Like so much in our current political firestorm, the old adage “all politics is local” seems to have been turned on its head. Thanks to the rise of powerful media conglomerates, the dying business model of the hometown paper and the nonstop (24/7 televised) Washington fistfight spurred on by “the outrage industrial complex,” most politics has become national, dividing us along ideological lines all the way into the hometowns where we used to be real neighbors.
Like most American citizens, we’ve spent the last year shaking angry fists in the general direction of the nation’s capital. This (exhausting and useless) exercise got us considering this distinct possibility: maybe we’ve got everything backwards and upside down about what’s wrong and where it gets fixed. What if by always thinking about big and far away, we’re not keeping with the American tradition of thinking and acting small, right where we live? (You know, that Tocqueville guy wrote about it.)
Imagine if Americans turned our attention toward the communities we share with other Americans, in every city, town, village and one-stoplight hamlet from sea to shining sea? What might happen then — not just in the trust that can grow in our hometowns between us, in the benefits of living more connected, less isolated lives — but imagine what would happen in Washington as a result? We’ll spend this year of programs considering the power of defeating the angry left and right tribes with local tribe – this place, these people.
Worst case, this gives us an occasional well-deserved breather from the partisan din and lowers our collective blood pressure. At best though, we think we can end the year having imagined (and begun to build) a stronger place we call home. We think this isn’t just about being less divided, it’s a matter of citizens immunizing their communities from the existential threat this roiling division and fury is raining down on all of us. And we think in our hometown is exactly the right place to begin to fix what’s so very broken.
Contrast the bad news that the vast majority of us have soured on our direction as a country with the good news that Americans still see our communities as great places to live. But even with our positive attitudes towards our hometowns, we’re still not attending to the tasks of local citizenship as we did in times past — as the local institutions of civil society that used to connect us have weakened. The overwhelming picture that emerges is that we’re too rarely involved in the very acts of local citizenship — of neighbor helping neighbor, side-by-side in common purpose — that make us know each other more and hate each other less. We’re estranged from the very people we share our lives with — and as a result we’re making inaccurate, even dangerous, assumptions about each other, in a “perception gap” that’s measureable (see our reading list, below). Lacking direct neighborly experiences to disprove our poor opinion of each other drives the vicious cycle that accelerates the distrust that seems to be breaking Western civilization (but making a handful of professional polarizers a lot of money).
Is it possible that we’re expecting too much from our national politics and nowhere near enough from each other in our local communities? Might changing that equation actually end up changing everything, including who we are to each other as a nation? We intend to find out, and while we do that we’ll be sharing what we learn with other communities across the Great State of Florida. (Time for a “booyah.”)
“If you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head, because the country looks so much better from the bottom up than the top down.” – NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman
In 1798 James Madison wrote of the press: "To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression." In 2020, if Madison was correct then reason and humanity could be in for an even rougher ride.
Localism isn't just a distraction (though thankfully it is a distraction) — it's an antidote for the rising tribal nationalism overtaking the globe. In our hometown is where "those people" don't look like the enemy, they look like us. Here is where we don't have to wait for Washington, D.C. to fix it.