Laugh at Parodies of School Board Meetings, but Take Local Politics SeriouslyRoundup
tags: schools, political history, suburban history, education history, Local Politics
Lily Geismer is the author of Left Behind: How the Democrats Failed to Solve Inequality and is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College. Eitan D. Hersh is the author of Politics Is for Power and is a professor of political science at Tufts University.
Angry activists have commandeered so many routine school board meetings in the past few months that “Saturday Night Live” — which typically reserves its political satire for politicians on the national stage — recently devoted a segment to satirizing one of these raucous meetings. Less humorously, Attorney General Merrick Garland has launched a push to address the nationwide uptick in violent threats against school board members, teachers and public school workers.
This week, communities across the country will vote in school board and other local elections. Americans should remember that for all the ways in which our political discourse has become nationalized, the structure of our democratic institutions continues to confer tremendous power to local governments.
Between protests against Covid policies and protests against critical race theory, the infusion of national politics into local meetings may seem like the latest iteration of conservative activism. The Obama years saw the rise of the Tea Party. National surveys showed that during Obama’s first term, Republicans were more likely to attend a local meeting than Democrats. But during the Trump years, liberal organizations like Indivisible and other “resistance” groups were the ones that sought to galvanize residents at the grass roots level. With Democrats back in control of the federal government, the grass roots energy is now shifting back to conservatives, as Republicans turn to local meetings to channel their frustrations about critical race theory and mask mandates.
Local public meetings are easy to dismiss: They can alternate between boring and chaotic. They can be dominated by extremists, by special interests or by people with too much time on their hands. But people who think local democracy is beneath them are making a big mistake. Not only are consequential decisions made at public meetings; local democracy holds the secret to counteracting the endemic problem of partisan polarization. In fact, it offers the potential for interesting new coalitions to spring up, defying the ordinary dividing lines of partisan politics.
Local political activism on both the left and the right harkens back to the 1950s and 1960s, when suburban residents across both the ideological spectrum and the country found an outlet for national political concerns in their own backyards. In the suburbs of Boston, for instance, liberal residents launched local organizations that dealt with issues ranging from civil rights and affordable housing to environmentalism and peace. They urged their communities to pass local ordinances and make changes to existing policies that aligned with these priorities. In Southern California, conservative suburbanites led campaigns against school board members they feared were indoctrinating students with communist curriculums.
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