3-Minute Civics: Partisanship and local politics don’t mix

April 22, 2022 5:46 am
Illustration of a blue donkey and a red elephant against the backdrop of a U.S. flag

“Politics are taking a firmer place in our lives now than in the last nearly 50 years.” (Getty Images)

The problem with “the new normal” is that I quite seem to have forgotten what normal really feels like. I’ve served in local politics for the last three years, and so much has changed in that time. Between the economy, politics, and pandemic, there are so many more visible and invisible tripwires scattered throughout the world that even sharing earnestly felt beliefs can seem scary.

That’s an isolating thought. And the allure of that line of thinking is that it can blind us to the basic truths that haven’t changed an iota. In local politics, our constituents are our neighbors. We all care about our community, we all plan and worry about the same future, affecting us in largely the same way.

Too often, however, our daily plights blind us to what we share. The national news and internet provide us with endless content. But I ask: What percentage of our understanding of our town and our schools should come from the news, and what percentage should come from learning directly from our students, our teachers, and our professional staff with the experience and data to support their decisions?

Politics are taking a firmer place in our lives now than in the last nearly 50 years. Some might be growing weary of “identity” politics, but I don’t think there are two more explosive words these days than “Democrat” and “Republican.” Maybe that’s necessary in national politics; we’ll never really get to know our senators, members of Congress, or presidents on a personal level, so we use snapshots and key phrases to quickly decide who we support and who we decry.

But in local politics, those shortcuts deserve no place. We do know each other. We’re available, we’re present. We can be chatted up at the grocery store or the park. We contribute to local organizations, and our personalities and true opinions are on display, undistorted by camera lenses and Twitter character limits.

Almost 250 years ago, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton debated the topic of factions while building support for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In his farewell address, George Washington famously warned Americans to avoid the dangers of political parties. And it didn’t take long to see why: Less than three years later, President John Adams’ Federalist Party used the newly minted Sedition Act (outlawing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government) to intimidate and prosecute politicians on the other side of the aisle.

I don’t know if we’ll ever live in a nonpartisan, bipartisan, or multipartisan country. The brilliant people who founded our country could never agree on what our national approach should be. But there was still some common ground to be had: At the local level, factions aren’t necessary.

From my personal experience as a member of a school board, I’ve seen partisan politics play no role in the decisions we make. It is insipid to use national politics and agendas as bases for arguing for or against a percentage increase in pay negotiations, or shifting bus schedules, or what values should be taught in the classroom.

It’s a perversion of process; the tail wags the dog. Far more critical to what kinds of decisions get made is the caliber of the person sitting on the committee – how they think, how they understand, and how they reason. None of those is related to a personal political agenda. Far more important is a diversity of life experience and approach. Local boards greatly benefit from a well-rounded mix of skills driving decisions.

When you go to the polls (read: go to the polls!) to pick your local representatives, remember that you’re selecting the person who will have a tangible say in what happens in your community. Pick the person with the best head on their shoulders, whose judgment you trust, who applies a logic similar to yours, who understands the processes at stake. Maybe they voted for the same president as you. Maybe they didn’t. But does that matter? School board members, town selectpersons, members of the boards of public health and conservation societies – these are people who are choosing to give up time with their families and friends, to help steer your township away from the rocks.

If any of them has any other agenda, that might be a good sign to vote in a different direction.

Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.

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Chris Pappavaselio
Chris Pappavaselio

Chris Pappavaselio is a former high school Latin teacher and a third-year law student at Harvard Law School.