Bringing politics home

Sam Smith – Every day I scan a couple of thousand headlines from numerous news sources. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that most news these days is purportedly about the powerful. News that might affect thousands  or millions of ordinary individuals is secondary or just ignored. This is something I’m sensitive about in part because I was an anthropology major so I tend to wonder less about where Donald Trump is today and more about how our culture is being affected by what he is up to. I also was introduced to politics back when it was something that happened in your ‘hood rather than on TV or the Internet and when politicians were seeking to appeal to the real needs of grandmothers more than the fantasies of the modern elite. 

Among the effects of this shift has been  its contribution to the rise of proto-fascism in our politics. Instead of responding to the real problems of real people we have created a politics that is overwhelmingly based on easily distorted broad images, imaginary descriptions and phony  projections. 

In dealing with how one confronts such a crisis, it worth going back to older style politics. One of the places you may be able to still find this is in your own town, where politicians  have to relate to the real needs and interest of voters. If you think this is irrelevant on the national level, consider a rare socialist of considerable prominence: Bernie Sanders who was mayor of the town of Burlington from 1981 to 1989. Burlington has a population of around 45,000. That’s the sort of place you learn real politics and not just fancy ways to talk about it.

I moved from DC to a small Maine town of 8,000 over a decade ago and one of the things that has struck me has been how different politics is here. Most strikingly is the absence of corruption, lies and false images of reality. This doesn’t mean that all elected officials do everything right but even errors are more like what you might find in your own family or a neighborhood business rather than on Fox News. 

One of the reasons I got interested in politics seven decades ago as a young teen is because the pols of that day tended to be more interesting than other adults in my life. When I got to Harvard College and covered the Cambridge city council for the student radio station, I found that even the mayor was easier to talk with than, say, most of my professors. Later, covering Washington in the 1960s and 70s, there still were even senators who seemed like real people. 

My theory is that television and the Internet have been a major factor in changing all this, creating images  rather than helping constituents as the politician’s main task. 

An irony in this change is that a couple of institutions traditionally deeply involved in creating the standards of real communities are being grossly distorted by the mass media, such as education and religion. Instead of reflecting mainly traditional local values, these institutions have become increasingly manipulated with the aid of a mass media  that has little interest in things like civics, ethics, fairness, and caring for others. Our local values are being changed by grander powers of no local interest or responsibility. We are all like Ukrainians dealing with Putins. 

This may seem overwhelming but remember that movements like civil rights and labor started  and grew dramatically at the local level. It may be time to go on strike for democracy and decency. In any case we should not define America by its grandest manipulators but by life around us. For example, was it one of your kid’s teachers who wanted to ban a bunch of books or your minister who is obsessed by the supposed evils of abortion and gay marriage?

One of the things that differentiates the powerful from the ordinary is that the former consciously spend money and effort on creating images that may have little reflection of reality. They may call this public relations but in fact it is private manipulation.

Are the unpowerful helpless in dealing with this? Far from it. After all one of the false messages of the powerful is not only that you are weak but that you are helpless. But the great populist movements of the past have prover otherwise. Look how fast the Roe v. Wade decision has reactivated women.

In fact, we have a power that the powerful lack: numbers and a passion for the common good.

We’ve shown another way in the past. For example, in the 1960s I started an early example of what became known as the underground press. At one point there were some 400 such local publications helping the successes of the 1960s. We can do it again, but for starters we must not surrender to the frauds in power but rather discover the friends around us and help them explode into a new generation of change.