Those who know me are familiar with my love of all things political. My dorm is decorated in red, white, and blue, with an American flag as wall art. The line from country music artist Ingrid Andress’ song "Lady Like" (which can often be heard playing from my room) could have been written about me: “Sometimes I forget not to talk 'bout politics / When I'm in the middle of me getting hit on."
Growing up, however, I was frequently told that politics was an arena where my altruistic intentions would be stifled by self-interested people who lacked care for the constituents they represent. Despite consistent warnings, the pull of my fascination with American government proved just too strong for me to resist, evident by my prospective philosophy, politics, and economics major.
Last semester, I began to lose faith in my conviction that the warnings I had been given were wrong. As a consequence of the 2020 presidential election and escalating national partisanship, my confidence that our country’s politics were an endeavor worthy of pursuit was fading fast. At Penn, I watched as groups personally attacked debaters in a Penn Government and Politics Association debate, heard my friends actively curb their political views for fear of academic or social repercussions, and even dealt with unsolicited comments on my own pieces.
My conclusion? Politics, at Penn and elsewhere, was proving to be exactly what I’d always been told it was—a collection of fruitless arguments between often close-minded people who had lost sight of their initial intentions to help their communities. Why should I bother? I was reminded of just that question this summer when I was granted the serendipitous opportunity to participate in both local and state races in Connecticut.
Like many of my peers at Penn, my exposure to politics had been exclusively national. I didn’t know anyone who had ever run for local or state office. My far-from-political family had never even had a campaign yard sign, let alone a municipal one. This summer, however, my Twitter feed quickly switched from national news to the coverage of the Connecticut State Legislature and Stamford Board of Representatives. The change was refreshing. I had the privilege of working on campaigns filled with upstanding people with a shared common goal of serving the communities they loved. It was inspiring to be around individuals in a political sphere who were genuinely honest, hard-working, and listened to the people they were soliciting votes from—a lost art in national candidates.
In canvassing my hometown, I was also forced to confront the overall lack of civic engagement and information among my neighbors, and in some ways, myself. Family dinners and campfires with friends were filled with discussions of the importance of voting in the State Senate special election in Connecticut's 36th District—a topic that required persuasion even among those who had rushed to the polls in November for the presidential election. As I became more involved in the campaigns, I realized how much I had to learn about the issues at hand in my community, despite having prided myself on being “civically literate.”
This lack of engagement holds true across the country as well. On average, only 15-27% of eligible voters cast ballots in local elections, and the numbers are even worse for young people, with those 65 and up being seven times more likely to vote than those between ages 18 and 34. These numbers are compared with the approximate 60% turnout in presidential elections and 40% during midterms. We saw similar numbers in our own special election when 26.7% turnout in Connecticut’s 36th District—a higher number compared to the 13% turnout in a State Senate special election in the neighboring district seen earlier this year.
The absence of local participation in the United States is ironic given our highly federalist structure, as so much power over the day-to-day activities of individual citizens is delegated to state and municipal governments. In addition, state legislatures are significantly more effective at passing bills than the U.S. Congress (no matter its party breakdown). State governments pass approximately 25% of the legislation with which they are presented, compared to Congress’s whopping 4%.
Due to the nature of the issues delegated to local governments, partisanship has less of a place. National talking points only go so far on problems like infrastructure and education where everyone, despite socioeconomic status, race, or gender, sees the success or failure of their tax dollars. The speed by which you can get a fallen tree off your road or new computers for your local high school are simply not matters of DNC or RNC platforms. Similarly, the recent pandemic has proved the extensive role of local governments with mayors around the country dictating lockdowns and masking mandates and governors using emergency powers and controlling vaccine rollout.
By shifting our political focus back to where our Founding Fathers intended—the chambers of our state capitols and city halls—we can help to combat the most important issues plaguing our discourse and policymaking culture. We can help elect people who are more invested in serving their communities in office than attaining celebrity status. We can move away from unnecessary partisan rhetoric and focus on helping to solve problems that affect our friends, families, and neighbors. In doing this, we’ll see a change not only in governance but also among our political communities—like those at Penn.
The sooner we stop attaching ourselves, and those with whom we disagree, to national, polarizing, and political identities and start having real conversations about how to fix our communities, the sooner we will get the effects we all desire in our policymaking. So, sign up to take an Academically Based Community Service course next semester and, in the spirit of national voter education week, head to the Penn Leads the Vote website to register and do research on the candidates on your ballot here. Around the country, local elections are happening on Nov. 2; whether you vote here in Philly or cast an absentee ballot for a race at home, know your vote will make a difference.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.