High school students convene at a local Democratic Party neighborhood team meeting.
By Alexandra Madaras, Editor in Chief
It is easy to be swept up into the current of presidential politics, especially for young people who absorb political content online. Tom Steyer and Bernie Sanders perpetually ask for your money in YouTube ads, Kamala Harris is regularly destroyed on Twitter, and Donald Trump has found his way into “MAGA” Instagram bios from your high school classmates, not to mention every waking second of cable news. While Trump and AOC’s tweets circulate online in an epic-poetry style clash battle, we learn more and more about the most popular figureheads of our partisan politics every day— but less and less about politics close to home.
Who Even Runs This Sh*t?
It doesn’t take an expert poll to understand the knowledge gap young people have about their local politics. Just take, for example, a simple class activity that opened my AP Government class this year: Name These Officials. I watched as the room buzzed confidently at first, students filling out “President: _____” “Vice President:______” “Secretary of State:________” and “Speaker of the House:_______”
Then some began to look puzzled. Some left “Senators:_______” and “Congressman:______” blank, their memories of campaign lawn signs failing to resurface.
Then suddenly, the Valley of Doom was upon us:
“Mason City School Board: _________”
“Mason Township Trustees:_________”
“Mason City Council: _________”
Panic overcame us. Did they even have lawn signs? Did they come to school events? Were they even on Twitter? Our national news cycle and our issue-focused social media politics had kept us out of the loop where it mattered the most— in our own day-to-day lives.
This is not a critique of social media, nor a call to ignore partisan politics on the national stage. Young people should indeed be informed and passionate about issues that affect us all collectively, whether that be federal education standards, gun violence, or civil rights. But the nationalization and sensationalization of our politics often redirects (and short-circuits) our attention, obscuring how much our local politics influence our jobs, infrastructure, and community culture. Our local candidates, elections, and organizations should not be ignored in favor of Twitter wars and cable news punditry.
Getting to Know the Politics of “Here”
Recently, I’ve begun to immerse myself in the politics of the place I’ve called home for just over a year: Mason, Ohio. It’s a tight-knit community; that is to say, there is one high school, three major companies, and a general feeling of isolation by farmland. Our median household income is relatively high— just over $90,000— and the roads are peppered with Teslas and newly-constructed homes. It’s a former farming community, but now, it’s encountering growing diversity. Many of my classmates have East or South Asian backgrounds, and Spanish, Arabic, and Korean are regularly heard in the hallways at the high school.
While the demographics and needs of our community have been changing, much of our local politics has stagnated, or in the worst cases, frozen in favor of hyperpartisan, corrupt, or lazy agendas. In the next township over, three Republican men have been rotating through local trustee positions for years, using the advantage of name recognition and comfort to monopolize the local government. In Mason, the school board operates on a budget from 2005, while wages for teachers and the cost of new supplies and technology have steadily increased. As the board scrambles for more money, fees get higher and higher, making some activities and testing fees unachievable for qualified students. Many school board members have been elected cycle after cycle, letting their focus on budget efficiency rather than student success slowly become permanent policy.
Luckily, some community members are willing to shake things up. For example, in Hamilton Township, small business owner Erin Rosiello is looking to gain a seat among the rotating oligopoly. Ian Orr, a corporate risk insurer with kids in Mason City Schools, is running for the school board to bring diversity, transparency, and proper budget management to the thousands of students making up our school district. Ambitious, qualified people in our local politics are looking to improve our representation and education with organized and well-developed campaigns. The only problem? We aren’t hearing about it.
Spanning the Communication Gap in Local Politics
From just over a month on our local political scene, I’ve seen the enormous effort that goes into constructing even the most basic campaigns and political organizations. Procedures, funding, messaging, and advertising happens over dozens of monthly meetings and coffee dates. Candidates and party members keep in close contact to maximize involvement in local community events. But despite this gigantic effort, the majority of community members, especially young people, are blissfully unaware of the hard work that goes into fighting for their infrastructure, education, and representation.
Despite this significant gap between young people and their local politics, it’s not impossible to get their attention. When an energizing millennial candidate ran against long-time incumbent Steve Chabot to represent the 1st district of Ohio, the students and young professionals of Mason paid attention. Aftab Pureval, the son of Tibetan and Indian immigrants, looked and spoke like many of the students at the high school. He had a bright smile, ran simple, inviting ads, and visited many local events in Mason. Even better, he had a Twitter account—and he sounded like someone who was used to using it.
During the Congressional election, it was rare to encounter someone under 25 in Mason who didn’t know about Aftab. Local politics had made its way into the consciousness of young people in Mason, simply through an engaging and appealing young candidate tapping into our school and social media environment.
So is the secret to us refocusing on our local political organizing simply having younger people run? Not necessarily. Aftab’s unique story and the overall lack of energy surrounding other races tell us that young people pay attention when something feels relevant to them and their stories. Though local organizers are passionate, they are also often much removed from young people in age, if not in ideas. Unmistakably, there is a missed connection between the established local organizations, their funding, their elections, and the young voters they can’t seem to engage. Until local politics generate the same energy and debate among young people as our presidential races and hot-button issues, simply asking young people to invest their time in volunteering, canvassing, and voting is likely to be largely ineffective.
Fortunately, young people who are engaged have the potential to energize their fellow citizens, even in a place like Mason. My own work with the local Democratic Party focuses on creating a social media environment surrounding our local politics that mirrors the engaging diversity of opinion, national debate, and fast-paced information dissemination currently focused on the highest-level politicians in the nation. I believe that young people mobilizing to bring local politics to popular platforms can be the vehicle for engaging students, young professionals, and younger voters overall in our battles at the local level.
Refocusing for the Future
As young people, recognizing our blindness to local politics is the first step to taking a more active political role in our communities. Voting in the presidential election is fine and good, and we should be promoting awareness of the “big fight” happening at the national level. But campaigning for youth voters in 2020 without encouraging engagement in local politics would be a mistake. Fundamental progress starts at the smallest units of political power and builds through continuous community engagement that goes far beyond simply voting in a general election. As we look to share our opinions on social media and even vote for the first time, we need to look to our neighbors, councilmembers, school board representatives, and trustees. To truly call ourselves politically active, we have to engage with the people who form the politics of our lives. After all, the fights we fight at home are often the most important.
Next Generation Politics does not endorse any candidates mentioned in this author’s work or any other contributions on our blog or website. The views of this author are a reflection of the author’s experiences and beliefs and do not represent endorsements from NGP.