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Now More Than Ever We Need Local Government To Show the Way

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
May 20, 2022

While driving home from church last week my eyes were drawn to a big black flag hanging on a front porch with a giant middle finger above the phrase “[F-word] Joe Biden.”  My kids’ eyes were drawn to the flag as well. My son asked, “Why would someone hang that flag?” I answered, “Because they do not like the president,” but that is not a great answer. Later that day I was reading the news and saw the offices of a Wisconsin anti-abortion group were set ablaze. I wondered, why would anyone do that? The answer is, they are unhappy with the leaked Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but again, this is not a great answer.

The rhetoric and exercise of hate and violence as a form of political discourse is a path that leads to nowhere productive. But all around us we can see our political discourse degrading into conflict that serves no positive purpose. We are not disagreeing in pursuit of compromise. We are disagreeing with an almost instinctual opposition to others’ rights to hold opinions that differ from our own. At times I feel I am watching the United States become ungovernable. There is so much energy used to fight unwinnable culture wars via vacuous trolling and virtue signaling. Our national politics are devolving into a form of low-brow entertainment rather than a serious pursuit of the common good. 

To put it another way, it is very easy to be discouraged by the current state of American affairs. So, what can be done about it? There is no easy fix to our governing dilemma. But I do think the path forward requires demonstrating we can still govern in this country. More importantly, it requires demonstrating that we can still govern via a democratic process that is efficient, effective and equitable. The ideal venue for reigniting American democracy, and perhaps our last best hope, is local government.

Why local government? First, being officially non-partisan gives our local governing bodies a structural advantage compared to state and federal governing bodies. As I have written before, partisan politics is not inherently good or bad, but in times of deep cultural divide, partisanship serves as a barrier to productive conflict. Local governing boards are able to operate outside of traditional party parameters, meaning, there is room for more compromise, more diverse coalitions and ultimately more creativity in finding solutions for pressing challenges.  

Second, local government is closer to the people. The government services that impact your day-to-day life—things like police and fire protection, roads, sewer, etc.—are disproportionally provided by local government. There is less room for culture war conflict in more tangible policy discussions—there are not liberal or conservative potholes, there are just potholes. Local government is a venue where people of differing ideologies can rally around common causes. Such unity creates trust and demonstrates that we can work together despite our differences.

Third, local government features a more personal form of accountability. While it is popular to cite low turnout local elections as evidence of an absence of accountability, local elected officials face their constituents on a daily basis, thus creating direct community accountability that does not exist at higher levels of elected office. In contrast, the current political era likens electoral victory to a blank check for any action as long as the official is in office. In application, myopic focus on electoral accountability above all else perverts the very idea of responsive government. Accountability is actionable when it is a consistent concept at all stages of the governing process. It is not actionable if only applicable once every two or four years. At the local level, the public has direct lines of feedback to their elected officials, just creating the potential for continuous accountability.

Local government does, of course, have its flaws. The aforementioned low turnout rate in local elections is one example. Another is the reality that many people simply do not know how local government works. But both of these issues can be addressed by those working in local government. Committing to active transparency, non-partisanship and civility in all local government actions can go a long way for rebuilding trust in our democracy. It will take time, and constant vigilance against allowing culture war issues drive local agendas, but if local government does not show the way, who will?

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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