Ideologically, people frequently fall into one of two categories. There are those who believe that government is inherently harmful, and favor only creating regulations when absolutely necessary — say, to prevent that guy sitting in lecture next to you who didn’t eat breakfast from snatching your Cool Ranch Doritos, or at least ensure that said Doritos-snatcher gets put behind bars for a solid six months. (Stealing Doritos is a serious crime!)
On the other hand, there are those who believe that government can be beneficial to society and can correct injustices when enacted appropriately. The metaphor to use in this context would be the professor who, realizing the average score on the last midterm was lower than the number of people voting for Rick Santorum, curves the grade upward so more students end up not having heart attacks.
These ideological distinctions are fine. They’re shaped by people’s vastly differing experiences and through debate between the two, we often emerge with a better final product and a more thorough understanding of each other’s points of view. What’s interesting is that these debates occur haphazardly in some places, but not in others. We usually know a fair amount about what’s going on nationally, even if it’s just a Facebook notification that there are riots in Baltimore or hearing from a friend that we’re working on a nuclear weapons deal with Iran. We may even be somewhat familiar with news about the state, as anybody who has heard about California’s drought can attest.
But let’s look even further down the myriad levels of government to the local level. Who can say what the city council discussed this week? Or even the county Board of Supervisors? Who even knew we had a board of supervisors? (Sit down, political science majors. And if you weren’t standing to begin with, be very ashamed.)
We can also hop west of here to the City of Angels, presumably so named because the angels who land in the city to communicate the will of the heavens have to rent an apartment and settle down because they can’t find their way back through the smog. Just 8 percent of the voting-eligible population turned out to vote in this year’s city council election. That’s a greater turnout rate than any UCR sports game.
To top it off, many of these no-name positions are incredibly powerful. Take the LA County Board of Supervisors, for instance. The five supervisors have so much authority that they’ve been nicknamed “The Five Little Kings” — the chair of the board can even call himself or herself mayor. Hilda Solis, a former member of the United States House of Representatives and Secretary of Labor in President Barack Obama’s cabinet, resigned from her post in the federal government just so she could have the opportunity to run for a seat on the board. It’s not every day that you turn down a cabinet position with control over 17,000 employees to go live in a city where the act of breathing can be considered an extreme sport.
In fact, many of the important decisions that affect our everyday lives aren’t even made in Washington. They’re decided much closer to home, in city council meetings where turnout of 25 people — not percent — is a success and public committee workshops that nobody knows or cares enough about to attend.
In 2013, a few students got involved in council meetings when an ordinance proposed limiting the number of people who could share a building, which students tend to do since we have no money and rent is expensive. But where has the action been since then? There was one time when the city briefly debated extending the ordinance, but other than that it’s been pretty quiet. If this is something students care about, it’s worth it to follow up and change the current ordinance or at least propose a new one.
Or we can take the city of Bell, California, population 35,000, green landscapes, charming townhouses and a notable lack of actual bells. (Talk about false advertising.) In 2010, it was discovered that city officials were paying themselves a king’s ransom, with the city manager taking home over $1.5 million a year. To put that in perspective, the President of the United States makes a piddling $400,000 a year, and UC President Janet Napolitano earns the middle-class salary of $570,000 a year. They were caught, but those are your taxpayer dollars purchasing fraud.
Being unaware of local events isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault in particular — it’s just the way things are, the status quo, the way the cookie crumbles. There are so many sources for national news that they drown out the local ones that do some of the most noteworthy reporting.
That brings us back to the size of government. Because everybody pays attention to the federal government, its actions and size are constantly being scrutinized. Meanwhile, the local and state governments who, regardless of whether you’re paying attention or not, enact intrusive and obstructive legislation go relatively unnoticed.
What you as an individual can do is to pick up a local newspaper and at least read through the headlines. If you’re reading this article, it means you’re reading your local campus newspaper (thank you, by the way!) and that’s a good first step. There other sources for local news as well, including the Press-Enterprise and some news outlets that are even more local. It only takes about 10 minutes of your time to skim the headlines, and if you see something that piques your interest, have a good long read — it could definitely be worthy of outrage.
And if you take interest in local issues, you will be one of the few who actively participate. That means you as an individual have far more influence on the outcome of a local decision, in comparison to a federal action where there are thousands of voices competing for oxygen. Face-to-face communication is a great way to convince people of your position, and travelling to D.C. on a regular basis is only possible for migratory animals, like politicians.
So take a few minutes to inform yourself about what’s going on in your local community. Even if it’s just building lots of Doritos vending machines, you’ll be able to affect real change right where you can see it.