Wasn’t it Tip O’Neal who said that all politics are local? Well, we recently had our elections here in Rutherford County , and it’s humbling and sad all at the same time¯humbling to see the number of folks who give themselves selfishly to causes they believe in, humbling to see men and women subject themselves to the mauling they get when they run for office, humbling to see folks waiting to vote in the heat of this miserable Tennessee summer we’re having, but also sad to see how insular and crimped a lot of us have become.
For the past ten years or so, I’ve been part of the Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance (RNA). (Yep, we even have a website: rnalliance.org .) We’re a colorful group, composed of members of the great right-wing conspiracy like me, old-time Southern Democrats, retired union stewards, tree huggers, school teachers, Jews, evangelicals, atheists, Catholics¯but we are united in our passion for simple, honest government, and that isn’t a partisan issue. During elections we sponsor forums for candidates, try to put before them issues of interest to our membership, and gather public information and post it on the Web. Election or not, we meet about monthly (sometimes less, depending on whose grandkids are in town), research things like tax codes, meet with politicos, and quarterly rent a hall and invite someone to speak about how schools are funded, or how property is assessed, or the impact of growth on our communities. And we take petitions to "country ham breakfasts" at the local volunteer fire halls (those are big deals in rural Tennessee), talk to folks in front of the Wal-Mart, and take notes at interminable county commission meetings.
There aren’t a lot of us in the RNA, so it was to our surprise that our work set the agenda for this last election. Rutherford County was growing significantly over the past decades, but recently that growth has become dramatic, with more than 20 percent more people living here now than in 2000. The impact of growth was the elephant nobody was talking about, and one of the things that brought the alliance together was the suspicion that the relationship between politicos and developers was a bit disingenuous (but that can be the matter of another blog). But several years of RNA nudging and cajoling (up North it would be called agitating; decent Southerners don’t agitate, they cajole) pushed the matter to the front of the line, and it was the main issue the candidates all found themselves forced to address.
Not that the politicians will do anything responsible about growth, but they started talking about it, and that’s not too bad a job for a handful of amateurs armed with pencils. But the election and the RNA aren’t what I want to blog about. It’s what I keep hearing in front of the Wal-Mart and at those country ham breakfasts. Those new people coming to Rutherford County have kids who require additional schools, and those new schools are going to require new taxes. But again and again I hear the litany, "Why should I have to pay for their education?" Sometimes this comes from folks in their sixties who add that they’ve already paid for their kids’ schooling. Sometimes it comes from folks who don’t have children and don’t want them. Sometimes it comes from parents with children in one school and who don’t want to pay for the expenses of another school. Sometimes it comes from homeschoolers. I don’t know if it’s ever occurred to any of speakers that all those kids are someday going to vote, or might have to figure out their change at the Taco Bell if the computer goes down, or might be passing out pills in the rest home, so the better schooling those kids get now, the more helpful they’ll be to them in the future. But if these things have crossed their minds, I get the sense that it really doesn’t matter. That’s them. It’s not me. And I need to take care of me.
That’s what’s running local politics. Lots and lots of "me’s." And along with the "me’s" comes "nows." Is this good for me now? Talk to folks over biscuits and white gravy about how current policies might mark our lives in twenty years and their eyes glaze over. Even when talking about what our children might face, the response more often than not will be, "Well, that’r be their problem, they can deal with it." And it’s just not about expenses for school. It’s about roads and police and maintaining the water district. Our world is very small and crimped. We’re islands. And there’s no bell we all hear¯just individual jingles. Maybe this local isolationism spills over into larger issues, like a war in Iraq and even climate change. Perhaps it’s just what is to be expected when a generation that was raised on the mantra "If it feels good, do it" gets older. Maybe it’s because our leaders aren’t very good at "the vision thing." Or maybe this is the way that it’s always been, which makes phrases like securing the "blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" all the more remarkable.
There are thinkers here much better equipped to deal with those big matters than I am. I just talk and share grits and get a little sad. But I look at the folks who stand in the heat to vote, or sit on the benches at commission meetings scribbling notes, or strategize around seas of coffee at kitchen tables, and I’m humbled. Things aren’t so bad. At least we’re talking.
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)