The Room Where it Happens... not in Washington DC

Hello, and happy Saturday! I haven't been writing as much in February as I'd like due to some really cool things happening in my life (some of which I discuss below, others which I'll probably write about soon). It's times like these that I'm grateful I've only adopted a vibes-based New Year Resolution of writing more and not set any hard metrics. If you haven't read it yet, this post can explain what I'm talking about as well as some of the reasons for my gratitude.

I went to city hall on Thursday.

And for the first time, I went as a Planning & Zoning Commissioner for my city. While it's just been one meeting, it's confirmed some of my positions about how we get things done in the United States, and shed some light on possible solutions to some serious issues plaguing our country.

We are addicted to outrage.

I'm not going to spend too much time on this point, as others (including Jonathan Haidt, Ben Sasse, and David French) have covered the topic in significant depth.

But the gist of it is this:

  1. In today's digital age, it's easier than ever to engage in political discourse with people from all over the world.

  2. However, it's often difficult to stand out from the crowd engaged in political discourse.

  3. Some individuals are aware of this, and some of them stake out extreme positions to get attention.

  4. This muddies conversations, infects our national political discourse, and makes us hate one another, seeing our opponents as stupid or evil instead of simply people we disagree with.

  5. But it gives us a big dopamine kick to dunk on a stranger on the internet, so we keep going back to our online hellscapes despite our knowledge that this isn't healthy.

There's a lot more to this, but I think this is a pretty decent high-level overview.

We're addicted to outrage because our politicians don't accomplish anything.

It's no secret that American politics has become a hotbed of outrage and division in recent years. The slightest misstep or perceived slight can send both sides of the aisle into a frenzy of finger-pointing and chest-thumping. But why has this become the norm? The answer lies in the dysfunction of Congress.

With gridlock and partisanship at an all-time high, it's become increasingly difficult for lawmakers to pass meaningful legislation. As a result, politicians on both sides of the aisle are forced to run on fear and outrage, rather than their accomplishments. This "outrage addiction" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with each side stoking the flames of the other's fury in a never-ending cycle of vitriol.

It creates a vicious cycle.

Ruben Gallego of Arizona is hitting the campaign trail hard. The Phoenix progressive has decided to challenge incumbent Kyrsten Sinema, viewing her as too willing to compromise with Republicans.

Last September, Gallego gave a quote to Vox which perfectly illustrates how this toxic online culture has filtered up into Congress:

Politics is dark and hard. It’s not a bunch of people trying to do their best. It’s who can shank each other in a smarter way

Ruben Gallego

The sad part is he's right to some extent. When members of congress can't get anything done, they spread fear about the opposition to position themselves in the spotlight, rake in fundraising dollars, and get ahead. But by doing so, they limit opportunities to get things done in the future, setting up for the future the exact problem they face now.

So how do we break this cycle?

One of the best ways to break the cycle is by getting involved in your local government.

As I sat in that Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, I listened to the testimony of developers, local businesses, residents, and advocates. They all had different viewpoints, hopes, fears, and goals. If this meeting were to follow the standard set for us by our leaders in Washington, D.C., you would probably assume that it would quickly devolve into a shouting match with proponents and opponents spewing venom at one another.

But you would assume wrong. While emotions ran high at times, every single individual acted with decorum and decency. And I think I know why.

Local government is where real life happens.

While national politicians are guided in their daily activities by the desire to appear on Fox News and MSNBC, members of local governments are focused on solving the problems that are close to them. While congressmembers and candidates on the national stage are forced by institutional gridlock to run on fearmongering and broad-sweeping banalities, local politicians are given the opportunity to get things done for their neighbors and run for reelection on their record.

While the state of affairs in Congress is one of a death spiral, the state of affairs in local government is one of positive feedback loops. People are incentivized to behave well in order to get things done, and getting things done lets them get reelected while continuing to behave well.

This creates a situation where local government can often get more done in a month than the federal government can accomplish in a year. And thanks to our federalist Constitution, the issues that local governments tackle are those that impact our daily lives most significantly. Your local government bodies have more say in the cost and quality of your drinking water, in your child's education, and in your access to employment than the federal government ever will.

My friend (and Hillsboro, KS City Councilman) Blake Beye said it best:

Local government is a relief valve for our passions.

By now, this point should be clear. If we are addicted to outrage because our national politicians can't get anything done, it follows that immersing ourselves in the arena where most things get done can only serve to stymy this addiciton.

This outrage addiction of ours is slowly eating away at the foundations of our democracy. Getting involved in local government gives us all an opportunity to help truly make an impact and return to a reality where politics is about cooperation and compromise rather than getting a slot on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

It's a lot harder to get upset at Liz Warren and Rick Scott's latest nutty proposals when one can say "my time is better spent making a positive change for my community rather than stressing about some nutty bill that will never get passed."

Get involved.

You don't need to be a genius or have deep pockets. Look for open volunteer positions on your city's website. Find a local campaign to work on. Find unmet needs at your local libraries, in your schools, and with local volunteer organizations.

It really is that simple.

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Extra, extra!

If you've been subscribed for a while, you'll notice that the format of this email has changed a bit as I've experimented with what works for me and makes me want to write more. This is more of that. I'm going to start including some extra links at the end of posts ranging from music to other articles I've found interesting.

The aforementioned Jonathan Haidt is now on Substack, and recently put out this interesting argument on the recent rise of mental illness in teens.

I don't know how convinced I am by his arguments that this trend is historically unique, and I wish we had longer-term data beyond 2004 (What were depression and self-harm rates in the '60s?) But I am convinced that the trend is unique relative to the previous decade. Either way, it remains troubling.

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