By Trey McKinney, Staff Writer

'Of the people, by the people, and for the people.'

This is the kind of government American democracy promises us. But with all of the unrest and dissatisfaction that the Presidential election cycle inevitably highlights, it may not be just our government officials who are failing in the pursuit of a more perfect union. 

This is because, for many of us, our engagement with the political sphere is limited to what we see on the television screen, and that in large part is skewed toward the high profile realm of national politics. We can get updates via phone or cable news round the clock on the latest and most controversial happenings in Washington. Supreme Court decisions are debated, and Presidential actions critiqued; all presented in polarizing terms that make for an easy and clear division, a sharp delineation of the pros and cons to be weighed. 

But the local mayoral election brings no such fanfare, and the next town council meeting comes and goes without a fraction of the notoriety. For many, the political happenings in their own back yards are far more vague and ambiguous than those occurring hundreds or thousands of miles away in our nation’s capital. And somewhere in the ill-defined white noise that for many comprises the domain of local politics, the millennial voice is almost completely lost.

Taking a Closer Look

The lack of Millennial involvement in local politics may be attributable in part to an ignorance about the function of local governments. This would not be unjustified; politics at the state and local level can be very complex and immensely confusing. There is little uniformity across states, with numerous organizational structures and jurisdictions.

Most of us understand the basics. We have federal government with overriding authority, and constituent states with their own autonomy within the national system. Beyond that, things may be a little murky. 

Just to clear things up before we go any further, state governments operate in a way that is largely analogous to the federal government, with the state exercising authority over the numerous jurisdictions into which the state has been divided. The principle difference between state and federal government lies with a distinction rooted in what is known as Dillon’s Rule. Established by two court rulings from Judge John Dillon in 1868, this rule affirms that substate governments have only the power conferred upon them by the state, meaning essentially that they have no power which the state itself does not allow (except where explicitly granted by the state constitution). Conversely, in the federal-state relationship, individual states can have laws that do not coincide with federal law, and can even file suit against the national government for overreach.  

In looking at this rather complex hierarchy from the local to national level, and noting the strong limitations place upon local governments, it would be easy to assume that local and state politics are irrelevant or have little relative impact, at least with respect to the substantial impact that many people seek. However, as we will revisit later, what we do locally could be the impetus behind many of the large scale changes we hope to see.

You cannot create a national movement around critical local policies, like higher minimum wages, if city hall is elected exclusively by voters born before Dwight Eisenhower’s reelection.
— Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Well Vote Then

Almost no one in the millennial demographic is unfamiliar with the historic economic hardship this generation has had to confront. As public clamoring for high profile and perceived “outsider” candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has indicated, there is a deep desire for something truly different, a drastic departure from the system and policies that have landed so many young Americans in a precarious spot.  Part of our infatuation with the national political scene seems to be the assumption that only change at the highest level can remedy our massive shift in fortune. Unfortunately this thinking, while well intentioned, is misguided.

Recovery is necessary, and damage has been done, but placing the responsibility of rebuilding our political system in the hands of a single individual is both naive and shortsighted. The reality is that meaningful change is not easily won, and will require time, consistent effort, and patience.  Derek Thompson of The Atlantic writes that, “If young people want a liberal revolution, they have to vote again and again and again, in local elections, midterm elections, and presidential contests.”

Partisanship aside, Thompson’s point is a powerful one, and one that has been echoed by many figures through history. This country has been through crises before, but it is only the consistent engagement of the public along with policy that has allowed for those obstacles to be overcome. This means that Millennials, despite having drawn the short straw in terms of relative prosperity, will have to make the collective effort to push the government in the right direction. We have inherited a responsibility, and one that carries an obligation demanding action more than once every four years. Voting for people under 30 in non-presidential elections is at a 50-year low. The average age of voters in mayoral elections is 60. One study found that the odds of someone 65 or older voting relative to a millennial at a mayoral primary was 19 to 1, and nearly 14 to 1 in the general election. 

This is what we have seen from the generational cohort with—for the first time—the largest share of the electorate and significant reason to want to see governmental reform. To think that we are ready to take the mantle of this democracy when we are unwilling even to participate in the local governments where we live and work is really quite silly.

This is not to say that there aren’t reasons for this lack of engagement. Millennials are young, with many just now settling into the responsibilities of adulthood. Likewise, we have seen the futility of politics played out on a grand scale with the gridlock that has plagued Washington D.C. And then of course there is the sheer difficulty associated with getting to know local political figures. National officials are just more accessible. It is easy to look on the internet and read someone’s website and platform, or to watch them on television after you get off of work. It requires more of us to get to know the town councilman, or figures in the state legislature, if only because they are not readily presented to us. 

Yet even with these difficulties the point remains: there is work to be done, and we are the ones who must do it. Whether it seems fair, or even worthwhile, civic responsibility is real, and is demanded of us. This is a truth that our generation must acknowledge and embrace if we truly value the liberties—and opportunities—we hold dear. 

More Important than You Think

In his piece “All Voting Is National” and a paper co-authored with Chris Elmendorf, George Mason Law Professor David Schleicher argues that politics at the state and local level are heavily skewed by attitudes towards national figures.e The idea is that our local politics really just mirrors our national politics. If Republicans in Washington are doing poorly, then Republicans in the states will do poorly as well. And while voters may be reasonably informed about mayoral and gubernatorial contests due to local coverage, most are essentially in the dark. What this demonstrates is a lack of civic engagement beyond absorbing the information that is presented to us. However, with such a laissez faire approach to local government, we undermine the accountability of our public servants, failing to treat them in accordance with the quality of their service to the community.

Let there be no mistake, many significant issues that we have seen play out on the national stage began with action at the state level. Whether it was gay rights, marriage equality, abortion rights, marijuana legalization, religious freedom or number of other high profile issues, all have become topics of national discussion in response to state legislation. Critical decisions about education, crime, and resource allocation all play out locally, and frequently these are the kinds of issues most likely to have an immediate, tangible impact on our lives.

If we do not inform ourselves and actively participate in the legislative process, we do ourselves a disservice. We demonstrate an indifference to the quality of work from our representatives, and fail to pursue reasonable measures that could be taken improve our own quality of life.  

The Goal

Ultimately, what we should hope for goes beyond an interest in politics. Rather, we should be committed to the idea of having people nationwide who are truly invested in their own communities. This means people with an awareness of the issues being confronted by both themselves and their neighbors, and an interest is seeing them resolved, not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the community at large. Too often we relegate ourselves to a spectator’s position, or rest our hopes on the talents of other people. Democracy is not conducive to individualism in civic matters. One vote means very little. For anything to be accomplished, a collective voice and will is required.

There is no magic bullet to solve the issues with civic engagement among Millennials. There is very little that can be said to invoke others to action. People have to want to be a part of the solution, demonstrated not just in word, but in deed.  Our generation, one characterized by social media, community, cooperation, and mutual obligation, has proven to hold a noble preoccupation with social justice and fair treatment for all. Now it is time act according to our professed values. And the best place to start is right outside your front door.