Is it any wonder that as our government and economy have succumbed to ever increasing centralization, that the feelings of inefficacy and the inevitable apathy that follows have risen? The notion that our lives are governed by impersonal forces beyond our control has taken hold in many minds, and has done so with considerable justification. It is in these "inefficient" local governments, city councils, county boards, school boards, etc., that the habits of citizenship are cultivated. To eliminate them is to be penny wise and citizenship foolish [Jon Schaaf, "Brokaw, Consolidation, and the Decline of Citizenship," South Dakota Politics, 2009.04.21].
There might be a little chicken-and-egg here, or at least a feedback loop: centralization of power may indeed make folks feel disenfranchised and apathetic... but disenfranchisement and apathy also lead to weaker local governments and leave the door open for the few remaining passionate citizens to consolidate their power at the higher levels.
We do need more citizens to aspire to service in government, to see political participation as a noble and patriotic endeavor. But might the standard Republican line that government is the problem, not the solution, be part of the lack of enthusiasm for local politics?
I recall going door-to-door during last year's school board election and having one citizen respond to my pitch with one sentence: "I hate politicians." With an attitude like that, how do you get people to run for the school board or come to city commission meetings? If politics and government are made into dirty words, how can we even start the conversation necessary to find political solutions and make government work better?
I agree with Dr. Schaaf that local government is vital. Some problems are too big for one town or school board or sanitary district to solve, but when we can keep decisions local, we get results better tuned to unique local conditions. Local government is homemade government: not as fancy, but more meaningful, something we can take more pride in.
But to encourage that sense of local civic pride, we should challenge the notion that government is some evil, foreign entity and recognize that the government is what we make it... or what we let it be in our apathy. Like it or not, the government is us.
A new Gallup poll finds 55% of Americans see "big government" as the biggest threat to the country. 32% say "big business"; 10% say "big labor". Looks like I still have some work to do....