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Credit: Claire Shin

United States politics is a bloated creature — every Twitter fight adds a burst of hot air. The division between Democrats and Republicans fits political discourse into a narrow, obsessive outlook that is all talk and no decision-making. 

Granted, right now partisan division seems like a vast and ever-widening gulf, but the way we experience politics should not be exclusively from dramatized broadcasts of Senate squabbles. These conflicts are irrelevant in our day-to-day lives. Instead of devoting our limited scraps of civic-minded attention to national politics, let’s zoom in on the local, the personal. As midterms loom like a harbinger of the end times, American voters need to divert focus away from news feeds and confront political conflict on a micro scale.

Philadelphia is considered a Democratic stronghold in a state that, apart from two distant metropolises, swims in red. Even though most of Pennsylvania is firmly Republican, the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are a war zone. They are splotches of purple up for grabs, and I happen to live in one of these legendary Pennsylvania swing districts. This place is so split that my neighbors try to one-up each other with front-yard billboards for their favorite candidates. In fact, it’s so split that in the last election, my state representative, Perry Warren, beat his Republican opponent by 75 votes. Seventy-five. Votes. When you can count your margin of victory in a few breaths, the personal is inevitable. It slaps you in the face.

Credit: Camille Rapay

Last summer, I interned for my state representative. When I say “state rep,” I’m not talking about Congressional representatives, the tired figures running around Capitol Hill, squabbling with colleagues and confronting swarms of Washington Post reporters. I’m talking about the guy who runs around town to attend council meetings, fundraisers, and even harvest festivals. Of course, state representatives also make the trek to the Pennsylvania capital in Harrisburg for legislative duties and committee meetings, but Harrisburg is a far cry from Washington. It isn’t a glamorous job, and it doesn’t garner much national attention.

Here is a picture of the “war-zone” that I call home: I dropped packets door-to-door for my rep — not campaign packets, mind you, but pamphlets about retirement plans and home security. And the first thing constituents asked when they saw me: “Democrat or Republican?” I never knew whether my reply meant a slammed door or an approving smile. It was always a toss-up.

What is often overlooked in partisan warfare is the reality of local politics. Local politics aren’t about appealing to a generic group of the electorate. They are about personal interactions: handshakes and smiles. Besides campaigning, local governments do what we forget they were designed to do: deal with local issues. Since they can’t make hot-air claims to fix the entire system, they help people navigate through it. A state or district politician gains approval by reaching out to seniors on their birthday, helping individuals navigate the confusing web of bureaucracy, responding to complaints about potholes, you know … the boring stuff, the bugs in the system.

But here is what’s so wonderful about micropolitics. On the small scale, politicians can win people over. Typically, voters show up to the ballot box and check the box next to the most familiar-sounding name. Few people vote in district elections for grandiose ideological reasons — they just want a comfortable, secure community. That’s why incumbents keep winning — they are seen, heard, talked about, and eventually humanized. It’s that simple.

There is real political leverage to be gained from individual interactions. If Penn students are as practical as we claim to be, then we should think on the margins. Devote time and energy to changing the minds of those 75 voters, not the masses. Don’t speak in polarizing generalities. Instead, discuss issues that have actionable, personal impact. That’s what local politicians do, and it works.

JULIA MITCHELL is a College and Wharton freshman from Yardley, Pa. studying international relations. Her email address is jcmitch@wharton.upenn.edu.

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