You may have noticed that, when it comes to politics, people tend to be a lot more engaged with national topics of debate than they are with the, arguably more pressing, local political challenges facing their community. You might be wondering, even as you read this, if you fit the profile yourself? Probably.

Whether it be conversations with neighbors or shared indignation with a social media following; you’re much more likely to offer or be offered an opinion on whether, for instance, the US should be sending so much taxpayer money to Ukraine, or if their should be a ceasefire in Gaza, than you are to overhear a passing discussion on the latest school board developments. Everyone knows who Donald Trump and Joe Biden are, of course, but most couldn’t name their local mayor, a county commissioner, or a school board member.

Change the issue set, and the pattern remains: national issues and themes tend to dominate over local issues. If, “all politics were local” for politicians of yore, then all elections are nationalized for today’s modern voter.

This isn’t a new topic. You may have even read an editorial before opining on how awful it is that national obsessions suck so much attention away from the far more relevant local questions. It’s usually around this point where the editorialist begins to patronize you, the reader, for being so fooled into focusing on the national debate du jour, over which you have no control, instead of attending to the local zoning board deliberations set to determine the nature of your own community’s future development.

Not this editorialist, though. Quite the contrary; the Everyman focus on massive, sweeping, national (even international) level disputes, at the expense of local engagement, seems to me an altogether understandable response to the accelerating trends within politics and technology.

growing Government

As reflected in the ballot drop-off phenomenon, where voters tend to leave many more blank answers down ballot than they do at the top, voters pay attention to bigger races and national questions to the degree they perceive the results of those contests will affect their lives. They may never have seen those candidates’ names for district court judge ever before in their life; but they are certain that four more years of [take your pick of presidential candidates] represents global and personal doom.

And can you blame them? The size and scope of the federal government, growing exponentially for decades, is now as big and invasive as it has ever been.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the top 50% of US households paid nearly $30,000 in federal taxes in 2021, not including Social Security and other payroll taxes. That’s substantially more than the average tax bills paid to the State of North Carolina. Of course, we know all too well how damaging the unofficial tax burden — inflation — has been, too. This week’s “higher than expected” uptick in inflation reminds us once more of how nationalized even our trips to the local grocery store have become and will continue to be.

Meanwhile, federal bureaucrats, not elected representatives, are empowered with rule-making authority that reaches into every corner of our lives. Much of it under the guise of fighting climate change, they issue decrees making our cars and homes more expensive, dictating our energy use, or inflating the price of air-conditioners. Through over-regulation and arbitrary market restrictions the federal government drives up prices in healthcare, education, and too many more categories to list.

The federal government obviously has a large and growing influence over our everyday lives. It makes sense, then, that national narratives enjoy a more prominent position in voters’ minds.

A Shrinking World

As our federal government grows, our world is also shrinking, exacerbating the nationalizing effect on Americans’ attention. In the era of digitized information and instant communication, from every corner of the world, the average American is inundated with macro-level news, analysis, opinion, and propaganda like never before. It puts those questions at the forefront of users minds, while local issue-sets take a back seat.

It may come as little surprise that more and more Americans are getting their news from social media platforms, where “hot takes” are expected and scoops can go viral at the speed of light. Social media and modern day communications have made digital neighbors out of strangers half a world away, while often turning our neighbors into strangers we’ve insulated ourselves against.

Despite the proliferation of instant communication technology, we have also witnessed extraordinary efforts to control and censor the information can be shared. Awash in a surplus of information, Americans must gauge whether that information warrants a dis-, mis-, or mal- prefix, while hardly trusting enough of their own institutions to offer much more than suspicion toward official government narratives.

A massively growing government contained within a rapidly shrinking world seems like a perfect environment for citizens to become more concerned with the big questions of the day than those in their own backyard.

The Paradox

So, if we’re not finger-wagging at the typical American’s lack of interest in local political happenings, what’s the point? Don’t we want more citizens engaged in politics and policies at the community, county, and state level?

Yes! However, renewed interest in local politics and policy isn’t likely to come at the expense of our attention to the macro issues for all the reasons listed above. The big debates are simply too big and in our faces (and our wallets) to ignore, but we might adjust our approach to how we pay these issues attention in a way that also reengages us locally.

The paradox of national political perspectives dominating our local discourse is that our most potent weapon for changing the course of the nation is, in fact, to act locally. The trite is too often true; leading by example is usually the best way to lead overarching change.

Here in North Carolina, we can already claim some good policy examples that stand to influence the nation at large. Our state has been named a top state for business and tax policy, leading to similar reforms in other states and serving as a fiscally sane contrast to the insanity of spending in Washington, DC. Presidential candidates are swarming our state this election year, meaning perspectives in North Carolina already have a chance at being elevated onto the national stage.

The politicians you’re muttering about probably got their start in a very small, local election. Before they were a featured interview on Fox News or NBC, they were members of their local school boards, zoning boards, county commissions, or maybe holding a mundane state legislative seat. When they ran in those local races your attention was elsewhere, naturally.

Indeed, every local election for some seemingly inconsequential office could include your congressman, governor, or president of tomorrow somewhere far down that ballot. But you can’t vote for good ones at the top of the ballot if they never work their way up from the bottom of the ballot. Taking care to pay attention to these races, and supporting candidates of integrity and principle in local leadership, could mean a higher quality field of primary candidates next cycle now vying to represent you, with that integrity and those principled policies, in DC.

Our nation’s biggest challenges will be met by those leaders elevated to take them head on. In our shrinking world, squeezed by an ever growing government, that boring city council seat could represent a platform for a viral rant that propels a new leader to ever bigger roles of service. All the while, the extra attention you pay to selecting local leaders, even if it’s to build a bench of quality statewide and national prospects, will pay dividends for your local community. We may not be able to avoid thinking nationally these days, but acting locally could be the only real way to drive change on a global scale.