05/12/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

The Death of Local Politics

Bob Stefko via Getty Images

When did Americans give up on local politics? Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was fond of the saying, "All politics is local." Unfortunately, in today's America, all politics is national.

Last week in Virginia -- and in other areas across the country -- select jurisdictions held local elections. The turnout, our newspaper noted, was dismal. Voter turnout in the Virginia cities of Hampton and Norfolk was 14 percent of registered voters. The neighboring City of Chesapeake's voter turnout rate was 6.5 percent. In Newport News it was eight percent. And in the City of Williamsburg, Virginia -- birthplace of our republic -- voter turnout was a measly four percent. The founders would have been appalled. Unfortunately, this disappointing turnout in the heart of the Commonwealth of Virginia is systemic of a larger problem in American politics.

During the twentieth century "the people" -- or at least a majority of the people -- convinced themselves that the federal government was the forum for addressing all issues, great and small. To be fair, Americans had need for a strong federal government. It was strong national unity that tackled the Great Depression, World War II, the rebuilding of Europe, civil rights and the Cold War. These are important success stories for the nation, but unfortunately, they were accompanied by the domination of nationally-focused media, party politics and elections. We now seem convinced that if we simply elect the correct chief executive we can solve all problems -- local, state and federal. This wishful thinking flies in the face of American history.

Virginia has had representative government since 1619. Still, in the British colonial era that lasted until 1776, Virginians had little say about affairs in their local community. Monarchs appointed the governors, councilors and key administrators of Virginia. And on the monarch's authority, royal governors appointed local magistrates and officials. Qualified voters elected an individual to represent them in the colonial assembly. That -- for the most part -- was the extent of democracy in Virginia.

It was the American Revolution that made true representative government possible--representative government without the influence of a monarch's power. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the act of voting inspired and energized communities across the nation. Citizens voted for their local, state and federal officials to represent them and their community. Politics was truly local.

If you look closely, there is evidence that local politics can still be critically important. The real advances made, for example, in a host of issues, ranging from abortion activism to gay rights are taking place in counties, towns, cities and states -- not in Congress or the office of the chief executive. Just think what we could accomplish by investing more of ourselves in our local communities.

Granted, it is difficult work when citizens tackle the issues themselves. It requires activism. It fosters debate. It is the work of forming coalitions between like-minded (and not so like-minded) citizens, and of reaching out to those who disagree to find a workable solution. Just as important, it means we must protect and encourage those who would dissent and disagree. It is time we rededicated ourselves to that civic mission. It is our responsibility. The place to start is in local communities with neighbors, local councils and local community organizations. This is, after all, the idea of America that was bequeathed to us by generations of Americans over more than two centuries.