Allow me to share a mental exercise I use to think through the relative concern we should place on different levels of government. Along the way, this helps me relax more about our current state of politics and focus on what is important.
This begins with a conceptual exercise. Choose the dozen best-known mayors in your state. Now list their five most important policy achievements while in office. These will inevitably be about how they’ve handled roads, crime, zoning rules, a bad snow storm or flood, the quality of parks or government transparency.
For some, there might be a funding crisis, for others it would be their relationship with the local schools, other regional governments or large employers. There’s a lot more to being a mayor, but you get my gist — there are many different challenges to municipal leadership, but most involve practical matters.
Now, suppose you submitted an anonymous list of these actions to a group of distinguished political scientists. I feel certain they could not guess whether these mayors were Republicans or Democrats. Local government requires pragmatic competence, not ideological showmanship.
The next step in the mental exercise is to choose the best-known dozen state legislators. List the policies they have supported. I am sure that hypothetical group of political scientists and I would bet at least half could be identified by party.
Now, do the same thing for the dozen best-known members of Congress in the country. Listing their policy ideas will make clear to anyone which party they belong to. There is no need to consult the political science professors.
There are some lessons and some limitations to this mental exercise. First, the limitation. I started with mayors, who are part of the executive branch, and then turned to legislators. Clearly, the roles are different, but I don’t think most Americans can name a single city council member. That is not a bad thing. City council members mostly focus on the same pragmatic solutions to the same real problems that trouble mayors (e.g. potholes, armed robbery, congestion). Attending to this work doesn’t make you famous, but it sure can make your city better.
The important lesson is the farther a politician gets away from solving real problems, the more ideological they become and so more obviously a member of a political party. Being part of a political party or being ideological can be a good thing, or at least that is how the world’s most successful nation has run its affairs for 244 years. But, it might also be too much of a good thing when immediate, non-partisan problems arise.
Focusing attention on the ideological debate between national party leaders can be entertaining, and some people are well-suited to that stage. But, if you care about policies that affect the value of your home or the likelihood that your kids will get a quality education, you should be concentrating more attention locally. Even a deep interest in larger issues, like economic inequality or racial justice, should cause you to turn your focus toward local institutions of government and civic life. Here are some examples.
The federal government has almost no meaningful role in public schools. Moreover, funding and regulatory differences between presidential administrations are highly exaggerated.
Lots of folks complain about Betsy DeVos, or the Obama school lunch mandates, or Bush’s No Child Left Behind. But, for almost two decades across three very different presidencies, the actual changes to federal rules for schools are virtually meaningless.
In contrast, the actions your local school board takes have huge influence on the local economy and the quality of education. High-quality schools attract new families and boost home prices by as much as 30%. Low-quality public schools lose students and depress home values. Now, I know education officials argue incessantly about what constitutes a good school, but families seem not to have much trouble in deciding.
If you want to affect education and school performance, the place to start is at school board meetings. If you are satisfied with their work, then maybe you can move on to the state legislature. Nothing that happens in Congress will ever make as much difference in your local school as would a strong school board, effective PTO and a small group of interested, supporting parents.
The school example is just the start. If you care about parks, then it is the local ones you can most readily influence. Most of the differences in road quality come down to how well your municipal or county government operates, not the nuance of a federal highway bill.
If you are worried about better policing, that is not a national issue. The U.S. government doesn’t enforce state or local laws. It doesn’t even really have a police force. There aren’t enough FBI special agents to assign one to every American police department. Again, the quickest way to have a voice on these issues is simply to attend city council meetings.
None of this is an argument against a bit of self-education about our federal or state governments, or against partisan politics. These are all important parts of our glorious Republic. Rather, I just want to emphasize that the easiest, quickest and most meaningful path to improving policies that affect our lives and livelihoods starts with our neighbors who serve in our local government. What you are most likely to find there will be a refreshing vacation from national party politics.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].