I spent a couple hours last week writing an op-ed that I submitted to the Times with little hope of publication. Supposedly, they receive more than 1000 submissions a week. They only publish around 10 op-eds a week & many/most are invited from big-name folks. Just doing the math – and setting aside the likelihood that many other submissions will be better than my own – the chance of getting published in the NYT is tiny.
That said, the context of tomorrow’s local elections across the country, low turnout in NYC, and the media narrative about the election in NYC made me feel like writing something, so I did. And now, at the close of the third business day since I sent it in, I’m accepting the piece’s fate and posting it here. I’ll probably tweak this someday to fit another paper/context, but for now…
PS. They opted instead to publish this lame piece on…guess what? Bloomberg’s spending.
Overlooking Local Elections
News coverage of the 2009 election in New York has been dominated by the big-ticket item at the top of the ballot: Mayor Bloomberg and his spending. From coverage in the Times we know that Bloomberg has already spent “more of his own money than any other individual in United States history in the pursuit of public office” and more than either Procter & Gamble spent advertising Bounty paper towels or General Mills spent advertising Yoplait Light yogurt in 2008. Amidst the cries of democratic distortion and inequity, the real story about Bloomberg’s spending is how futile – at least in one sense – it is. Certainly, the mayor can expect a safe victory. But what all of Bloomberg’s money and all of Bloomberg’s men cannot do is stimulate a meaningful level of voter turnout. Instead, his mandate will come from a small fraction of New York City’s population because local politics is an afterthought for most Americans. As a rule, turnout in local elections is low. In 2001, Bloomberg narrowly won a hotly contested race in which 36% of NYC’s registered voters participated. In 2005, about 29% of the city’s voters came to the polls. In this September’s primary election, fewer than 8% of New York’s registered Democrats voted. Low participation is not unique to NYC. For example, in Philadelphia’s 2007 mayoral election, fewer than 28% of registered voters took part. That same year, in my hometown of Alliance, Ohio, turnout was just over 30% for the mayoral contest. So, in local elections in large and small cities, with races that are hotly or barely contested, most citizens don’t vote.
Americans weren’t always this disconnected from local politics. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the following about an America that was much less federal in nature, “So feeble and limited is the share of government left to the administration, and so much does the latter reflect its popular origins and obey the power from which it emanates, that it is fair to say that the people govern themselves. The people reign over the American political world as God reigns over the universe.” The Frenchman knew that not all citizens were voters, but he left our nation struck by the vibrant community engagement that characterized early America.
Today, there is evidence that Americans in small towns are still more apt to vote and engage in local politics. That said, the modern trend towards urbanization makes this observation one of diminishing solace. And, as the example above from 23,253-strong Alliance, Ohio, shows, even relatively small cities have low levels of turnout. Despite this, the results of local politics influence the quality of Americans lives in many critical ways. Public education, public safety, basic human necessities as safe drinking water, and many other critical aspects of our lives are all materially affected by local politics. At best, local politics combine public and private resources in a mutually reinforcing relationship between a local government and its citizens. But for this to happen, citizens must elect effective local leaders and then be willing to engage in other ways. This does not automatically happen.
Three obstacles to stimulating local political engagement are worth noting.
First, changes in our media system are driving local newspapers out of business with no replacement in sight. It is sad to watch the decline of newspapers, but the real loss is the information they provide: make no mistake, failure to replace this will be catastrophic. Without local political information, how can citizens participate knowledgeably in community affairs?
Second, our modern economy privileges worker flexibility. In response, individuals are likely to move as they pursue their careers – stopping them from putting down roots in a community. If people don’t expect to stay in a community, then the time and energy it takes to become an engaged citizen might be too much of an investment for them. Losing these people to an itinerant existence strips cities of a precious resource: citizens. What’s a city without citizens?
Third, Americans themselves do not value local politics. Very rarely do schools teach children about politics in their home communities. Even in schools that teach civics, it is typically taught in an abstract sense driven by textbooks that are general to the country rather than specific to the community. If we do not cultivate knowledge of and interest in local politics, why should we expect Americans to have either?
As we ponder Mayor Bloomberg’s likely re-election, we should be debating the bankruptcy of local politics in our nation rather than the Mayor’s profligacy. For too long, we have ignored public apathy to local affairs. As local newspapers wither, this lack of local political engagement will be exposed. The dysfunction and corruption that could arise in our communities without either strong media oversight or citizen engagement is much more threatening than a paid Bloomberg canvasser.