As Below, So Above
How the civic abuses of national politics trickle down to Main Street

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 21 January 2022

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve decided to turn off the Wrestlemania passing for national news and focus on my local reality. I was hoping that helping neighbors, engaging in mutual aid, and working on local issues might just engender a kind of solidarity. And if we all did this, it would eventually trickle up to the way we handle big issues at scale. Maybe the hands-on way we interact down here on the ground in the real world will stand in such stark contrast to the sensationalist puppet show on Facebook and the cable news, that we’ll all come to realize the debates on TV are not an adequate representation of who we are, nor an appropriate venue in which to work out our collective problems.

So far, anyway, I’ve been proven wrong. It’s the same shit down here on the ground.

The first local issue I jumped into was our town’s decision whether to “opt out” of New York State’s legalization of cannabis lounges and dispensaries. It was intense. Some parents were horrified at the prospect of their kids becoming marijuana or hard drug users, in spite of ample evidence that marijuana legalization and dispensaries don’t increase teen use. (If anything, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, they tend to decrease adolescent cannabis use because dispensaries put black market dealers out of business, and make smoking weed look less cool to kids.)

But still, it’s a hot-button issue and the town’s Board of Trustees could have done a better job of communicating about the issue, soliciting feedback, and forging consensus in the months leading up to the decision deadline.

After a few weeks of vitriolic rhetoric on Zoom meetings, the Board—just like the town—split 50/50 on the issue. The Mayor broke the tie with a compromise, permitting dispensaries and opting out of consumption lounges. It looked to me like she had taken the wise, Solomonic approach: if everyone’s a bit unhappy, then chances are you’ve made the right judgment. (Besides, our tiny town with too little parking and strict zoning rules is not getting a dispensary any time soon. The whole issue is symbolic — more a way of deciding whether marijuana is to be considered as socially acceptable as alcohol.)

But — as if taking their cue from national electoral politics — instead of simply disagreeing with the outcome, the dispensary opponents refused to accept the legitimacy of the decision-making itself, insinuating that the whole process was corrupt. They accused the Board of pre-determining its decision and intentionally ignoring public sentiment. That’s the extra step that concerns me: when opponents go “meta” on the problem to attack the legitimacy of the process or the sanctity of government itself. It’s akin to not accepting election results because you don’t like who won.

They proceeded to launch impromptu protest campaigns for alternative candidates with no prior civic involvement–depending instead on fake news blasts. They posted online that the town was 10 to 1 against dispensaries, but the Trustees ignored the tally; they accused trustees of intentionally retiring during their terms so their replacements could be “hand picked” rather than elected. None of it’s quite true, but it all sounds really scary. Worse, it sets people against one another who should be working together on mutual challenges.

If the town’s officials are making decisions that feel too progressive to the electorate, that should be an easy enough argument to make on its own. We must not trash government or break democracy — particularly on the local level — just because we disagree with certain outcomes. This is taking our cue from the worst of what’s going on out there, rather than leveraging our home field advantage as friends and neighbors to rise to the occasion of our disagreements with respect and good will. Look at what these combative and histrionic tactics have done to Congress. Do we really want to follow that lead over here in real life?

We have to live with each other, and simply must behave under a presumption of good faith. If we can’t do it here on the ground in our daily lives, I don’t know where we can.

I get it. Just as I bristle when I hear candidates talk about “old fashioned values” or “God and country,” I know there are people who think “social justice” and “climate change” are abstract Leftist plots. While that kind of language has become unnecessarily polarizing, luckily it is a form of ideation better suited for television debates between nationally branded candidates than discussions between neighbors at the local diner.

Instead, we locals have to begin by engaging over real, on-the-ground issues, and let our higher values inform our approaches to resolving them. If we all agree we need to fix the sidewalk, for example, let’s start there. Then, let’s make sure we fix the sidewalks in everyone’s sections of town with the same urgency (social justice), and in a way that is environmentally sustainable (climate change).

As locals, we have the liberty of leading with reality.