By Ken Hampian, Former San Luis Obispo City Manager.
For decades, a political axiom in America, attributed to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, has been that “all politics is local.” In other words, politicians should never forget that people are mostly concerned with their communities, where relationships are prized above party and ideology.
This axiom, however, is getting turned upside down in many communities where citizens are modeling national political behaviors and judging community issues — and their fellow citizens — through highly ideological, rage-triggering lenses.
There’s another trend, as well: “Bowling Alone,” a metaphor used by author Robert Putnam to describe a trend of civic disengagement and personal isolation. Putnam’s book was published more than 15 years ago before smartphones, social media and other technologies further accelerated the trend.
This wicked combination — imported rage and disengagement — manifests in communities in a variety of corrosive ways, such as routine uncivil behavior, warring tribes, vile online trolling and withdrawal and apathy. In the city management profession, such cities are informally known as “toxic cities,” and most discerning managers steer clear.
While jurisdictions in our region are generally doing well, civility is fragile and we are not immune from these trends. Unhealthy civic relationships are here, too.
Healthy relationships — in a marriage, among friends, in a family, an organization or a community — depend on one precious thing: trust. With trust, big problems can be solved while still keeping people on board. Without trust, big problems are not solved; divisive and petty ones multiply instead. And pettiness is where all the energy goes.
So what can we do locally to promote and protect this precious thing, trust?
First, our locally elected leaders can embrace community building as their most sacred duty. They can choose to nurture positive civic participation rather than feed the beast of mistrust and rage. They can use the power to convene constructively, involving more people in decisions that affect them. They can govern with humility and respect, even when disagreeing on the issues.
Our elected officials are role models, and they train the community in how problems are deliberated and resolved. If the modeling is tribal, partisan and negative — even disrespectful — then the elected body will invite similar behavior from the public. If civility and respect are modeled and rewarded, then constructive behavior becomes more the norm. In this respect, elected boards must perform as a team.
We citizens have an equally big responsibility. We must pay attention and remain constructively invested in our communities and with our fellow citizens. We can also reward, and not punish, healthy community leadership, which involves not only civility but also compromise.
Democracy is not a mystical thing. It’s simply a process, a governing pact, for how free societies make decisions and solve problems collectively. The pact not only involves compromise, it demands compromise. If we expect our elected officials to always perfectly toe our party line, then we are a part of the problem.
The great student of America, Alexander Tocqueville, felt that communities were the key to making American democracy work. If he’s right, and if we lose civility and cohesion at the community level, then one must ask: What is really left? Party affiliation alone, unmoored from community bonds, is a scary thing.
My wish for the new year is that we all do our part to keep our politics local and our communities engaged and healthy. In this polarized era, the health of our American democracy may depend upon the standards we set locally.
Ken Hampian was the City Manager of San Luis Obispo from 2001 to 2010.