By Hovik Minasyan
What is the name of your state senator? How about your councilmember? I dare say most Americans cannot name a single local representative. This is a massive problem. The roads in your city, the schools that your kids go to, and sales tax that you pay are all decided at the local level. Local and state governments have a massive impact on the day to day lives of everyday Americans, but it seems that the only thing we care about is what is happening at the Whitehouse, the Supreme Court, or the Capitol building.
This was the topic of discussion during a recent dinner seminar with Professor Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University. I had a chance to sit down with Professor Wharton to discuss his thoughts on the current state of local politics in the United States. Professor Wharton’s assessment? Not enough Americans pay attention to what is happening in their backyards. Professor Wharton, who is heavily involved with Connecticut and New Haven politics, underscored how important local legislation is and just how large of an impact it has on our lives. However, American’s seem to either not care or not understand how important local politics are . As a recent article highlighted, 99% of Americans in typical media markets have not visited the website of a local politician. Meanwhile, as one study showed, large cities like New York and Los Angeles see less than 20% voter turnout for local elections. This is troublesome to say the least. Voting is fundamentally necessary to the success of democracy. When citizens do not show up on election day, their voice, and thus popular mandate is nonexistent. Dr. Wharton further explained how this leads to high levels of corruption at the local level. With no “watchdogs”, politicians are free to act as they please.
So what causes a lack of local participation and how can we fix its demise? According to Dr. Wharton, the media has a lot to do with it. Tune into CNN, MSNBC, or Fox and chances are the anchors will be talking about President Trump, Senator Schumer, or Speaker Pelosi. The media focuses on national politics because that is where the money is. People see the constant coverage and are conditioned to only pay attention to national politics, giving the media companies further incentive to only focus on Washington. Thus, a never ending cycle is born. Secondly, Dr. Wharton pointed to the lack of a proper civics education in the United States. If the people do not understand how the government works they are less likely to participate in it. He pointed out that in New Jersey, only 1 in 4 schools have some sort of civics curriculum. Thus, it might not be surprising to hear that New Jersey is one of the most corrupt states in the U.S.
To fix these issues we have to go beyond just increasing voter turnout. As Dr. Wharton told me, it’s as simple as getting involved in local politics and more importantly teaching the next generation proper civics so they understand why getting involved is important and necessary. After that the opportunities to get involved are endless. If you are unhappy with your roads, go to a city council meeting. If you think the schools in your area are failing, join a committee. But before everything else, learn the name of your local representatives.