Tag Archives: North Carolina

Making America Grate, or Great?

I want to believe in the possibility of democracy, and in the willingness of many people, much of the time, to make small (or sometimes even big) sacrifices for the common good. Lately I’ve found it more and more necessary, in order to maintain that belief, to limit my media exposure. Sometimes I need to abstain altogether. It turns out I have widely read company. In an opinion piece in a recent Washington Post, writer Amanda Ripley explained why “I Stopped Reading the News” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/08/how-to-fix-news-media/).  Has our media-saturated society begun to grate on you, as well? 

Earlier generations of pundits have repeatedly created models of successive revolutions in human cultures and economies—from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to industrialists and industrial workers to a contemporary “knowledge society.”  The transitions seem to come faster and faster. At each transition, something of the former organizational system lingers, with  some from prior iterations ending up marginalized. We all will continue to need food, material goods, and access to reliable information. However, without empathy and mutual understanding, those in the groups seemingly left behind and those in the groups seemingly forward looking can engage in escalating clashes rather than working toward mutually beneficial solutions.

For over a decade before covid, I was a citizen of a rapidly evolving North Carolina. My relocation there gave me a chance to get more thoroughly acquainted with a whole group of cousins on my dad’s mother’s side. These were cousins I’d rarely met during my youth in Maryland. The Rea clan of my grandma’s generation had started out as farmers on the outskirts of Charlotte. During a rare childhood visit to one of their farms, I found the rural area where they lived both fascinating and strange. I got treated to homemade biscuits slathered with hand-churned butter from the family’s cows. I rode a pony, one of their smallest mounts. Years later, once installed in a Raleigh area apartment, I began to attend cousins’ beach weekends and to visit with the relatives who lived geographically closest. Mostly I listened to stories of family history, especially about the farm-wife grandmother I’d hardly known. 

By 2018, the metropolitan area of Charlotte had surrounded the family’s old homestead. Multi-story apartment complexes hedged in former horse pastures and outbuildings. That Thanksgiving, over a hundred cousins spanning several generations gathered at “the shed” to share a partially catered, partially homemade feast of turkey with all the trimmings. I was surprised at the diversity of the extended family I found ( https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/11/25/who-did-you-expect/)—rural/urban/suburban, stay-at-homes and world travelers, pale-skinned and darker. We skirted talk of politics, but everyone I met was friendly, hopeful, respectful.  

Come 2021, my husband and I began preparing for another relocation, this time to follow a grown son to southern California. Friends from the middle of the country have sometimes charged me with being a “bi-coastalist,” out of touch with the nation’s heartland. On our way west, I spent nearly two weeks on a cross-country car trip, seeing some areas where people interacted directly with the land. We drove through the “in between” states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, stopping to eat, shop, sightsee, sleep. We got to see the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and Sandia Peak up close. I learned that Yuma, Arizona is the iceberg lettuce capital of the world. The colleagues we visited along our way were retired from academic or consulting careers, so knew of the challenges of rural livelihood only indirectly. Still, the overall landscape was inescapable—much of American geography is rural.    

As I rode past isolated farmsteads, or ate at local restaurants in small towns that were just barely scraping by, I could imagine life in such places being hard as well as insular. Faraway elites in urban/suburban areas could be viewed with suspicion and disdain. 

“What can those people possibly know about my everyday life? They sit in their book-lined home offices and make pronouncements about fixing my problems without ever asking me, or even meeting me.” If the railroad ceases operation, if the feedlot shuts down, if the price of fuel fluctuates wildly, if commodity revenues are as unpredictable as the weather, it can be tempting to blame uncaring outsiders.

Although the editorial slant is somewhat different in big urban media markets, the impact can be similar. “Why don’t those yahoos ever learn that more guns make us less safe, not safer?  Why don’t they respect the rights and aspirations of minorities? How can they be such nativists? What’s wrong with those people?”  

