Local Activism: More Bang for your Buck

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By Dr. Troy Kickler

All the name-calling, finger pointing, deal making and hollow sound bites during the recent debt-ceiling debate led me to conclude this: If Americans keep looking at Washington for all the answers, we shouldn’t expect anything better from politicians who seem more worried about the 2012 election than the nation’s future. But we shouldn’t give up entirely on the political process. It’s time to pay more attention to the state and local levels, so our voices can be heard.

Our frustrations stem from the fact that many Americans – of all political stripes – believe in top-down solutions originating from Washington. Even if we say otherwise, our actions prove it to be true. We generally consider the national government and its offices to be more important. Think about it. How many of us who want a more responsive government are more willing to contribute or volunteer time to national campaigns than to state or local campaigns?

Research shows that Americans pay far less attention to state and local elections during nonpresidential election years. But when presidential candidates are ramping up for the upcoming election, Americans are more attuned to current events and are hoping that the next president can provide answers for our economic woes. (Since when so much responsibility was given to one person in our representative government, I can’t tell you.)

For those of us wanting a more responsive government, paying sole attention to capturing the nation’s capital is foolhardy. It’s like an overconfident taller boxer fighting a shorter man’s fight or like a slower basketball team with few substitutes running a full-court press against an up-tempo opponent. The boxer should avoid fighting with another’s preferred style, and a basketball team should plan to force its will on the opponent to play at its preferred pace.

The same concept can be applied to the political process. If you want a more responsive government yet concentrate all your effort on taking political control of Washington, you are competing exactly in the way your opponent prefers.

Participation in state and local elections seems intuitive to me. It’s at these levels that one can have significant influence on both politics and decisions that affect daily life.

It must be remembered, too, that seemingly sporadic and isolated political victories at the state and local levels can lead to widespread momentum. Consider the suffragette movement of the early 1900s, and in particular, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and its state-by-state approach that contributed greatly to national political success.

Before the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, women voted in 15 states. In the West, where the rigors of frontier life made society more egalitarian in many ways, women gained the right to vote in two states (Wyoming and Utah) by 1871. By 1900, Colorado and Idaho had granted women’s suffrage. And by 1918, women voted in 11 more states.

NAWSA had numerous state and local chapters and published handbooks on how to organize at the grassroots level and influence local matters. In time, impatient and disenchanted suffragettes who worked strictly for a constitutional amendment adopted more militant tactics.

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Saving a splintering movement, Carrie Chapman Catt, a brilliant strategist known as “The General,” suggested her “Winning Plan” in 1916. It was an effort to work at the state levels and accept even partial suffrage in states that resisted wholesale change. Her goal was to get enough states to grant women the vote to make possible ratification of a proposed constitutional amendment. Victory was possible, too, if women in such states influenced their representatives to pass a constitutional amendment. When New York passed a women’s suffrage referendum in 1917, national opinion was more sympathetic to the issue. By 1920, the 19th Amendment had passed.

Catt knew that a “bottom-up” approach would work best. Today’s activists could learn from her example. When the same action produces the same undesired result, it’s time to adopt a different method. It’s time for Americans to stop focusing all of our political attention on Washington and devote more time and energy to the state and local political process.

Originally published in Fayetteville Observer – reposted here with permission of the author.

Troy Kickler [send him email] has been Director of the North Carolina History Project since August 2005. He holds an M.S. in Social Studies Education from North Carolina A&T State University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee. His specialty areas are nineteenth-century U.S., Civil War and Reconstruction, African American, and religious history.

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