Watching political campaigns solicit support for the upcoming midterms seems like more of a middle school food fight than adults intent on convincing an electorate they are best suited to serve their interests. Today’s campaigns appear more focused on throwing as much mac ‘n cheese at each other as possible before the vice principal arrives than implementing policies to address critical issues facing Americans. Such is the state of our political discourse, which has been floating in the toilet bowl for some time now, while we seem unable to reach for the flush handle, let alone a plumber’s helper. But there is a way out.
Two extremes, it is hypothesized, act to balance and, in effect, cancel each other out. If only that were so. America’s national political reality suggests a different outcome: extremists smother truth in its crib killing any prospect of progress while leaving the majority in the middle in a paralyzed stupor gasping for hope. The search for eyeballs and ratings by the media—both traditional and social—assure us that outrage gets all the attention. Our media has evolved from a source of information to one of entertainment and, now, hackneyed provocation. From intelligence to delusion. Calm, common sense, compromise and consensus—fundamental democratic modalities—are too boring to garner coverage. A candidate for national office who has values, integrity, and competence in leadership has little chance of winning.
As the midterm elections approach, candidates on the right decry the many threats of the radical woke left who are taking your America away! Meanwhile, candidates on the left warn of the extremist right whose secret desires include setting new fires in the public square to burn deviant progressives (like you!) at the stake. Both have learned the lesson of Trump well: stoke fear and anger to procure and maintain power. Trumpism has metastasized across both political parties. Serving the interests of the people has become a quaint passé notion of a bygone era.
The result? The greatest empire in the history of the world—the United States of America—has entered a period of precipitous decline. Both its hard and soft powers—of coercion and persuasion—have lost their relative prowess; mostly from self-inflicted wounds. Regardless of political dysfunction, that was, however, expected to occur. America’s unipolar moment (as international relation’s scholars refer to hegemonic power) are called moments for a reason: they never last. Frankly, the international system, which exists in a state of perpetual anarchy, is much more stable when held up by multiple competing interests than with one superpower, however benevolent a particular superpower may seem. A balance of power—widely distributed—is generally believed to be more effective in supporting the welfare of all.
But what about the rise of authoritarianism across the world? What about Russia, China, Iran, Hungary, et al? Many pundits and scholars are pulling the fire alarm on this development. But this isn’t new. We have seen this movie before. We know how it ends. These regimes, who violate the fundamental purpose of government—to serve the interests of the people—always fail in the long run. Usually due to a concentration of power that serves the few instead of the many. Putin, Xi, Khamenei, Orbán, etc. will enjoy extraordinary power and control for an historical moment or two, but like superpowers, their moment will end too. In the end, power emanates from people, not guns and money—regardless of the colors on the flag flying overhead.
What unnerves Americans is that (since Trump) our democratic republic sounds more authoritarian every day. We fear our democracy will fail. I share the concern, but find comfort in the long history of the world and in the underlying character of apolitical folks—like you—who really determine the direction of America every day in neighborhoods and towns across the country. Common people still have the capacity to find common ground to solve problems in their common interest. Remember, power emanates from the people, not from politicians— regardless of the form of government. Oppressive authoritarianism never prevails when faced with the courage of the masses.
The key, then, is summoning the courage of the masses. Like the Ukrainians, the women of Iran, the mothers of Russian soldiers, and now the workers in China. In America, the key to mobilizing our masses is shifting our focus away from the noise of the national stage and our federal government to building stronghold communities; focusing on local. In short, quit obsessing about the loud shiny distraction that is our federal government. The national scene is a mess; fixing America from the top down is impossible. To put it in more plain terms: our national leaders will not respond to intelligence, let alone goodwill. Our federal government has been destroyed by those who care much more about power than service. The only way to turn around America is from the bottom up: one neighborhood, community, town, city, and state at a time.
If one has an honest conversation with oneself, it becomes quickly evident that a president, senator, or representative has much less impact on our lives than county commissioners, city councils, or school boards. Local is where life is lived. Furthermore, those who peddle lies in an attempt at procuring power are more easily exposed and more deftly isolated at the local level. Locally, the light of truth is hard to hide. Moreover, it is relatively easy to find common ground since the consequences of any particular issue generally affect everyone regardless of political tribe. Whether you are wearing a MAGA hat or a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, you stand in the same line at the Post Office, grocery store, DMV, carpool, or Starbucks. Our cars all hit the same potholes. It is important to reflect on the reality that all of us, in our own way, are just trying to make our lives work.
While local is much less susceptible to the manipulations of nefarious actors, it also allows certain essential problem-solving skills to be realized, celebrated, and passed down from one leader to the next. Among the most critical skills of any local governing organization are the skills of problem definition and performance tracking. Defining the problem accurately (so resources and strategies are capably deployed), and submitting to quantitatively designed accountability, allow problems to be solved and, more importantly, governing capacities to be developed and maintained across leaders and across time. In addition (and this is as important as anything else), at the local level, power is only gained referentially from the people whose lives have been enhanced by the actions of leaders. This is known as the principle of enlightened altruism: if I make your life better, you will grant me the power to serve. Enlightened altruism is difficult to manifest on a national or international level, but much easier locally.
I know, our country is loud and obnoxious these days. It is both disturbing and disheartening. As an Oval Office-centric trained observer of domestic and foreign policy, it is difficult for me to refocus my attention on local. However, it has become a strategic imperative to saving America.
Unfortunately, in America today, the spotlight shines brightest on the most beastly and craven creatures of disrepute. My message is simple: turn them off and turn on your interest in your own communities. Starving bad actors of attention starves them of their power. Our democracy was not established, nor will it be saved, in the halls of Congress. As in 1776, its origins and prospects for longevity reside in the villages of the people, and in their hearts the fire of freedom. That is not to say we won’t face similar miscreants at the local level, or find the same sloganized vitriol we see at the national level spewed on our main streets, but they and it are much easier to kick to the curb on streets we control. Localism can defeat extremism.
Once we turn our attention to our communities, we can simply sit back and treat the national circus for what it is: a bunch of elephants, donkeys, and clowns.