A walk around a lake shouldn’t be filled with discussions of Democratic failures. Yet, during a recent seven-mile hike around Paulina Lake, my friends and I couldn’t help but bemoan the presidential debate (and laugh about the fly in the vice presidential debate), discuss the president’s positive COVID test, and question the state of our democracy.
Surrounded by nature, we couldn’t escape politics. It shouldn’t be that way — government should be boring.
Our energy should be spent building stronger communities rather than gossiping about national politics. Our time is limited; work, family life, and personal health leave little time for civic and community engagement. That little time should be spent where it will have the most impact — at the local level. Instead, many of us are so concerned over the extinction-level threats facing our federal government that we feel compelled to spend our finite resources addressing nationwide issues. The result is a shortage of investment in our local communities.
The solutions we want to see in our local communities will not come from the national government. As evidenced by rallies becoming protests and protests becoming riots, we need the sort of cultural shifts that are beyond the scope of any piece of legislation or new program. These shifts are the product of person-to-person relationships and those relationships require our attention, time and resources.
Those three things are being stolen by parties and politicians who are masters at manipulating the attention economy.
At every turn — on social media, in our local papers and, increasingly, even during our hikes — national politics pulls on our attention. We’re told that all of our energy should be spent defending a specific party, defeating a specific candidate and destroying a specific political movement. It comes as no surprise that many of us now see the time we spend in the political sphere as time spent fighting a war of sorts. Our media environment reinforces this notion by making it appear as though participating in these national, partisan fights is the only way to advance your values. Thankfully, there is an alternative.
The solutions to the problems in our communities — immense inequality, a shortage of trust and questions about policing — will come from our neighbors. In an ideal world, we would not have to fret about our national democracy devolving into disorder. In the world envisioned by our Founders, the federal government was not meant to solve every issue. In the world our democracy aspired to, strong communities were regarded as the hallmark of a strong democracy. We’ve inverted that relationship; we’ve been convinced that every battle is fought at the national level, which denies us the chance to fight with our neighbors against common enemies at the local level.
This is not to say that our national democracy is not worth protecting; it is and it must be. This is merely a reminder of what we should be striving toward — working together at the local level to help our neighbors, improve our communities and empower our communities of faith, social institutions and civic organizations.
Government is meant to fill gaps not create them. It should increase agency, not take it away. It should be in the background so that the institutions and community organizations that are more accountable and knowledgeable about the issues at hand can take priority.
Parties have firmly moved into the attention economy. Our governance shouldn’t follow. Instead, politics should be boring. It should incrementally test and adopt new ideas.