National politics is polarized. State politics is paralyzed. Politics seems more difficult a subject than usual, and more remote than it used to be. We have one congressional representative for every 650,000 people. In state government, we have one State Senator for every 306,000 people and one Assembly member for every 126,500 people. Even if you're an optimist, it's hard to believe that individual voices (without checks attached) have much of an impact.
Though the state and federal governments dominate the news, local governments face many of the same kinds of questions: How much government is appropriate? What should the tax rate be? How do you balance community interests? What kinds of infrastructure should government provide, and what should be left for business or other organizations?
Local governments are generally approachable. County, town, village, school district, and city halls are close to home, and their elected officials don't have armies of aides between them and the public. Meetings are regular, open, and usually no more than a few hours on a given night.
Focusing on local issues doesn't have to mean giving up on the ideals that motivate you in order to focus on repairing potholes. While politics play differently at the local level (in school districts and some municipalities, the usual political parties aren't involved), values are still crucial for reaching decisions. Local governments decide on everything from land use to spending levels to recreation to highways to emergency services using the same kinds of values that motivate people at the federal or state level.
Local government can also be a lens for inspecting rules made by larger governments. The county, municipalities, and schools all have to conform to these rules. Watching them is a great way to see how larger policies work out (or don't) in specific cases, and to see how ideals fare when pressed against the reality of people who just want to get their projects through.
It can be harder to find out what happens in local government than what happens in Washington or Albany. Local governments have fewer reporters watching them. Their limited powers mean that there won't be stories on the Town of Lansing militia invading Dryden with its ally Groton to seize territory to make up for the tax losses caused by the Village of Cayuga Heights seizing the Village of Lansing. This limits their news potential, but the lower volume of local government still gives citizens a decent chance of sorting out what's happening. It's much easier to see the concrete impact of government at a human scale.
I've spent the last eight months looking closely at government in the Town of Dryden. (You can see some of the results at http://livingindryden.org/.) It's taken some time to figure out how things work, and I still feel like I'm sorting out what's important and why. It's not easy or instant, but it is valuable. When I see buildings going up around town, or even For Sale signs in empty lots, I know how they got there. When I hear about concerts or summer programs, I know why they're happening. Perhaps most important, I'm learning how my neighbors make a difference, in the hope that I can make a difference myself at some point.
Even if you can't spend the time at meeting after meeting, you can still make a difference. A single vote can make a huge difference in local politics, as the recent 718-718 school budget tie in Dryden demonstrated. It doesn't take much time to have an impact, and you can see results in your own neighborhood. Don't give up on bigger issues, but take a look around to see what you can accomplish in your own back yard.
(Published in the Dryden Courier, July 14, 2004, page 5.)