Local Politics - They Don't Want You To Be Interested
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
With only a couple weeks to go until the municipal election the main comment I hear is "It's hard to get interested in local politics." People feel bad about it, especially at election time but they just can't get into it.
Don't feel bad. If anything you might be angry. They don't want you to be interested. It makes the job of government SO much harder when citizens are paying attention and having opinions and saying stuff.
This is a post about why it is notoriously difficult to get interested in local politics and what you might do about it.
This week many of us saw the mayhem that is American politics. It was loud, messy, aggressive, confusing, quarrelsome, mixed up, hard to follow, and in the end nothing was settled. In other words, it was fascinating. We all watched in wild wonder and all felt part of something larger; waiting on the edge of our seats for what comes next.
Here's the painful truth... that's Democracy. Democracy is the argument we have with ourselves about the shape of things to come. It's messy and it's never settled. It's slow; slower than we'd like. And it can't walk a straight line. Sure there have been triumphant moments in democracy; eloquent speakers, memorable speeches, breakthroughs, inspiring visions, and high ideals. But these moments are rare. Mostly democracy is loud and ugly and awful to watch. It's so easy for others to turn up their nose at American politics saying it's never been worse or more unseemly. But maybe... maybe it's never been better. Maybe more voices from more people are being heard than ever before. Maybe more people are aware of the problems of the day than ever. Maybe more diversity of mind and manner is being accepted than before. Maybe more people are hoping for more and better, especially for the least well off, than ever in history. Becoming more aware of a problem must be sharply distinguished from a problem becoming worse.
You may be repulsed, but you can not turn away. I'm always surprised here at home and in the farthest flung corners of the world how many regular people follow and know the details of American politics. And in America it's not strange to get into a cab and meet a taxi driver passionately following the proceedings of some committee meeting on this issue or that on NPR. It's very interesting and people are interested, and that makes good democracy no matter how loud, messy and unsettled it is.
But We Just Want Things To Be Nice and Polite
There's a natural cognitive problem. We're bad at determining what will make us happy... what's good for us and how good things are. In their book FACTFULNESS Hans, Anna, and Ola Rossling summarize studies around the world that ask, simply, are things getting better or worse? You won't be surprised to learn the large majority of people in most countries believe things are terrible and getting worse all the time. The problem with that is it is factually not true. The world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that matter most. Without focus and information we just want things to be quiet. We mistake quiet for peace.
Sidebar: What about climate change, racism, addiction, and all the bad stuff? you might ask. YES! Exactly, we've never been more attuned, engaged and interested in the environmental problems of the world than we are right now. We've never been working harder to improve ourselves and the world. Just a generation ago we were dumping our sewage and garbage and chemical weapons into the sea. Now we're working actively to find a better way forward and to try and fix some of the mess we made. Is it as fast and furious as we'd like? Nope. But it's more than we've ever done in history.
Churchill liked the old saying Democracy is awful; the worst form of government.... except for all the others that have been tried. When democracy is working... you hear about it. In fact, you never hear the end of it. That's the price of democracy. And the citizens play a part. John Ralston Saul said, "The citizen's job is to be rude - to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt." Being increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo and advocating for more and better is never going to be quiet work. But that is the work of democracy.
Halifax - Stepford by any other name
In November 2012 Mike Savage became Mayor in Halifax on a ticket, bought and paid for by Land Speculators and Developers that promised to reduce the size of council, move council meetings out of the public eye, and do whatever it took to see less 'arguing' in council debates. That's what was promised and that's what was delivered: a contradiction, democracy with less democracy. Anything follows from a contradiction. It gives us what we got: growth without prosperity, change without change, the symbols of success without success, progress without being progressive, and more wealth more unequally.
Fast forward 8 years. Voter turn out was abysmal then and it has gotten much worse. Citizen engagement in local politics beyond the ballot box is even worse. There's a good chance you will NEVER interact with city government. If you do it's likely because you are directly having a problem; you're angry and self-interested. Government will see you coming a mile away. They will scoff and call you, to your face or behind your back, a NIMBY. And they know exactly how to deal with you. They are expert at it.
Everything council does has the effect of limiting and muting direct citizen engagement. Wait. What? But they have an office of diversity, an accessibility advocate, and they support the Pride Parade. One councilor (in my district) even practices a form of direct democracy with his 'slush funds' by letting people vote on which projects his largess benefits. . For sure. Seems great. But it's not. It's called CO-OPTING. Most people, almost everyone, will never speak out or look into what's going on. Government does everything it can to keep things that way. They call it the silent majority and they want it to stay that way. But the poor, the disenfranchised, the historically under-presented and unheard, and just generally the squeaky wheels, those folks require a different approach. It's not high minded ideals that have lead government to diversity, inclusion, minority rights and reconciliation. It's noise. People speaking out, asking questions, wanting more and better force democracy into action. For better and worse.
