Where I live, we are just voting today for local elections. We just have a state senator to pick and a number of county offices. But for the last several months we have been subject to getting multiple automated phone calls a day conducting polls, demonizing opponents, and scaring us into voting for particular candidates. Opposition research, negative campaigning, and hyperbolic rhetoric have trickled down into local elections. (The last robocall I answered insinuated that one candidate’s support of the 2nd Amendment made him liable for the shootings at Virginia Tech.) Apparently, local candidates are hiring out of state firms to provide these political services. (I answered an automated call from Olympia, Washington, telling us who to vote for in a race for county sheriff!)
The theory is that local government is closer and more responsive to individual citizens, who elect their neighbors to represent them in public office. National government, by contrast, is more remote. Reformers are calling for a smaller central government with more power devolving to state and local governments.
But what if state and local governments are likewise dysfunctional, bound just as much to special interests and oblivious to the civic virtues?
It is true that local issues often finesse the liberal/conservative polarization that has paralyzed the national government. The divisions in many local governments are on the order of “pro-development” (uniting free-market pro-business conservatives and pro-jobs liberals) vs. “anti-development” (uniting conservatives who want to preserve the pristine character of the community and anti-capitalist environmentalists). Although I don’t see a civic consensus being possible with that kind of polarization either.
Perhaps this kind of political strife is intrinsic to democracy. Still, having lived in a number of communities not all that different from where I live today, I don’t remember local elections being like this.