It is easy, and understandable, to get cynical about politics. There are those who choose not to vote out of a sense of frustration because they sense that a vote makes little difference. I think this is a poor excuse, and I would go so far to say that it is unconscionable as inheritors of our freedoms in this country to not vote. My suspicion is that most of those who don’t vote do so out of laziness or ignorance and not out of any reasoned political stance of opposition to an imperfect democracy. It is simply a convenient and handy excuse to say that we have so little direct influence on the outcome of things.
The real problem, in other words, is an uninformed citizenry. We know that the number of people who read newspapers is going down, even at the same time that the number of hours spent on social media is increasing. I am sometimes surprised to learn that even among those who read national newspapers, few pay much attention to local news. In my experience, it isn’t boring reading, and it’s not a lot to read; it makes a big difference in how we conduct our business as citizens of our community to be at least nominally informed about the major issues that confront us.
It is not the most exciting television you will ever watch, but many cities broadcast their city council meetings on local television stations. Of course, you can attend and express your opinions on the issues that confront them. Without a sense of what concerns the local community and what needs there are, it is easy for a city council or a mayor to neglect to represent their constituencies accurately. And what is practical about local politics and much more difficult at the upper levels of political engagement is that it is relatively easy to get to know the individuals in office and to develop a relationship of trust with them so that they will take your opinions seriously.
One way to measure the honesty of excuses for being politically disengaged is to look at what happens on the local level. If national politics isn’t your thing and you feel despair at where things are headed, then all the more reason to be involved at the local level. Starting local is the best way for your political voice to gain traction. When you attend a city council meeting or host a discussion with a candidate running for local office or stage a debate between local candidates, you are putting yourself in the position to influence the direction of an election. When you attend your party caucus meetings and get involved at the precinct or district levels, you are working with your neighbors, you are directly involved in getting to know candidates, and in shaping policy. You are also in a position to engage in a more responsible and informed way with your fellow citizens. You have a vested interest in seeing things work better.
You also learn first hand how hard it is to make democracy work well. It is challenging and complicated and often frustrating, but the lower the participation level among average citizens, the more likely it is that politics, even at the local level, will be governed by narrow special interests. Environmental problems are rarely solved when special interests rule the roost. They require broad and diverse participation from all those affected by policies. The great thing about being involved in your party locally or in a local environmental organization is that you are more likely to be keyed in to what the issues are and you will receive some guidance about what the crucial stages of political development are and what you can do to act in an effective way. There are many wonderful environmental organizations in Utah where I live, and no doubt where you live too, and many national organizations have local chapters. You have connections to like-minded people and you begin to feel a sense of solidarity and motivation to do more. Getting involved to the point of having a responsibility in an organization or party can be daunting. It is hard work to make an organization work effectively, as anyone will tell you who does such things. It takes patience to work with other people with whom you will not agree on every point. Local engagement is the first test of your ability to sustain your engagement with democracy and to have the forbearance and persistence to be able to build more meaningful communities. If you sense that things are not working as they ought to in your immediate community or even at the national level, all the more reason to get more—not less—involved!
A few years ago two men ran for mayor of Provo. Both were asked by a local environmental organization, the Utah Valley Earth Forum, to spend an evening answering questions from the organization about their environmental views. This was a first, as far as I am aware, for a mayoral race in Provo. What surprised and pleased us was how responsive the candidates were to our concerns and how eager they seemed to articulate their sense of stewardship. The man who was eventually elected, John Curtis, chose a member of UVEF, Don Jarvis, to be his sustainability officer and Don then formed a sustainability committee that continues to serve the city in important ways in helping it move in a greener direction. This committee, of which I am a member, hosted similar discussions with recent candidates running for city council, and today the council has more environmentally concerned members than ever before in its history. This is no small accomplishment. I don’t think we are where we need to be yet, but Provo is the third largest city in the state, and it has an enormous impact on the local air and water quality, on the surrounding mountains and their biodiversity, and on the environmental quality of life for its citizens. So it matters that these changes have come about, and they have come about in no small measure as a result of the efforts of only a few active citizens, mostly LDS, who have acted out of a conviction that we need to take better care of the earth.
We know that members of the church are charged to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and to bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:27). On Mormon.org, we read this about citizenship (http://mormon.org/citizenship):
“Besides being citizens of a city and a country, we are all citizens of the earth. God created the beautiful world we live in, and we have a responsibility to respect it. We can show our gratitude for His amazing creation by being aware of the natural resources we consume and working to reduce, reuse, and recycle them—God gave us “dominion over all the beasts of the field,” but with that dominion comes the expectation to act responsibly (Moses 5:1). We are entrusted to take care of the earth, not only because it is a gift from God, but because we depend on it for sustenance. Not as many of us grow our own food now as people did before the industrial revolution, so it can be easy to forget how tied we are to the land we live on (All our food comes from the grocery store, right?). We would do well to remember where our bread comes from today. To show our gratitude to God, we try to work to preserve the sustainable use of the earth’s beauty and bounty for the generations that follow.”
Given the environmental crisis we face—with increasing dangers posed to air quality, water quality, biodiversity, and to the climate—it is time for members of the LDS church to empower themselves with better information and to make their voices heard at the local, state, and national levels.
This is cross-posted at http://ldsearthstewardship.org/2013/02/stewardship-and-citizenship-at-the-city-level-part-ii/