Local elections are around the corner, with political parties making their candidate slates for this November’s contests public. Around here, we practice democracy mostly at the town level, where politics remain quite tangible and rarely veer into the abstract.
We choose neighbors to run public utilities, various departments, and supervise operations as a whole. Budgets are drawn up just as they are in Albany and Washington, but their total outlays are relatively small, leaving room for us to nitpick about individual expenditures without bringing government to a standstill.
It is no wonder, then, that local politics seem to produce less outrage, less rancor, than their national counterpart. We can fume at a member of Congress we have never met, from a state hundreds of miles away, but more difficult is lobbing verbal grenades at the guy whose kid we tutor in math after school every day. Tea Party members rallying on tax day last month had tough talk for President Obama, but kinder words for local officials, despite the fact that both had cut their taxes in the last year.
As Peter Orszag, President Obama’s budget director for 2009 and most of 2010, recently pointed out in a panel discussion at Guild Hall in East Hampton, Americans increasingly segregate themselves — consciously or not — based on political affiliation. We are less and less likely to live in counties that are hotly contested in presidential elections, and more prone to live among those who share our ideology and attitudes.
Practically, in local elections, this means national partisan divides will not carry as much weight as they might have previously. Instead, political fights will be waged over issues that do not fit neatly into ideological boxes. More than ideology, personality and character will matter to us. And unlike the carefully manicured images candidates like Mr. Obama have brought to the fore in recent years, our relationships with the local folks who seek office are real, or at least not unidirectional.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine a candidate for local office on the East End with a horde of media consultants and press spokespeople trailing close behind, giving speeches but not interacting meaningfully with the public. It would be out of character with the place and the people.
This is not to say candidates around here do not force a smile and shake a few more hands than they might like, as all politicians must. Rather, this means the person we come to know who intends to be highway superintendent or supervisor or any other elected official, is probably showing us his or her true self, or at least a truer version of it than we could possibly hope for from a Republican or Democrat in Washington. If a local office-seeker were to invent a new personality, those who knew the old him could be expected to take notice, and the charade inevitably would collapse.
Consider mine an optimistic take, then, that even as federal politics becomes more and more a matter of selling the public on a fresh cultural type, whether a beer-drinking, knee-slapping Southerner or a Blackberry-toting, Jay-Z-listening Chicagoan, local elections remain a space where authentic individuals serve their neighbors.
Matthew Taylor, a reporter at The Star, counts local politics among his beats.