October 15, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: ‘All Politics Is Local’

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By ERIC PESNER

In today’s era of 24-hour news coverage and nationally broadcast cable news programs, it is difficult to imagine that national elections are decided by local factors. It seems today that people make up their minds about national and international concerns instead of local issues. Obamacare and ISIS dominate the news and thus those issues motivate people’s votes.

When Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said that “all politics is local,” he meant that national policies have local outcomes. The multibillion dollar infrastructure bill isn’t just some abstract concept; it’s the money that pays for the potholes to be fixed. Too often, politicians try to divorce their broad policy objectives from the effects that they would have on real people. It’s one thing to say that healthcare is a fundamental right or that the government should be smaller, but it’s another thing entirely to change national policy, affecting millions of people’s lives.

We like to conceive of our nation’s political disagreements as a fight between two radically different governing ideologies bound up in the two parties. And with most people lined up behind one of the two parties, the whole battle is fought to convince the mythical centrist independents to support one side or the other. While this fantasy is played out in the halls of Congress and most prominently in the news media, it could not be further from the truth.

Unlike me, most people are not hardcore partisans. They will vote for whichever candidate they believe will best serve their interests. This can lead to unusual splits in voting patterns, for example in West Virginia, where Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama by about 27 points in 2012 while the incumbent Democratic Senator was re-elected by over 24 points. In the case of West Virginia, the most important local issue is energy. While the national Democratic Party is generally more environmentally friendly, West Virginia Democrats are incredibly pro-coal. They have to support the coal mining industry or else they’d never win another election in the state. To these voters, a pro-coal Democrat is the type of candidate best representative of their interests. They don’t vote for the party, they vote for the candidates who agree with them on the local issues which affect their everyday lives.

And even if people vote their partisan lean on the national level, these distinctions can break down at the more local level. While many people pay attention to national politics, so many fewer people pay attention to the governing that happens at the local level — despite local government having such an important impact on people’s everyday lives. This can lead to a total disconnect from local politics and much less participation in local governance.

As Cornell students, we are often completely disconnected from the local Ithaca politics and government. Despite being such a large part of the population of the greater Ithaca community, college students’ involvement with local government seems to be limited to the occasional run-in with Ithaca Police or a cursory interest in the ongoing funding issues of the TCAT system.

However, while we are here in Ithaca, the local government creates so many laws that govern our everyday lives. From the local ordinances that regulate noise and alcohol violations to the policies that regulate when new leases can be signed, the Ithaca city government has a large impact on how Cornell students live in Ithaca.

Despite this impact, very few Cornell students are registered to vote in the city where we’ll live and study for four years. And even if they are, they don’t pay much attention to the local government. Everyone can name the President, but few people can name their representatives on the Ithaca Common Council.

Maybe in today’s world, with an ever-larger national media presence, local issues have taken a back-seat to national and global concerns. But I don’t think it helps anyone if every election is a referendum on the President’s agenda. People should be able to separate state and local policies from those with national implications. National problems have national solutions, but for the government that we all interact with at the most basic levels, local politics matter too. If most people don’t have as much interest in local concerns as in national issues then they won’t participate in local politics and they won’t have their voices heard in a vital part of our government.

Eric Pesner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at erp55@cornell.edu. Dems Discuss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.