Earlier this week, I posted a story about Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s announcement of a proposed plan to deal with vacancy, if he were to be elected president. I sometimes forget that every single thing is politicized now and honestly, I should know better. The messenger has become so much more important than the message. To some, the content cannot be separated from the speaker and they will agree or disagree, regardless of their stance, because of who is speaking. This was a brutal reminder of how politics are having such a profoundly negative impact on our communities.
There was a time when a person’s preference in political parties was more like their taste in condiments. For example, my wife will not consume mayonnaise. While this makes her foreign and suspicious to me, I don’t think her a sociopath. Politics has become more like football. A game in which people live and die by the outcomes and wrap their entire identities up in a team. These are the type of people that seem to care more about seeing their rival lose than their own team win. The people that find a way to justify any behavior as long as the person doing it provides results. A coach may be a cannibal and suspected of murdering and eating his entire family, but hey, he went 10-2 last season, so let’s give him a pass. This is where we are with politics. Not only is it maddening, it’s keeping too many communities from making meaningful progress.
So, I posted an article about a politician discussing the vacancy crisis. To me, this seems like an apolitical topic and one affecting thousands of cities across our country. Vacancy is an absolute disaster for a large percentage of American communities and far too little is being done to address the crisis. Every city I have worked with is struggling to rebuild because the vast amount of property that is sitting empty is now deteriorating. This property increases crime, depresses civic pride, diminishes the tax base, decreases tourism and negatively affects economic development efforts. It is, without a doubt, A CRISIS… and something needs to be done. This seems like a place where people that care about their community could set aside political affiliation and focus on policy. Honestly, this is why we can’t have nice things. Everyone rushes to put their political stamp on every issue and nothing can ever get done. We are all so convinced that an issue is Left or Right, that we don’t bother to even consider the issue.
First, there was a comment about how the article I shared was incredibly political and such publications should just stick to the facts. Shew. Ok. So. I have read and reread the article and tried to understand this. Maybe because I don’t think in these terms as much it is harder for me to see. I am not purposefully trying to be naive here. I am going to have to assume that it was the article’s comments about race and discrimination in terms of historical federal policy that crossed the line into politics. I can see the commenter’s point that in adding this information, the article goes beyond proposed policy and delves into some touchy subjects that could have been left out. Fair enough. I can also see how those policies are relevant to the story because they help provide context for the proposed policy and how it would be created in a way to help reduce racial gaps that were created by previous policies. There is an argument to be made for both sides. Isn’t there always. But in the end, I did not read a political article, I read a policy article, but the commentator had me trying to see how political it was. In complaining about the article being politicized, he politicized it. Freaky stuff man.
The next comment was a little less thoughtful. The person stated that they had been to South Bend, Indiana and personally witnessed vacancy, therefore Mayor Pete was a fraud. I guess I just don’t quite follow the logic here. Mayor Pete proposes doing something about vacancy at a federal level, if elected president. Mayor Pete’s current city has vacancy. Mayor Pete is a fraud. How is someone a fraud for proposing something? I don’t think Mayor Pete stated he solved the problem. I assume he has probably taken steps to combat vacancy in South Bend. It is a hard and complex issue and I am glad anyone is talking about it. If Alex Trebek started talking about vacancy, I would sit up and listen, and I can’t stand that smug bastard. He acts so superior for knowing all the answers, but they are written right in front of him! Yes, I can see where you might think someone disingenuous for talking about solving a problem they themselves have not yet solved, but we all do this all the time. Every one of us has thoughts and suggestions for how others might deal with issues we also face. I recommend to community members that they shift as much of their buying power local as possible, yet I also shop with national chains from time to time. This is a failing on my part. I guess I think that is just human to me. Not all of us have the willpower to match our actions with our aspirations. I wish we did.
Which brings me to the last and most confusing comment. “Have you ever held public office?” No. I have not. Most every job that exists, I have not held. I have never been a magician or sea captain either and would not claim to be, but I can still have an opinion on magic and oceans. I don’t claim to be an elected official. I have spent my career working to assist communities seeking to revitalize and rebuild their local economy. I consult with elected officials and try and provide them with meaningful assistance. They have a very tough job to do and I try and position myself as a resource for them. Any elected official could teach me a great deal about politics. I don’t claim to know how to run a city. I do claim to know how to revitalize one and elected officials can look to me for that guidance. In providing advice on how to go about revitalizing a community, I am by no means stating I know how to run one. I simply have gained a unique perspective and particular insights when it comes to revitalization that most elected officials have not had the ability to ascertain because of their position. It is each individual’s history and experience that makes them knowledgeable in a subject and we should rely on one another for assistance. If I want medical advice I will go to a doctor, I would hope if a doctor ever needed some vacant property advice, they would come to me.
