The 2016 election led to a lot of people realizing something was wrong. They woke the f’ up — so much so that liberals now use the word “woke” (sometimes genuinely, other times ironically) to describe the progressive mindset. There has been an upswell in political participation since 2016. Groups ranging from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to the American Civil Liberties Unions (ACLU) have seen a surge in members.
There are a lot more liberals paying attention this time around, and it’s led to a semi-pundit class of people that are treating 2020 like it’s the end of the world. The pain of what will happen if we have a naive or corrupt leader — a reality that has repeatedly happened throughout our history — is being treated like a once-in-a-lifetime disaster. The stakes are high because they are, at last, emotionally real, and this fresh pain is causing many liberals to hold on to a considerable amount of existential dread.
As a liberal, this election might not go the way that you want — it rarely does for us. This doesn’t mean that all hope is lost; in fact, there is a lot of change that you can make on the local level.
The great pain of being a progressive is that you are fighting for a world that has never existed, and, if we are honest, will most likely not be achieved within our lifetimes. There is this tendency to get very cynical when embracing this reality.
When you compare yourself to the suffering that is occurring on a national or global level, then you, are of course, insignificant.
You can attend a million protests, and you will still not stop climate change.
You can call, canvass, and donate (and you should continue to do so), but that doesn’t mean your preferred candidate will win the presidency.
This thinking is why cynics will often claim that your vote doesn’t matter because, on a big enough scale, it doesn’t — your vote will never decide the next person to sit in the oval office.
And yet, the moment we start to apply this logic to a small enough scale, it immediately breaks apart. Concerned citizens are getting stuff done all the time — they are killing development projects and changing laws — and it really does only take one or two people to get the ball rolling.
Take the case of Lacy city residents John and Margaret Green in Washington state. A nearby developer had received a land-clearing permit to remove part of a forest trail that the couple enjoyed hiking on.
The Green’s were against this decision and resolved to appeal it, but they bumped into a problem — Lacy city had some of the highest costs associated with an appeal in the county.
A single appeal could cost $2,179.
The couple brought up their concerns with city officials, and it led to a revaluation of the appeal cost. When interviewed by The Olympian, Councilman Lenny Greenstein recalled the Green’s testimony as a factor for the revaluation:
“It felt like, in there eyes, we were protecting the developer and charging them a fee well beyond their means, and that it was set to purposely keep them out of the process…[The fees] seemed too high to me.”
The Greens made a ruckus, and it helped spur a debate on policy.
In another example, the group Pleasanton Citizens for Responsible Growth stopped the development of a Costco in their Californian town for over five years. The citizen group organized out of a fear that the project would have a detrimental environmental impact on their community, and they’ve pushed forth several lawsuits relating to the matter.
Although The Pleasanton City Council recently voted to approve the project, the pressure from this group forced the developers to make a lot of concessions. Some of these were that Costco agreed to reduce the amount of gas it distributed each year; the City installed more traffic signals to lessen congestion; and, the council was forced to create a revised environmental report on the project’s impact.
There are countless examples of citizens engaging in local politics and getting results. Sometimes it’s for something as petty as preserving their view or to stop the construction of a homeless shelter. Other times citizens band together to achieve noteworthy goals.
Even when you don’t get your preferred outcome, your participation in local politics can have an outsized impact because a lot of people simply are not doing it.
When a citizen decides to engage in local politics, there is typically a lot of excitement, or at least attention, paid to it because an activated citizen on the local level is rare. While Americans have started to vote more (2018 was the first midterm election to hit near 50% of eligible voters since 1914), that same type of enthusiasm has not translated into other types of political engagement.
As an example, few people want to be poll workers on election day. These are the people who, among other things, set up your polling stations and check that your name is in the system. They are crucial for the smooth operation of a polling station, and places all over the country are having shortages of volunteers.
Likewise, the same can be said for volunteering in the US in general.
If you are one of the few people present for meetings and calls, then you’ll find that you have a lot of clout for the simple fact that you are there. Politicians want feedback, and even if they don’t agree with you, they will listen to you more than you think because, apart from land developers, not a lot of citizens talk to them.
Now, it’s true that there are barriers to local engagement. Political participation tends to skew older, and among people who are whiter and more college-educated. This is because politics requires time. It doesn’t require an excessive amount of time — you probably need to set aside a couple of hours a month to champion a local cause — but that’s not something everybody has to spare.
It also requires research. The organizations and groups fighting on a local level do not have a professional developer churning out a usable website. You will have to find out a lot of this information in-person, which involves going to local meetings and interacting with people.
Again, this requires time.
If you can surpass these hurdles, however, then you will go on to make a tangible difference in your community. It might not always be quick or easy, but the good news is that you are not alone. There are countless local organizations in your area teetering in and out of existence.
They want, and indeed, need your help.
Liberals spend a lot of energy online debating the merits of subjects such as gentrification, imperialism, and more. Sometimes, though, I think we forget that these trends are the result of thousands of tiny, tangible things.
If you don’t like the fact that your community is gentrifying, then you can place energy into fighting individual development projects.
If your big cause is #socialism, then it is worth throwing your energy behind a local race. These races are almost always desperate for money and volunteers, and there have been some notable successes in recent years.
Progressives often say that moderates don’t think big enough, but the truth is that many of us also don’t think small enough. The backbone of political movements is built on these more minor victories. The leadership pool we make now will pay dividends in the future.
Just imagine — your local city councilor might just become our future presidential candidate twenty years down the line. But that can’t happen if you give up on politics right now, because you don’t like your current presidential nominee.
That future needs you fighting on the local level today.