Cooptation is the elite strategy of using apparently cooperative practices to absorb those who seek change – to make them work with elites without giving them any new advantages. When cooptation is successful, those who seek change alter their positions when working with elites, hoping to gain new strategic advantages through compromising, but those advantages do not come and instead the elites’ position prevails. Through cooptation, elites undermine movements by stripping them of their credibility as agents of change. It's not suppression as you might imagine it. Sometimes the change agents are simply distracted, delayed, deferred, or even just bored to defeat. It takes an astonishing amount of will and political savvy to resist a friendly hand, a board position, a committee, a review, a consultation, community engagement, direct funding, or even just lunch. Once taken though, that largess, the friendships, the connections, the promises; they all become the chains of the change-maker's enslavement to the system.
You don't need to look far. You can see cooptation everywhere. In truth the whole modern history of Nova Scotia is one of cooptation. Joseph Howe, the leader of the anti-confederate party in NS, was co-optted by Canadian federalists to settle us into Canada. Here's a recent rare and exceptional story of an activist resisting cooptation. Lynn Jones is part of a Nova Scotian black coalition. She was invited by the premier to join his 'working group' to take 18 months to review ideas about ways to restructure the justice system. Lynn had the experience, will and presence of mind to resist. If only everyone from the Ivany Commissioners to the Knowledge Cafe sippers had Lynn Jones strength of character.
Add to this cooptation problem the near total collapse of independent media, the decline of civics education and critical thinking in education, the lack of mathematical/economic/accounting understanding on the left and empathy on the right, the rise of misinformation, the proliferation of conflict of interest, and our city begins to look more like the town from THE WICKERMAN or THE STEPFORD WIVES than a bastion of democracy.
So. We have a local election where only about 30% of those eligible will vote, many are disenfranchised; most can't find good information, few believe change is possible, and then the government does everything it can possibly do to remain radio silent. People are generally happy. Ignorance is bliss. Incumbents almost never lose in local elections.
But it's not good government.
It's a system designed to keep you on the outs. And it is working all too well. That's why you're not interested. That's why you're not able to get informed. That's why you don't feel like you can make a difference. That's why you can't find the passion to speak out. That's why you don't have hope for better. In fact, you'd be a fool to waste your time. You have things to do where you can make a difference.
Is this cynical? Here's another view. Political comedian Russel Brand suggests young people stop pretending and just stop voting. There are other ways for the rising generation to shape things to come. There are others ways to express ourselves politically than participating in a broken system of electing politicians who, co-opted themselves and doing anything to hold on to the best jobs they ever had, turn out the same as the last. My view is rather than simply accepting that one government looks very much like the last we should stop and ask why, why there seems to be a lack of dynamic change in government. Is it a feature or a flaw? The answer lies in the relationship between the elected government and the increasingly powerful, permanent unelected, unaccountable, unfirable bureaucracy.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
A surprising amount of good happens in the community in spite of government. The good news is that, though political engagement and voter turnout are going down, community engagement is on the rise. People are joining groups, attending markets and protests, people are sharing information on the street and online, people are working below the level of local government to plant gardens, clean beaches, help wildlife, gifting, and all kinds of good works near their homes and reaching far outside traditional social groups and roles.
Today it takes a tremendous effort to get informed about local issues and the new sciences required to make informed choices. Where do we start? I can share my experience. Just pick an issue. Any issue with which you are not self-involved or self-interested. Pick an issue where you can become a disinterested advocate.
John Muir said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Pull on any thread and you can eventually unravel the whole blanket. The skills learned understanding one political issue will quickly transfer to others. The same problems, people, faults, and foibles will be seen repeating over and over and you will quickly get the picture of a very small set of problems even in a big city.
You'll also find some fun. Local politics is filled with big characters, high stakes, secret worlds, and big payoffs. No Netflix series has anything on the plot twists, backstabbing, greed and beautiful surprises of local council.
Here's 5 other reasons to try to figure it out:
1/ Local politics affect our everyday lives. Not happy with the bus system in your city? Worried about potholes? Annoyed that your back yard keeps being flooded when it rains? All these issues are handled by the local government officials. Depending on how your city or local charter is written, these issues may be handled by your city council or by another local governing body. The details managed by these folks can really pile up, especially if you live in a poorer locality. Often, if you don’t bring the issues up to them, then they will probably never know.
2. The folks elected to local positions in our cities and towns act as our first line of government. They are the most accessible part of government to the average citizen. They are the faces you can actually talk to regarding any issues in your city or town. The City Councils in most cities and towns work to make their communities better places. If you don’t talk to them, tell them your concerns, and share your vision for the future, no one will ever hear your voice of dissent.
3. Participation in local politics can prevent tyranny. In Canada, we believe in democracy and representative government. This is because, at the local level, true democracy is possible and perfectly doable. If we don’t participate, democracy inevitably turns into tyranny. The People ultimately rule any democracy, and together, we can work to create communities where finding common ground isn’t all that uncommon. Adm. HG Rickover said, "A certain measure of courage in the private citizen is necessary to the good conduct of the State. Otherwise men who have power through riches, intrigue, or office will administer the State at will and ultimately to their private advantage."
4. It's easier to change laws, rally support, hold politicians accountable, and be the voice of change at the local level than any other level of government.
5. There aren't that many rich people. Though they might hold wealth, power, intrigue and influence they are always at a disadvantage in a democracy when confronted with a popular idea whose time has come.