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HomePoliticsPoliticsPolitics Is Local: Seeing Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg

Politics Is Local: Seeing Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg

The first time Thomas O’Neill ran for public office, he was a college student seeking a seat on the local city council. He lost that race, but he learned a valuable lesson that he applied throughout the rest of his political career: “All politics are local.”

After learning and applying this lesson, he never lost another election. As a 24-year-old college graduate he was elected to the state legislature. Approximately 30 years and many political races later, Tip O’Neill became the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a position he served in for a decade.

Often when we think of politics, we focus on the major issues that are the subject of national debate: issues like abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, gun control, immigration, and welfare reform. But these issues, the ones that have produced the proliferating political polarization since Tip O’Neill left office in 1987, are just the tip of the political iceberg.

There is so much more below the surface that we tend to ignore. While this is not what Tip O’Neill meant when he said, “All politics are local,” consider that most political issues that you will face on a day-to-day basis are local issues addressed by local governmental officials.

·       Do you want to put a shed in your backyard or remodel your home? You likely need to talk with your local building inspector and zoning administrator.

·       Do you want to get the potholes in your street filled?  You likely need to talk with your city manager, township supervisor, or your county road commissioner.

·       Do you want to do something about your backyard flooding every time you get a heavy rainstorm? You likely need to talk with your county drain commissioner.

·       Do you want to speak out in favor of or against a new development, whether it be a new residential development, or a wind farm, or a solar farm? You likely need to talk with your local planning commission and zoning administrator.

·       Do you want to address the issue of students’ access to books at a public school library? You likely need to talk with your local school board.

·       Do you want to get involved politically? You likely need to think beyond “West Wing” and think “Parks and Recreation.”

But as noted above, Tip O’Neill was not drawing a distinction between those issues that are best addressed by local government and those best addressed by a national government. There is a distinction, and there is a debate over which political issues are best handled locally and which are best handled regionally or nationally. For example, right now, the Michigan legislature has bills pending that would seek to preempt local authority to regulate certain issues, such as short-term rentals and solar farms.

What Tip O’Neill meant by “All politics are local” is that it is important for our political representatives to be part of, known by, and invested in, the local community that they represent. This connection between our political representatives and their constituents is essential for our constitutional republic to survive.

But sadly, much has changed since Tip O’Neill left office in 1987. Our politics have become more polarized. 

This increased political polarization is due, in part, to another former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who ascended to political power by using divisive rhetoric. Rather than seeking compromise with the opposing party, Newt Gingrich used strong words to contrast the Democrats and the Republicans and their respective policy positions. Words that painted the Democrats as radical traitors, and the Republicans as principled Americans.

The increased political polarization is also due to most (if not all) of our national politicians no longer being closely connected to their local communities. Instead, they are closely connected to their corporate contributors and to their political parties. They care more about increasing their campaign coffers and getting reelected than they care about representing their communities’ best interests.  And that includes politicians from both parties.

This has been going on for the past three decades at least. It feels almost as if it has always been a part of our political system. It results in a sense of hopelessness, as if there is nothing we can do to change the system.

Don’t just complain. Don’t lose hope. Look beyond the tip of the political iceberg. See what is happening below the surface of the national political partisanship and polarization.

Don’t just become informed; become active. Reach out to your local representatives, as well as your state and national representatives, on those issues that you are passionate about. Check to see if your representatives have office hours. Some will have a coffee hour at a local café in order to at least appear like they care about staying connected to the community. See if you can develop a relationship with your representatives so that your voice will at least be heard.

Remember, all politics are local, in both senses of that phrase – the importance of connectedness to the local community, and the vast number of issues that are controlled by local governmental units. Become informed on those issues that interest you and affect you the most, whether they are issues best handled locally, regionally, or nationally.

It’s not only your right to do so under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s also your responsibility and duty. It’s what you owe to your community.

Consider becoming a representative of your local community. You may decide to run for a local election. Or, if you don’t have the patience or temperament to run for public office, consider serving on one of the many local boards that are appointed offices, such as planning commissions and zoning boards.

Consider volunteering in your community. Search the internet for local nonprofit organizations in your community and read about those organizations that match your interests. Choose one or more and call the executive director to ask if there are ways you can volunteer to help that organization.

Be an integral part of your community.

Make your community a better place to live, for yourself and for others.

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