Tip O’Neill, late and former speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, famously said “All politics is local”. He meant, of course, that no politician was ever elected or re-elected unless they listened to their local constituency and “delivered the goods” – that is, adequately reflected their voters’ views, opinions and needs*. Even if you are running for governor or President, you still need “feet on the street” in local neighborhoods to carry your message and translate it for voters – real people – neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block**.
Two relatively recent technology innovations underscore that more than “politics” is local: so are news, information, and government in general. And by “local”, here’s what I mean: certainly events like the Iraq war and the downturn in the economy are important and newsworthy and worthy of politician’s attention. But ordinary people don’t feel they have control over such monumental events. They feel they can control what happens in their neighborhood or on their block – building permits, helping the elderly, crime, condition of streets, what moves into their neighborhood (e.g. jails or halfway houses). Yet, while the Iraq war (or Georgian War) or the national housing slump grab the headlines, ordinary people often don’t have access to information about what is happening in their very own neighborhood – right down the block.
Here are a couple of developments which are, however, changing this paradigm:
The first development is the impending death of the paper newspaper. (Gosh I hope I’m wrong here, as I love getting ink on my fingers as I get information into my brain). Or rather than “death”, I mean the probable replacement of the paper-paper by the online-paper, the blog, and the Web.
The West Seattle Blog is a premier example of this. For almost a hundred years, the weekly West Seattle Herald has been the paper-paper for our neighborhood of about 40,000 people. Recently, the Blog is stealing the readers. Why? Because anyone can (and does) contribute news and information to the Blog. Sometimes the Blog reflects a bit of the ambulance-chasing and sensational-crime-reporting found in TV news or the paper-paper. But it also posts a ton of “come to the festival” and “photos of the parade” and “little league team wins” stories about neighborhoods. And Editor Tracy Record posts it almost immediately – morning, noon and night. It is timely, has a lot more information than the paper-paper (because it exists in cyberspace), and – more importantly – it is local – news about your neighborhood and even your block.
The Seattle Times – circulation 210,000 – and other urban newspapers face similar issues – see article here.
A second development is “Everyblock“. This is a fascinating mashup of publicly-available information. Information customized to within a few blocks of your home! In Seattle, at seattle.everyblock.com you can see 911 calls to the fire department, building permits and even restaurant inspections (I’ll never order from that Chinese food place five blocks from my house again!). In Chicago, where information on crimes is publicly available, you can even see a compendium of specific crimes committed in your neighborhood. The ultimate police blotter! “My Neighborhood Map” on the City of Seattle’s website has some similar information set up on a map.
Now, suddenly, the ordinary citizen has a ton of news and information available about their neighborhood and even their block. They can contribute to it (just ask Tracy Record) and will have better tools to shape their individual and neighborhood future.
Gives a whole new, and still developing, meaning to “all politics is local”, doesn’t it?
* Although sometimes a politician must also be a leader – taking people into the future – to where the nation or community must go, even if a majority of people don’t want to go there, e.g. the civil rights movement.
**These folks are called Precinct Committee Officers or PCOs, and they are elected officials themselves – at the most basic or lowest level of jurisdiction – elected for each party in each precinct.