The former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the late Tip O’Neil, was noted for his picturesque language. One of his most famous sayings is certainly one of the truer ones ever uttered by this or any other famous politician. Speaker O’Neil left us with the simple phrase, “All politics is local.”
Despite the fact that the news is currently being dominated by the conflagration in the Middle East, the factual nature of ol’ Tip’s logic is hard to deny.
If we were to add together all of the news emanating from county and municipal government in Mississippi, it would appear to dwarf news of national and world affairs. The fact is in our rural state, and in many others like ours, local government is the most important level of government for most of us. Local government is not simply the lowest rung on the federal ladder, but rather it is the level of government vested by citizens with the responsibility to guard, guide and enhance that place we call “home.”
Our cities, small towns and counties contain within them all of those institutions that make our lives unique and special. Churches, schools, community centers, football fields on Friday nights and baseball fields in summertime are purveyors of values and friendships that can be found nowhere else. We fight, sometimes fiercely, to protect these special places we call home. Government at the local level is often a reflection of the passion with which we citizens strive to maintain all that we believe to be good in our communities.
The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville after his tour of America referred to this country’s towns as her “tiny fountainheads of democracy.”
Democracy, this dearest of all American values, is born and practiced in its purest form in local government.
Making an impact
Local governments never have to fear that they will be accorded secondary status by citizens particularly in the rural communities in a state like Mississippi. It is a rare occasion indeed when a citizen of Mississippi possesses sufficient power and time to visibly affect policy in the marbled halls of the nation’s capital. For the majority of citizens the opportunity to impact the direction of state government is almost as unthinkable. At the local level, by contrast, citizens and their elected officials sit by each other in church, meet in the grocery store and discuss politics while leaning across the bed of a pickup truck at the little league games.
In truth, access to the entire federal system of government for most citizens is gained through their county or municipal elected official. One often hears a local government official defending his or her position on a particular issue by saying, “We’re the government that’s closest to the people.” This statement communicates a good understanding of the oft recognized sense of place that we hold dear in Mississippi and along with that the belief that they were placed in office to nurture those places.
In the trenches
During the past few weeks, the annual meetings of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors and the Mississippi Municipal League have been held. I and a number of my colleagues at the Stennis Institute were privileged to have been a part of the educational and informational programming at the Municipal League meeting. It is always an uplifting experience to be associated with the officials of Mississippi’s cities, towns and villages. Many are paid very little to do so much and yet one never gets the idea that any thought was given to personal gain when these public servants chose to run.
The rooms were packed as those in attendance soaked up information on subjects from budgeting and financial management and rural and economic development to urban forestry and parks and recreation. The latest technologies in a variety of areas from geographic information systems, waste-water treatment and water systems to mosquito control were discussed before meeting rooms filled with municipal officials.
As one who conducts research in the area of local governments, I gain a great deal from simply being in the halls when these frontline experts discuss their latest innovative approaches to providing for their constituents. The creative ways discovered by our municipal officials to do more with less are a constant source of amazement to me.
Just to keep it interesting, every action by our elected officials is the subject of scrutiny and debate by local citizens. That officials and citizens alike are striving so passionately to keep our special places viable should be a comfort to all of us. It is obvious that this is what de Tocqueville was observing when he labeled America’s towns “tiny fountainheads of democracy.”
The seeming importance of every issue and the intensity of debate associated with them is surely what Tip O’Neil was referring to when he opined that “All politics is local.” Most at the annual conference of the Mississippi Municipal League would certainly agree.