Much of the time, the algorithms and editorial decisions that shade our news access seem more intent on making America grate than on making America great. Ms. Ripley’s opinion piece suggests that the best news coverage will need to provide its readers/watchers/listeners with three basic ingredients: hope (all is not lost), agency (I can do something about a particular issue), and dignity (I matter). Imbibing more of our current news landscape may hinder rather than help to spread these traits. Perhaps a friendly in-person “Hello” to a neighbor, a more-generous-than-usual donation of time or energy to a local non-profit, a more frequent use of the “off” button to our indirect information sources, are needed steps toward renewed greatness.   

The Ninety-One Percent …

The Ninety-One Percent…    —by Jinny Batterson

Most American media channels are concentrating their 2016 coverage of U.S. politics on the upcoming presidential contest. Because this year’s primary season seems even more circus-like than usual, I’ve been tempted to tune it out.  However, as primary election days get closer, I’ll want a clearer idea of the positions, backgrounds, and character of those who are competing to be our area, state and national leaders. So far, I’ve too often been hearing simplistic “solutions” to complex problems, liberally sprinkled with one-line zingers and personal jabs. Almost daily, I get to view results of the latest polls of “likely primary voters,” often without the reminder that such results may represent a small, atypical sampling of the overall electorate.  Primaries often have low participation, distorting our available choices in general elections.

Low voter turnout is a continuing problem in the U.S. Several recent off-year races in the North Carolina county where I live had participation rates below 10%. In mid-term general elections, far less than half of eligible voters cast ballots. Starting with the 2000 presidential election cycle, participation in presidential years has inched back upward, reaching its recent high in 2008 at just under 57%. Getting citizens to register to vote, then to show up at caucuses or polling places at election times, is a perennial headache for candidates and their campaign staffs.

Since even before I became eligible to vote, I’ve volunteered in political campaigns. My earliest efforts were slightly coerced—flier distribution duties in the local campaigns of my politically active father. Once I moved away from home and became eligible to vote, I got further involved in the campaign efforts of candidates I supported. Sometimes they won; sometimes they lost. At times I got discouraged at the apathy and ignorance of many potential and actual American voters (myself included). Whenever this happened, I tried to find a personal antidote—an example from my own experience of citizens working together on a mutual problem.

This past fall, our suburban homeowners’ association faced a dilemma—a privately held sports complex, consisting of swimming pool, tennis courts, sand volleyball court, clubhouse, and picnic areas, was again available for sale. The highly visible complex sits on a major traffic artery near the center of several developments of single family homes and townhouses. The overall HOA includes about 450 units in a neighborhood built a generation ago. In two previous sales cycles, the area homeowners’ association was not a potential purchaser of the center. 

This time, when the current owner asked whether the local community would like to submit a bid to turn the complex into a community resource, the HOA board decided to investigate. Board members held phone and in-person meetings, gathered information, discussed pros and cons, then created a projected 2016 budget showing the costs of a purchase offer plus anticipated annual maintenance expenses, along with the increase in HOA fees required to offset them. They circulated the proposed budget with background and fact sheets. They announced a special HOA meeting to vote on the proposed purchase offer. Of course, rumors flew. One online discussion site was shut down when comments got too vitriolic and too personal.  By the time of the special meeting, some tempers were strained. The actual meeting was brief and relatively cordial. Neutral gatekeepers validated the identities of on-site participants in the standing-room only crowd.  Designated volunteers began counting the proxy ballots of those who could not attend in person.

The proposal was soundly defeated. It may take some time for tempers to cool; there may be future HOA proposals about the sports complex. Home ownership in our community is turning over. More families with young children, those most likely to use the swimming pool, are moving in. What I found most heartening about the process was not the result, though, but the high participation rate in the townhouse subdivision where I live—91% of households attended or sent proxies.   

