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Federalizing our Attention to Politics Crowds out Local Issues

Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Conservative Heart. In this interview with William McKenzie of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute, he explains why we have “federalized our attention to politics and public life.” Brooks contends that races for local offices like the school board matter enormously to our lives.

Article by William McKenzie July 13, 2018 //   4 minute read
Arthur Brooks with Dr. Condoleezza Rice at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership in April

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.