It’s an election year, in case you hadn’t noticed, and at WORLD we’re already talking about what races to watch, where our reporters should travel to cover them, and what are the stakes.
Yet even as we track national trends, hot-button issues, and potential winners and losers, we—whether trying to be conscientious editors or voters—can tend to overlook an important rubric: All politics is local. Or at least it begins that way. We all live somewhere. But too often we focus so keenly on the national scene, we forget the local facts of life, the most basic functions of government politicians first are put in office for.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently learned their lesson. Reed, the black Democrat, and Deal, the white Republican, became punch lines for late-night comedy after Atlanta—the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States—found itself woefully unprepared for a January snowstorm. As snow began to fall on Jan. 28, a Tuesday, and cars began to pile up on the city’s freeways, Reed and Deal were at an awards luncheon, backslapping one another as Deal introduced Reed, named by a local magazine “Georgian of the Year.” Forty minutes before the event, Reed had tweeted: “Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.”
But the city of 5.5 million, with multiple freeways and the world’s busiest airport, had only 60 snowplows. Stranded motorists, including children on school buses, spent hours in gridlock before many abandoned their cars and spent the night sleeping on the floors of convenience stores and office buildings. Both the mayor and the governor have national ambitions, now blunted by their poor performance.
The seemingly small role of municipal government can have big stakes. My neighborhood, like many across the country, has seen theft and break-ins rise as the city’s unemployment rosters have grown. But on my street and others, the city installed LED street lights that practically never will burn out. Theft and vandalism have mostly stayed away from these well-lit streets.
Beyond keeping the streets clear and the lights on, local governments can do more to be cities of opportunity, as we find in this annual cities issue. Amidst bad economic news surprising pockets of prosperity, like Houston and Fargo, have popped up across the country. And researchers are finding that just spending more on government isn’t the answer. Want to improve opportunity in your city? Create and encourage mixed-income neighborhoods, for starters, with lots of two-parent households in that mix (see “Finding cities of prosperity in a land of (unequal) opportunity”).
Christians and others who want smarter, better government can take heart: Want to change the way a country views national debt or nationalized healthcare? Perhaps start by supporting—or being—a politician who takes seriously the ingredients to running a city well.
Scripture is clear on the point: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Many political figures woefully misapply the roles of government. How did we come to a place where national officials think they should have a say over families and their contraceptives, while local officials think it’s okay to forego snowplows? Those of us who want smaller, less intrusive national government might begin to pay more attention to local government, getting the basic issues right at the most basic level of public safety and management. We can start right on the street where we live.