You know that television show “Undercover Boss”?
The CEO of a good-sized firm pretends to be somebody else while cameras follow him around (it’s usually a guy) as he does menial jobs for the company, learning what it’s like at the bottom and getting to know some regular folks.
The bottom-up view of the company usually reveals a lot that the big boss didn’t know…or plain forgot. By the end of the show, the CEO resolves to do better, try harder, and make a few changes taking care of the folks who do the work. Occasionally, he has to hold somebody accountable, but the episode always ends with hugs and laughter.
Translate that show to politics. We call the elected politicians leaders, but really they are often so immersed in their work at the statehouse or in D.C. that they aren’t really leading anyone in particular. They become detached from the world they knew. It’s easy to do.
I still contend that local politicians do not have that luxury. They live with the consequences of their decisions. They don’t go live in a mansion somewhere with servants and security details. They drive the same streets as you or I. They put out their trash for pickup. They face constituents at the grocery and the ball diamond. You cannot run a county or a city and hide from the voters.
Online, we read about legislators exempting themselves from the laws they pass for everybody else. They even sometimes exempt their friends in high places. After a point, it looks as though they figure they are exempt from responsibility as well. They always have a way to deflect criticism, saying how hard they fought the system on everyone’s behalf.
Give me the messy integrity that is local governance. It can get scary if you make an unpopular decision locally, but you should be accountable. Congressmen, on the other hand, get reelected at a ridiculous rate. We all hate the Congress but love our own Congressmen. Occasionally, they swing by for town hall meetings. But that’s just not the same.
This country was founded on simple principles. There may have been an elite social class back then, but the system expected them to serve the public. Otherwise, across the frontier, people gathered to govern themselves, talk things through, and otherwise make their way together. It seems today our massive, complex institutions, filled with faceless bureaucrats and a few pretty faces on TV, has extricated itself from the jostling intimacy that every mayor knows only too well.
Three cheers for anyone willing to serve locally, no matter which party they claim. It’s not an easy job. But it is the stuff that helped make America.