Such a high participation rate is unlikely to be matched for a town, county, district, state, or national election. To achieve our 91%, HOA officials circulated information, quashed rumors, held meetings, followed up when postal or emails bounced, knocked on doors, made phone calls, stayed calm in the face of often unfounded allegations. Our engagement rate relied a good bit on personal contact and proximity.  Many of us walked or drove by the sports complex every day (along roads and sidewalks paid for by portions of our tax dollars, near a public park that is likewise tax-supported). We could see the center’s condition; we could run our own calculations of how the increased HOA fees would impact our household budgets. It’s much harder to parse the impact of our tax dollars. 

As constituencies get bigger, they become more diverse, with a wider variety of competing concerns. In public elections, we may never reach 91%, but we need to do better than to allow our democracy to be reduced to a shallow shouting contest among those with the deepest pockets and/or the most extreme views. During our pool debate, we learned more about the complicated dance between public and private interests in our neighborhood. We got to know more neighbors. We came to realize that this year’s decisions may not be appropriate two or five or ten years from now.

The broader issues being discussed this election cycle do have workable solutions, but none of us has an entire or permanent answer. The widest possible participation is crucial. You can help! Please get registered, get informed, get involved.  And, when caucus time, early voting or election day comes around, get yourself to the polls!   

Seven Harmful Political Habits

 

Seven Harmful Political Habits  (With Hints for Getting Over Some of Them)  –by Jinny Batterson

 (This entry, posted on the eve of the 2014 political primary in North Carolina, is definitely prose, and definitely a rant. I’ve circulated earlier, longer versions among politically active friends. If you live in North Carolina, please pay special attention to item 7–if you have not already voted, please vote this Tuesday, May 6, 2014.)  

For  much of my adult life I’ve had some bad political habits. As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, as is often pointed out, is imperfect, but still better than any other option. So I’m working to rid myself of my bad political habits. My seven worst habits are listed below. Recognize any?

1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness.

Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake all sense of humor and proportion.When I do this, I too often trip over my own earnestness, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials; carrying placards and frowns.  Gifted politicians of many persuasions have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously—seen any pictures of a scowling Nelson Mandela lately?

2)  Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.

The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. We can find it too easy just to walk away from politics—if we get too close, we might get tainted, too.  Politicians of all political parties have sometimes behaved like the little kid with his/her hand in the cookie jar. Politics can be a high-pressure occupation, so I shouldn’t be too surprised when officials are tempted to raid whatever cookie jars are most available to them. That’s why cookie jars are best kept in plain sight, through strictly enforced funding and reporting requirements, responsible investigative journalism, and active, informed, involved citizens.

3) Government can solve all our problems.

We can let our expectations of governments get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where we have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly solve globalization, automation, unemployment, poverty, and climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.

4) Government is the problem.

On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats.” Some government regulations are obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. Parts of government can be maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level.

It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through developing health care insurance exchanges to producing comprehensive reports about the scope and potential impacts of global climate change.

5) Local politics does not matter. 

We can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts us most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures. To be most effective, I should rightly focus most of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home.

6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well. 

In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country, and then got disappointed when little changed. “Serving the public” has never been more challenging. Since the 2010 census, each U.S. Representative, on average, serves over 700,000 constituents. Many local towns, cities, and/or counties have correspondingly large populations in each of their districts. If I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to remind them what those views are between election cycles—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.

7) Primaries do not matter. 

I’ve usually skipped voting in primaries. They occur at odd times in the spring when I have more pleasant uses for my time. It can be inconvenient to find the time and place to vote, or to remember in advance to apply for a mail-in ballot and then to complete and turn it in.  However, because of population shifts and continued gerrymandering, many political jurisdictions at all levels are seriously skewed to favor one or another political party—whoever wins that party’s primary is nearly guaranteed a victory in the general election. If I want to have an impact, I therefore need to make my vote count in primaries as well as in general elections.

 

I am not likely ever to cure myself completely of my bad political habits, nor are you. However, if each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we can change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the more and more polarized political culture we have now, we may even be able to move toward the “more perfect union”  envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution.