Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, former Speaker of the House was elected in 1935 and served in Congress until 1994. He once observed that “all politics are local”. He recognized the ultimate truth of politics on any level – that political action must translate to tangible benefits to individuals. In the post-Citizens United world of politics his observations are certainly axiomatic if government is to exist to improve the lives of citizens and not for the benefit of the donor class. The politics in Washington D.C. is dominated and determined by special interests, and even State politics are increasingly dominated by money. The result has been either paralysis of government on issues that affect most Americans or, legislation on only issues important to money donors in a way that benefits the donors. Collective action is needed and that can only start by appealing to local interests and motivating people.
The only solution to a government run by money and increasingly irrelevant to our daily lives is local activism. Ultimately, the only peaceful revolution possible to change the accelerating slide away from relevance and to plutocracy is from the ground up. Many Americans feel that personally affecting politics is impossible, and that they are powerless to change government. They are right in the sense that individuals acting alone are ineffective. It’s one of the reasons why the donor class constantly tries to pit individual Americans against each other. Getting people involved in politics is a matter of learning what they care about in their day to day lives and working from there. The temptation is go into a community and tell them what they need to do to change policy. People usually don’t care about policy and they certainly don’t care about your solutions to the policies you are interesting in. I have always found that when you listen to what people in a neighborhood say, and what they are concerned about, then your ability to mobilize them to political action is much easier. Which makes sense insofar as the goal of politics used to be to improve the lives of people.
Local political involvement is the key to generating interest and involvement and, ultimately, change. The little steps of making an immediate and relevant change to a community can translate to bigger steps in State and federal politics. I heard an interview of Elizabeth Warren recently and she made the point that when people learned that the GOP healthcare plan would raise their premiums, if it didn’t take away their insurance altogether, then Congressional phones began blowing up and Town Hall meetings were crowded. Usually Congresspersons pay attention to the person sitting in their office – a person who probably ponied up $25,000 to their re-election fund – in other words, a lobbyist. Apparently when the phones were ringing so often that they couldn’t hear the money donor, it made a difference. It was another example of politics being local.
Translating national policy into local interests is not as daunting as it might seem. If you tell someone that we should raise taxes on billionaires, they would probably demur. If you pointed out that their monthly bill to pay back student loans is too high because Congress raised the interest rate to make a profit to compensate for revenue lost from lowering tax cuts to billionaires, then the conversation becomes relevant to them. It becomes local (even personal). Could they support a law to reduce their college loan interest rates and replace the lost revenue by eliminating tax loopholes for billionaires? They could? Well, could you call or e-mail your Congressperson and support the proposal of Elizabeth Warren and John McCain to close tax loopholes and lower student loan interest rates?
It’s as simple as that. No President or Senator or Congressperson elected by special interests for special interests will change the system. We either find a way to build a revolution from the ground up through personal and local activism, or the Jeffersonian axiom becomes reality: the Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.