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Federalizing our Attention to Politics Crowds out Local Issues
You have written: “We have radically federalized our attention to politics and public life. I fear it crowds out attention to local matters in the hometown paper.” Why is that happening?
Part of the reason is federal policy and national politics are too interesting. We have gotten so interested in Washington that we tend to engorge it as if it were more important than it is.
There’s a disproportionate amount of attention relative to the actual importance in moving policy and changing culture in the United States. We pay less attention to the things that are more important, like what’s going on in the City Council. They seem boring to us.
I was out in Seattle, where I grew up, right after the 2016 elections. Everyone was super wound up about Donald Trump. I said, “Hey, who won the school board race?” It had been on the same day, but no one knew. That is a way bigger deal. The school board is taking care of your kids.
My point is we should try to pay attention to what’s more important in your life. If you don’t, you’re simply looking at politics as a form of entertainment. That’s a problem for an engaged citizenry.
How do we reengage people locally?
There is a responsibility for people in national public life to stop being interesting. We need a much more boring president and a much more boring Congress. Calvin Coolidge ran on that. He was like, “I’m not going to be in the news every day” and he was a very good president.
People will put their attention where the action is. If there’s too much action in Washington, then they’re going to take their eye off the ball.
The second thing is you need leaders to encourage citizens to pay attention to what really matters. We have a press and leadership that is working 24/7 to convince people that what Donald Trump has for breakfast could conceivably matter to anybody beyond Donald Trump. It absolutely shouldn’t.
That said, let me back off a tiny bit. Data has shown that a big majority of Americans can’t name both their senators. I used to just hate that. Then, I thought: God Bless America; they’re paying attention to choir rehearsal, a soccer game, and feeding their families. Thank God they don’t have to know.
In Dallas, we are lucky to get 5 percent turnout for a school board races. Those are hard, important positions.
And those 5 percent are not the ones who care for the right reasons typically. The unions and activists care about them. If ordinary citizens and parents cared more about those positions, more community-oriented people would want that job. They would know that all those people who are paying attention would have their back. Instead, you get a union crony. And parents are like, whatever, I like my kid’s second grade teacher.
William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.
Active in education issues, he participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project. And he teaches as an adjunct journalism lecturer at SMU, where he teaches a course on media and politics.
Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News.
Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.
McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.Full Bio
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