What does it mean for politics to be local? Local politics is, in many ways, a dying art. In this era of politics, which Associate Professor of Government Elvin Lim and other political science scholars refer to as the plebiscitary era, politics is done primarily at the macro level. Big money ad buyers and major news outlets are the major influence makers, not your local congressman. Lately, however, successful politicians have used local politics as a strength, and this could change the very nature of governing itself. Politics is not about being Frank Underwood in “House of Cards;” politics is about helping communities.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but Barack Obama’s 2008 election was pretty special. Pundits and scholars lauded it as the most unique campaign ever run. While some people point to its usage of the Internet and its famed slogan “Change,” I believe its uniqueness came in its harkening back to a more local style of politics. Obama’s 2008 campaign used the “Neighborhood Team Model” of community organizing, taking a page from Marshall Ganz and the United Farm Workers movement. This model was focused around empowering volunteers to do more for the cause they believed in. While previously staff members would handle most of the organization of voter turnout, from knocking on neighbor’s doors to registering new voters, now the Obama campaign had this crazy idea of having people do it for free.
The remarkable thing is, local politics works. Let’s take Florida in 2012. Barack Obama squeezed out the victory in the Sunshine State by a margin of less than one percent, approximately 100,000 voters. The Obama campaign in Florida registered over 320,000 new voters, primarily Obama supporters. It’s easy to see that this was the difference in Florida.
However, this tactic is not always successful. Large-scale volunteer operations are easily mismanaged and bloated financially. The Mitt Romney campaign in 2012 had a large-scale voter turnout data machine known as ORCA, which looked more like a beached whale, as the lack of a stress test proved fatal during the chaos of Election Day.
I spoke with one former community organizer who told me that volunteer turnout operations were seen as dead in 2004. With the ruling of Citizens United in the Supreme Court, advertisement dollars are seemingly infinite. Voter turnout is a very fickle operation, and campaigns would rather throw money at a strategy that is guaranteed to work, such as TV ad buys, than rely on 20-somethings encouraging people to vote.
Here is where I think that our Founding Fathers would be absolutely disgusted by our political system. But honestly, screw them. In my mind, nothing strengthens our democracy like Congressman Charlie Wilson driving poor voters to the polls at age 13 to defeat a local city councilman who had killed his dog. There is nothing more patriotic than Marshall Ganz and Caesar Chavez mobilizing thousands of farm workers for better working environments. What is America if not a coalition of communities?
The mark of the Obama campaign and its grassroots organizing style will be left for a long time to come. Community members banded together to fight for causes that they believed in. Neighbors telling their neighbors to get out to vote had an incalculable effect on voter turnout, even in this world of big data that we live in. It’s hard to count a daughter driving her parents to vote for the first time in votes because what she really did is give their family a voice.
That’s what politics is to me. Politics is giving a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, whether it’s giving healthcare benefits to someone who cannot get a job due to a preexisting condition or even giving people more freedoms in a world where they feel their freedoms are being taken away.
I first realized that when I was 16 and working in my district office for my congresswoman. A man had written a letter explaining that his Purple Heart benefits had been unfairly taken away due to a bureaucratic mistake, and, somehow, the case drifted down to me. I wrote a letter to the requisite agency and worked out the logistics; as I’m sure many of the local interns reading this know, that was enough to fix the mistake. For me, that was a Monday afternoon. For him, his honor had been restored, and his life no longer had an asterisk next to it. When he came into the office to tell me just that, I was truly shocked at the difference one person could make in another’s life.
This is the new era of politics. Or rather, a reawakening of an older style of politics. Anyone who lives in a swing state can tell you that they are immune to advertisements in the months of September through November. Anyone who lived in NYC during the mayoral election could tell you that the press covered it non stop. But my cousin voted for Bill DeBlasio not because of his policies, but because DeBlasio had once gone out of his way to help a friend of hers with a city regulation confusion.
Politicians will continue to make speeches and TV advertisements will continue to happen. But I believe politics will always remain local.