On February 28th at 7 pm, the Rockdale County School Board meeting was entirely packed with best-dressed high school students, proud parents, and other attendees. During the first half of the gathering, there was a public congratulating of students that competed in All-State Chorus. I found myself sitting behind a woman that I later learned was named Kim Vier, the principal of a local elementary school. As I questioned her on what the meetings were like, she advised me to keep an eye on the population change after the intersession. Sure enough, the crowd went from “every seat filled” to a party of three. I wondered, is this meeting at all representative of how involved people are in local politics?
I am convinced that the strength and integrity of the United States political system depends on a strong foundation that begins in our cities and towns. These towns are where we raise our youth and do our best to prepare them for adulthood, and yet, when we shove them from the nest most fail in the fulfillment of their civic responsibilities. According to a report by Portland State University, “fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens are turning out to vote for community leaders like mayors and city councilors” and “city residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than younger residents between the ages of 18 and 34”. These numbers are incredibly troubling and show a dangerous outcome for our future as older generations faze out.
Imagine our entire government is a tower made of Jenga blocks and the higher you build, the more reliant you are on the blocks that create the foundation. If less than 15% of eligible voters participate in local elections, then more than 85% of our foundation is missing and unable to hold the rest of the tower. Our structure is quivering and unsecured, possibly able to cause a chain reaction that affects our state administration and potentially devastating consequences on the federal level. There are thousands of individuals that do not vote, and perhaps it is because they believe their votes are not significant or that gerrymandering and fraud are the answers to winning an election. That in itself is a different argument, but perhaps an incentive would be to visualize a world where we took advantage of having grown up in a stable democracy and saw the consequences of our actions (or in-actions).
The New York Times reported in 2017that Democracy is effective in the U.S., but there is still room for improvement. Envision an individual with authoritarian beliefs that is rising through the ranks of American politics, preying on the idea of understanding and representing the under-represented masses. Slowly, but surely, this person is proving successful and inspiring their base to do the same, all while slowly weakening our system. These people do not believe in our values or goals, and they do not wish to uphold democratic norms and institutions. They merely wish to find the cracks where our foundation has eroded over time so that, perhaps one day, everything will come crumbling down and be replaced by a fortress housed by one. This is not an outlandish concept – it happened in the 1930s with Hitler and the Nazi Party, in the early 1800s with Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and could very well infest the United States of America. Hitler found cracks in the Workers Union and exploited them for his benefit. Then, ten years later, he made himself president after a perfect storm of events which allowed him to execute his sinister beliefs. This storm of events is why it is crucial for us to be checked-in to every level of our society: local, state, federal, and even international. We, the citizens of the United States, have a responsibility to be critical of the physical and verbal statements made by our presidents, senators, representatives, and local political figures. We have to hold them accountable for their actions and where they lend their support because it is our job to be the watchdog of our beliefs and it starts at city hall.
Larry J. Sabato once said, “every election is determined by the people who show up.” By presenting ourselves at polls and town hall meetings, by being critical and demanding more from individuals who are supposed to represent our wants and needs, we can fill the cracks in our foundation and work to counteract the erosion of our society. Attend School Board meetings, participate in local rallies, help establish the policy that any group or individual that works to destroy or dismantle democratic systems shall not have a place in our establishments. Let’s not take advantage of the transparency and ability to hold others accountable. For one day, it may not exist anymore.
Photo by Element5 Digital via pexels. “Person Dropping Paper On Box.” Creative Commons Zero License.
I think this is a very interesting take on how democratic erosion could occur in America. I agree that people under the age of 65–specifically people ages 18 to 30–largely fail to turn out for local elections and instead focus more on national elections. One solution, I believe, would be to teach kids–especially high school students–about how local elections affect their communities and school system, and lower the voting age for local elections to 16 years old. This would help spark more political participation in younger generations, because they will be able to see the direct effect of their vote in the outcome of the election. I also think this would help push young people to turn out more for national elections as well, strengthening democracy in the U.S. as a whole.
Your note on the attendance of local political events really rang with me. I attended a City Council meeting, and at the beginning, there was a congratulation for a local group. It was “every seat filled,” as you said, and there was lots of clapping and excitement all around. However, as soon as that ended, with only 25 minutes left in the (relatively brief) hour-long meeting, nearly everyone in the room stood up and shuffled out, leaving a total of six people, myself included. This was deeply concerning, as you said. If so many people who had already done the hardest thing (getting up and getting there) were so disinterested in the running of their town, then what does that mean for the officials in charge, much less the state of local politics? However, I disagree with you on your assertion that local governments form the “strong foundation” of the United States political system. As a whole, the people who can actually show up to local government meetings aren’t representative of the population. According to a Boston University study on local meetings in the state of Massachusetts, the average attendee had a mean household income of $97,650, far above the national average, as well as an average age of 42. This is concerning on its own, suggesting that the only people capable of attending an event are upper-middle-class workers, who would have the free time and economic means to do so. To solve this modern problem, many local government organizations have begun using a modern solution: live streaming meetings. Not only does this reduce the need to find a way to attend the meeting, but it also allows watching later or rewatching. Overall, however, your [post] was extremely well-written and thought out, and your closing notes on authoritarians seeking power through exploitation were chilling. And as you quote, “every election is determined by the people who show up” (Sabato). While the implications of low local government participation are up for debate, the fact on its own is worrying. Ideally, more people like you will help spread the understanding of the importance of local government in our communities.
I really enjoyed your take on this. the Jenga analogy definitely assisted me in visualizing and understanding the situation. I also enjoyed how you tied it back to historical events like 1930s Germany.