by Conor Friedersdorf
In California, local government is where our political failures begin.
Does anyone pay regular attention to their City Council or County Board of Supervisors? The people in Bell didn't, and were typical in that way. Those local bodies are used as stepping stones to the state legislature and beyond. But the folks who rise aren't doing so based on the considered judgment of citizens so much as their ability to curry favor with donors, spend on campaign advertising, and win elections via name recognition.
It's a contest that's grown too sophisticated for amateurs.
Several factors militate against civic engagement. Ours is a large state with huge counties that contain sprawling municipalities. Our population is famously transient. A series of progressive reforms and populist ballot measures (especially Proposition 13) tended to strip control from local authorities, so that Sacramento grew in political importance. When the County Board of Supervisors sets property taxes, residents damn well show up at the meetings, whereas scrutiny is orders of magnitude less when the most contested subjects are settled regionally.
Nowadays so many critical matters of public policy are being decided by anonymous, faraway state officials, or even worse, their federal equivalents. In a way, life is less burdensome for people when they can safely ignore local civics, but the price in dysfunction and ceded influence is high. The thing about national or even state elections is that voters can only get their information from the mass media or professionally run campaigns. Though these are the best methods we've got, they are pretty terrible. Have you watched cable news lately?