As the longest presidential campaign season in our history draws to a close, meaningful policy remains deadlocked in Congress, and many Americans believe that our political system is dead. This election is a wake-up call. Traditional national media outlets have been fueling the Trump campaign, virtually ignoring anything else on the ballot, and giving him a platform to make the case that our political system is rigged. Meanwhile, an alarming percentage of Americans are choosing not to engage in the political process because they don’t think their vote matters. Why should they engage if all they see in media coverage are self-interested, divisive partisans running for office and doing little once they get there? There is a path to resuscitating our political system. It requires us to vote, ensure our friends and neighbors vote, and to take a closer look at the local candidates and issues down-ballot.
We are at a pivotal moment and we need more substantive solutions than ever before, especially on the issues that most directly impact our families and communities. Achieving results is nearly impossible if we focus exclusively on the federal level. It can take years, in many cases decades, for federal officials to institute policy change, and they don’t get there easily. Many are risk averse and consumed by reelection bids. They need to see that the sky doesn’t fall when good policies pass, that state legislators actually gain in the polls when they lead on meaningful bills, that both parties can work together, and that there are consequences for standing in the way.
While it can be hard to imagine this path to a resuscitated political system, signs of life exist at the state and local levels — where city councils, education boards, state legislatures and governors are crafting and implementing a wide range of policies that affect our daily lives.
Successful instances of relevant and purposeful policy change abound at the state level, which has always served as a laboratory of democracy. And, not surprisingly many of these examples feature bipartisan support. In fact they often require bipartisan backing to become law and be fully implemented. As a lifelong activist from the West, I’ve happily seen several examples across the region.
Here in Colorado, a bipartisan majority of voters support vital education funding through the tax on marijuana. In New Mexico, a bipartisan mix of lawmakers expanded funding for the state’s K-3 plus program, which serves disadvantaged students in those grades. In Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, Republican governors worked with legislators from both parties to expand Medicaid. In Congress, these policies are often stymied by partisan politics. But at the local level, we experience the direct harm caused by substandard education funding and inaccessible health care systems. This allows us to rise above entrenched party politics and focus on solutions.
Every once in a while, this type of policy change spreads across multiple states, sending a message to Congress that it must act. In this election, minimum wage, money-in-politics reform and voting laws will be on multiple statewide ballots. Meanwhile state and local candidates are running on platforms that focus on protecting our environment, creating economic opportunity and meeting the needs of our veterans. The success of these candidates and initiatives will build momentum toward national policy change.
The marriage equality movement is one of the strongest recent examples of national policy change that started locally with state-by-state bipartisan wins. The movement, driven by committed couples who wanted nothing more than to protect and provide for their loved ones, brought Republicans and Democrats to the table to secure a diverse set of victories. Within a decade, 37 states had marriage equality, laying the groundwork for the Supreme Court case that guaranteed this fundamental right across the country.
On Election Day, we have the opportunity to breathe new life into our political system while sending a message from the states to Congress about our priorities and the type of country we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. It requires each of us to get to know the local issues that will be on the ballot and the values of the candidates who seek to represent us. Most of all, it requires us to VOTE and to know that our vote matters. In fact, we will be able to see the immediate impact of our vote, right here at home.
Joanne Kron Schwartz is a principal at Civitas Public Affairs Group. She is a Denver native who previously served as the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado and as the managing director of Gill Action where she spent nearly a decade working on LGBT equality.