Closer to the people?

October 23, 2012

“The government that is closest to the people governs best.” That sentiment was expressed recently by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, and it’s long been a staple of conservative political philosophy and of candidates who want federal programs to be taken over by state and local governments. But liberals embrace it in their own way when they talk about “participatory democracy” and the need for people to be able to make decisions about the issues that directly affect them.

The question is: what does it mean for government to be “closer” to people? Are citizens really closer to their state legislators and officials? Geographically, yes. But state and local officials can also be elusive and unresponsive—perhaps even more so than national officials, since there are fewer organizations and reporters covering their actions and holding them accountable. 

Most of us, if we pay attention to the news at all, are likely to know more about the debates and the lobbyists at work in Washington than we are about what’s going on in Springfield or Trenton. 

This situation has been exacerbated in recent years as newspapers have cut the size of their newsrooms. A study by the American Journalism Review found that the number of reporters at U.S. statehouses dropped by a third between 2003 and 2009—from 524 to 355. In 2003, there were 14 reporters credentialed at the Georgia statehouse; now there are five. California had 40 capitol reporters; now it has 29.

In theory, the rise of personal blogs and other electronic media offers a way to fill the gap in local reporting. The problem is that most new outlets for news simply refashion reports from the traditional sources that have themselves been massively downsized.

Steve Waldman, the Beliefnet founder who now advises the Federal Communications Commission on the “the state of information and the vitality of democracy,” makes this point in a study noted here. For example, he found that 83 percent of news stories reported by 52 media outlets in Baltimore were recycled versions of reports generated by the Baltimore Sun. And the Sun produced 73 percent fewer stories in 2009 than it did in 1991.

The “closer to the people” theme is persuasive, but it may rely on assumptions about community and local knowledge that don’t apply to the world we actually live in.


Closer to People

I believe that neither major party is closer to the people and further believe that this gap is larger than it has ever been. The American people at large have become distracted and disillusioned by politics on most every level of government from the local to national. I believe that we have so many things going on in our personal lives that we have very little time to even focus on our families let alone our politics. I believe this plays into the hands of both major political parties, who use it to their advantage by constantly changing with the wind the direction they are going to match the wimb of a block of voters, hoping that they are to distracted to notice.

I believe that the only way this will ever change is on a local grassroots level, where people are taking the time to invest in the hard work of drawing community's and neighborhood's together where people actually see that it is okay for them to care about their neighbor and that it actually benefits them when they do. 'But seek the welfare (peace) of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare (peace) you will find welfare (peace). Jeremiah 29:7

I believe this is where the local church comes in; we can be a visible and viable part of this most important work of reconciliation and restoration in the communities where God has placed them. I know this work will involve patience and perseverance, but it is work we must do. The problem with the political landscape in the United States isn't which major political party is closer to the people, it is that we live neighborhoods and places where people aren't close to each other, and don't care about each because they don't know each other. When we are at work solving that problem and in some places we are already working on it. Then and only then will things change.