all of that? Again, no, because you’re a busy professional, maybe even with kids. Or a Netflix queue.
- Also, if you try to learn about your local government via its website, it will pull some shit like try to sell you the city’s charter on compact disc. That is offensively, aggressively, infuriatingly boring.
It is threatening, but in a vague, meh way.
- A consequence of not knowing local political teams, players, and fault lines is that you don’t know who to trust to give you a good start. Oh look–you’ve found a group that gets out the vote! Wait…they employ some pretty yucky partisan tactics. Now hold on, here’s a group that teaches you how to join and run a political campaign! Oh dear…they only want people from a specific political party.
- Upon closer inspection, it has come to your attention that your locality is a one-party operation. And yet, somehow, they all still hate each other and work at cross-purposes. There seem to be teams, but they’re all wearing the same jersey? How are there 30 people from one political party running for mayor? What the hell is going on?
It is the aesthetic child of a stale church basement and the comments section of a local news article.
- Perhaps you gutted it out and went to a local town hall meeting, or the open comment part of some board meeting. You’re waiting for your turn to speak, but no one else seems interested in waiting. They’re yelling over each other! And even when it’s just one person speaking these people are going on forever. It occurs to you that there is no quality filter on participation, as there are legions of dumbos monologuing in grand, unsolicited detail. The board members are generally just letting these people talk, but not listening (and why would they, why would anyone). You do not have time for this. Is this really how change is made?
You ain’t from around here, are ya?
- Perhaps you’re an immigrant, and you can’t vote in your new home country. You’re not even a citizen–what is there to do?
- Perhaps you’re an internal immigrant. You moved from one part of your country to another, and you have no idea about the local political landscape (it’s hard to know where to start, after all).
- No matter what kind of newcomer you are, you can rest assured that someone will call you a carpetbagger if you get involved in local politics. There certainly do seem to be entrenched political actors hostile to change. Who needs that trouble, especially if they are a busy professional, maybe even with kids. Or a Netflix queue.