Communities – Not the Nation, Not Individuals – Might be the Answer


We are pretty good at staying mad at each other. Might the mid-level of human interaction offer a break in the pattern of constant conflict?

Some years ago, many political scientists lamented the truism made famous by Tip O’Neal that “all politics is local.” The concern was that this condition prevented the operation of true national parties with unified agendas. The spread from left to right was so wide within each party as to make the concept of true national parties inoperative.

Be careful what you wish for.

Politics today is very much national in orientation and energy. Ironically, the parties, while more focused in membership composition and priorities, are not all the stronger for it. Thanks to the opening of money floodgates by the Supreme Court, the long-term paralysis of the Federal Elections Commission, and the explosion of social media, power has spread to hundreds of entities and individuals.

All of that diffusion notwithstanding, politics certainly is dominated by national level themes today, with divisions as deep and as angry as one could imagine. This makes it difficult to imagine how we go forward as a nation from here. Is perpetual conflict our doomed future? Maybe. Maybe not.

We can see some signs of hope at the community level. Signs of people who disagree on many issues nevertheless choosing to work together at local levels to solve close in problems they do agree upon as priorities. From these commitments come discussions less encumbered by political philosophy and more enhanced with the feeling of “This is our community, and these are our kids. What can we do for them?”

One sees such a spirit readily in times of crisis. There have been many stories this year about communities rallying around each other in times of floods or hurricanes. No one asks who someone voted for. They simply offer a helping hand to a neighbor in need.

But disasters are the easy benchmarks, to be honest, although this is useful in helping us reconnect with each other. The more interesting trends are in evidence when communities come together for complicated challenges, such as opioid addiction, inaccessibility of basic medical services, police-community tensions, homelessness, or a shortage of affordable housing.

This could be wishful thinking, of course. There is more than enough evidence to conclude that we are completely deadlocked. However, we do see examples all over the country of people figuring out how to work together when the challenge is close to home. I have seen articles in recent times (one in the New York Times and another in The Atlantic come to mind) that describe communities doing just that. I have seen local communities in my travels doing just this. It’s small scale and scattered, but persistent and encouraging.

The key may lie in facing issues so close to home that we have less interest in political philosophy and more in finding partners to help defeat what threatens or frightens us. I have to think that if people who disagree passionately on major political issues can figure out ways to work together on even a few issues right in their neighborhoods, it’s a good thing.

I would go so far as to say we should be looking hard for those opportunities. Building even a modicum of mutual trust and finding some humanity in a wider circle sounds like what we could use around here in the good old US of A.

      Bill Clontz

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