For next set of national campaign issues, think locally
HAMILTON, ONTARIO — Every decade or so, a new set of political ideas bursts onto the campaign scene, catapulting one major party to dominance, the other into the doldrums. The last major shift was the 1994 election, which gave the Republicans control of Congress.
Who will be surprised next time? In their search for the next wave of issues, party leaders should look hard at local politics, where the relationship between citizens and government has been changing rapidly. Momentum is building behind three new issues:
• Homeowner protection - Land use is a rising concern in all kinds of neighborhoods. People are turning out in droves to oppose developments - from affordable housing units to shopping malls - that threaten to reduce their property values, ruin the view from their living room windows, or make them fearful for their safety. In response, some public officials are launching large-scale planning efforts that allow residents to set the conditions for growth, understand some of the trade-offs involved in these decisions, and decide, to some extent, how plots of land can be used.
People want to have some control over their surroundings, and we can expect at least one political party to recognize this desire. Candidates may adopt more forceful language - "homeowner protection" or "neighborhood rule" - to describe the newer, more participatory kinds of land-use planning. They may also paint their opponents as elitists, claiming that traditional zoning processes put the control of land in the hands of government and developers.
• No taxation without authorization - Some cities and towns are inviting residents to take a stronger role in the budgeting process, engaging them in public meetings that help people assess the financial picture and decide for themselves how tax revenues should be spent. Officials usually initiate these projects because they are facing budget shortfalls, but the resulting public discussion often leads to unexpected results. As the community begins to set priorities and decide how to pay for them, citizens and officials alike seem to move away from the assumption that government resources alone are the answer to every public problem. The traditional debate about taxation and the size of government may be moving to a new paradigm, in which citizens ask for and receive more of a say in where their money goes.
This shift also suggests new possibilities for campaigning. Candidates may promise voters more control over their tax revenues, invoking terms like "citizen-directed budgets." By taking this stand, they can claim their opponents support spending by politicians and lobbyists.
• Family-driven schools - In many places, school administrators are giving citizens a greater role in the school system, mobilizing them to grapple with budget and redistricting decisions, address issues of race, and help teachers ensure that no child is being left behind. As parents gain a greater foothold in the classroom, arguments about how students should be tested, or how much funding schools should receive, lead to a larger question: How can citizens and educators work together?
Candidates may capitalize on this shift, and push it even further, by arguing for "family-driven" or "parent-directed schools." They may promise voters a more permanent, official role in school decision-making, and accuse their opponents of supporting the status quo.
The hopes and fears people have about their neighborhoods and schools may seem very distant from Washington. But smart candidates speak to what people care about, and these three issues suggest new ways of appealing to voters and new possibilities for federal policy. Furthermore, concerns about land use, budgets, and education are most evident in the demographic that both major parties are desperate to reach: middle-class homeowners with children. There is also a common theme to all three: more powerful public roles for ordinary people. Power may shift even more toward citizens as candidates find that public engagement efforts will help them get elected. On the other hand, some candidates may only pay lip service to these ideas, using them to demonize developers, superintendents, and lobbyists without actually adopting new ways of governing. And making these issues 'political' may also make it harder to mobilize citizens across party lines.
For better or worse, public officials have to deal with the changing relationship between citizens and government, both in government and on the campaign trail.
"When you get down to it, what we're really talking about is whether the current form of representative government is obsolete," says Steve Burkholder, mayor of Lakewood, Colo. "We seem to be moving toward a different kind of system, in which working directly with citizens may be just as important as representing their interests."
Though Burkholder's claim seems futuristic, the impulses behind these trends are not new. People have always cared about what their neighborhoods look like, where their tax contributions are going, and how their children are being educated. The change is simply that citizens have much greater opportunities to exert influence in these areas, and they are jumping in with both feet. The next generation of campaign issues may emerge from these new ways of giving people what they want.
• Matt Leighninger, a senior associate for the Study Circles Resource Center, has spent a decade working to help US communities involve citizens in discussions on public issues.