As the 2016 presidential campaign moved into its eighth and presumably final year, my longsuffering wife Becky asked, “how can people believe such tripe (not the actual word) and vote against their own best interests?”
Influenced by a book I had just read, “The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life” by Michael Snudson, I responded that it came from a five-decade decline in the sense of being a citizen and being engaged in a community. “Politics just don’t work without citizen engagement.”
“So what have you learned from all your reading?” she asked me.
I referenced the big decrease in election participation after the first World War. “As population increased, the bonds between the governed and those who govern slowly disappeared. I mean the Founding Fathers thought Congressional districts should contain no more than 30,000 people. You can see intimacy between voters and elected officials decline over time. As the number of eligible voters kept increasing, elites self-segregated into affluent neighborhoods.
“Around a hundred years ago urbanization and national media eroded the sense of local,” I continued. “With television came too great a focus on presidential politics rather than state and local. More people moved into the suburbs and became more apt to move around from place to place. Then the media discovered that fear boosted news ratings a lot better than thoughtful analysis.”
“That was sixty years ago. What about now?” Becky asked. “If voters aren’t brainwashed, what is going on?”
“I reckon it is complex, insidious. Repeating the message that government is wasteful and dishonest gotta play a role. Some claim the people most in need don’t vote. The most recent theory I’ve heard – I have no idea how valid it might be – is that people who have suffered the most have given up hope and lost confidence in their elected officials, in government itself. Thus they don’t vote on issues that actually affect their lives, but on so-called social issues like marriage equality.”
“A lot of that makes of sense, but what about here in Orange County? It’s not like that here,” she pointed out. “I know off-year turnout is terrible, but people are involved.”
“There’s a different dynamic here for sure. Let me think about it.”
The first thing that occurred to me was affluence. Orange is one of only five counties out of North Carolina’s one hundred that exceeds the average income. Those five must carry big loads. Orange does its part. Annual earnings averaging $10,000 more than statewide. Average house prices a staggering $350,000 in south Orange and $272,000 countywide. People who are doing OK or better aren’t prone to alienation.
I thought about education. A respectable 92 percent of adults in the county have at least a high school degree, five percentage points better than national. What’s stunning is that 56 percent of adults are college graduates compared to 30 percent nationally and North Carolina’s 26 percent. I formed a hypothesis that educated people follow politics more closely, join boards and commissions, and understand the political system better.
I answered Becky with my third idea. “We live in a place where folks know and speak to our elected folks all the way up to our congressman. We feel a smaller scale politically than similarly sized places. Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and places throughout the county are functioning communities with their own identities. Even Chapel Hill, too big to be called a village any more, retains an intimate feel resembling the other towns.
“Even considering our poor turnout in off-year elections, we do have a lot more civic engagement here than elsewhere. We have people who think they can make a difference serving on commissions, writing letters to the editor, volunteering, or organizing issue-based groups to support certain candidates. What I am saying is we aren’t alienated, and we haven’t given up in Orange County.”
“Maybe that should be the new county slogan,” she said. “Orange County, where we haven’t given up.”
You can reach Art Menius at firstname.lastname@example.org.