I bore you with all the above to get to the following point. The move towards making everything political is having devastating consequences at the community level, where such things should be set aside. The business of running and improving a city has nearly nothing to do with party and everything to do with policy. I am concerned with policy. Everyone interested in making their community a better place to live and strengthening their local economy should be concerned with policy. Vacancy isn’t a red vs. blue issue, neither is sprawl or community clean-ups or civic pride. These are community issues and when they get politicized, they don’t get addressed. This is where I think so much about apathy. When we sit around bitching about political parties, we grow more apathetic as we don’t take action in areas that matter. Vacant property doesn’t care who you voted for in the last election, it’s just happy to catch on fire and ruin everything.
At the community level, political parties just doesn’t matter that much. Policy needs to be the sole focus. I have worked in small towns where everyone voted Democrat yet were all extremely conservative in terms of policy and position. It’s pretty weird out there sometimes. At the end of the day, our concern should be on policies that help strengthen our community and seek out areas that unite us instead of divide us. When I run into neighbors on the street, we don’t discuss politics, because we aren’t seeking out topics which may divide us, we seek out common ground and areas that unite us. This is the cost of internet and isolation. This is why it’s crucial that we get out into our communities more and host more social functions. In person, people seek common ground and are able to lay political affiliation aside and discuss more important topics. By being together in person, we understand our similarities and shared interest. Personal interaction is nearly always going to be more civil than online interaction because this is how we are built as people. Conflict is easy across a keyboard, it’s harder face to face.
Me, I identify as progressive. Not because I hate America or want to karate kick Jesus, but because in recent years, democratic policies are more inline with my values and thinking. I would like to believe that this is okay. I don’t think I am ignorant or terrible for feeling that way. I don’t ever feel like I am destroying America. I don’t begrudge anyone for feeling different, as long as you are not a nazi, and then I think you should get punched. There is this funny thing though about labels that muddles everything. Voting data shows my community is fairly liberal, yet, my neighborhood feels like stepping back into the 50’s. Kids walk to school, there’s a strong sense of community, and it’s very family oriented. It seems like a very traditional town and people behave in a pretty conservative manner. I have been to plenty of places that lean hard to the right, yet nothing about the town feels conservative or traditional. So some of these labels confuse me. I am sure I will hear plenty of response about how I don’t “get it,” and I guess I don’t. I think most don’t. We don’t want to “get it,” we just want what’s best for ourselves, our families and our communities. Improving community does not have a political affiliation.
Revitalizing a community is not about politics, it’s about policy. Sprawl hurts the local economy because national firms drain much needed local resources. That is a fact. Vacancy depresses property values and civic pride. That is a fact. Building codes protect property values and foster investment. That is a fact. If any of these facts sound political, that is a problem. If I happened to own a load of Home Depot stock, I would probably not be a fan of the above statement about sprawl. I would probably try and politicize that statement and call it Socialism. If someone suggested Home Depot might hurt the local hardware store, I might call you anti-business, but it doesn’t make it untrue. Facts don’t have a political affiliation. Thinking Alex Trebek hates puppies is an opinion, saying sprawl hurts local economies is not.
I am probably ignorant in thinking this article won’t be politicized. I am just trying to imagine now what comments this will spawn. But I digress. My point is this. We all have varying opinions on sports teams, politics and condiments (Team Mayonnaise!), but at the community level, what unites us is our place. Our town is what matters and when politics are allowed to play too big of a role, it keeps us from passing much needed policies that would result in better outcomes. When we argue over politics at the local level, we are picking up someone else’s fight. What sense does it make to carry out someone else’s battle that has zero concern for your community? Many of these battles are fought on behalf of the very entities that are draining the local economy. We have to be willing to set party aside and debate the merits of policy. It’s not anti-business to favor local business owners. It’s not socialism to foster local ownership. National chains welcome economic development incentives. It’s not a violation of property rights to enforce regulations. These are common sense policies that strengthen the local community and economy. To argue otherwise is to have an agenda and that agenda is unlikely concerned with putting the community first. It’s time to tune out the politics and put community first.