I live in Chardon, Ohio. On February 27, a local boy shot seven other kids, killing three and disabling one. You might all know about it because the news media descended on our town in a swarm and projected us everywhere. The whole community was affected, first by the shooting of those kids and what that violence meant to residents here. That can be summed in a couple of phrases: “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.” and “I knew ____. Who did you know?” We’ve only been a city since the last census, but you could only note the difference in some improved traffic signage directing you out of town and the transformation of the local water treatment plant, which one ever sees. Chardon feels like a small town.
A second effect, in that first week, was a secondary horror, a worry that the town actually could be changed in a serious way. One man actually said it to me, “We have to be concerned that Chardon will lose its soul.” We were talking about the news media and the kids and adults who pushed themselves in front of the cameras. Ambition? A yearning for five minutes of fame? Fortunately for us, few of the people who could have claimed the cameras for career-making purposes ever did so. We had elected people to public office who had the character to worry more about how to keep good public order, about the people affected by our tragedy, and about preserving the “soul” of our town, than about self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.
What I am writing here is really a response to John Presnall’s post , about voting in Texas. Clearly, he made me think about big questions as they relate to small places.
In Texas we have partisan elections for all state designated positions. This year a lot of constables, sheriffs, and judgesjudges on the district and appellate levelwere open for election. Of course, state House and Senate, Congressional House and Senate, and the Presidency were all on the ballot too.
But who can honestly keep up with all this stuff?
I think we must. We have to. We have no choice but to “keep up” or our communities lose their souls (assuming a community can have a soul). At the end of his essay, Mr. Presnall says,
That said, if you vote in the Texas Republican primary you can vote in the typical terms of national rhetoric for this or that self-proclaimed conservative Republicanthey all say they are conservative and who am I to doubt? Principles matter, but they all say the same thing. Whether it is sheriff or judge or state legislator, I suppose I vote like most others do, i.e., in terms of personal connections. My dad was a friend with that guy, that woman is married to my doctor, I taught Government to that girls father, etc., etc. Lets hope he or she who is personally upstanding also knows stuff, and knows it well. This is, of course, typical of face-to-face local politics in America.
And, of course, as our communities grow and thrive, “face-to-face” politics becomes more difficult. People often do not know who they are voting for. That might not be such a new phenomenon; didn’t Martin Van Buren say that was a benefit of party politics, that a party gave candidates identity (I paraphrase). But Mr. Presnall is right; there is not enough identity in party politic, especially in primary elections. In our community, we depend on yard signs to tell one another whose face we actually know or trust. Yes, we can vote early here, but when we do we have nothing to go on but who we know personally. The full communication of the yard sign populism has not had effect.
We have to find out who is running for office and what they are all about. That means keeping track of what is written in the local papers, and even attending community meetings. It means asking your neighbors and friends about local politics. “Who do you know?” It is much easier to know national politicians, you just watch the news in your living room. The president is always in your living room. He’s like part of the family and either you are happy to see him or you cannot wait for him to leave. Unlike with family, when you are tired of a presence by TV in your living room, you can turn him off. That’s a benefit. How do you get to know about the guy running for local judge? Oddly, this is much harder.
But it is important. John’s right, if we vote on the basis of principle, we still don’t know what those principles mean to the person. The person might be wrapped up in the principles or the principles might be wrapped up in the person. It’s what is inside that counts, and it takes time to find out such a thing. There more petty, but larger implications, too. If we vote in a bad Republican, then all Republicans are tainted. A bad local politician of any stated principles can damage a community.
It pays to know the characters who run for office in your community. Character counts if something big happens. Who can keep up with all of the people running for local offices? I am not sure, but I know we have to do so, somehow.
One of the reasons Chardon feels like a small town is that the residents wish it to. We pursue community. Most people are involved somewhere, even if it is only through their children, in school and things like Little League. I know — there’s Tocqueville, again. He would be amused in the local coffee shops, especially the one right between the city and county offices on the square. A community can only have a soul if individuals are willing to share a little of their own souls to make a community. There is individual benefit. You get to live in a nicer place.