The pandemic has prompted people to get involved in local affairs | Jonathan C. Rothermel

The words "Civics 101" on a blackboard in chalk

By Jonathan C. Rothermel 

The collective response to the pandemic is haphazard, decentralized, and at times, downright confusing. President Donald Trump has been criticized for his lack of leadership at the national level, while the nation’s governors pursue a variety of strategies that run the gamut.

Meanwhile, American citizens are thrust into the thicket of pandemic contingency planning. Levels of civic engagement are increasing in the wake of the coronavirus. This crisis has forced citizens – ready or not – into local politics.

School boards and administrators are surveying parents for input regarding the opening of the upcoming school year. Little League boards, made up of local volunteers, navigate local, state, and federal guidelines as they modify and/or cancel summer sports. Extracurricular activities for the fall are also being debated among volunteer organizations and committees.

Local businesses are experiencing levels of upheaval not seen since the rationing of World War II. They scramble to accommodate the latest government directives and keep their employees and patrons safe.

The pandemic has been a nightmare, but one silver lining is that citizens are increasingly becoming involved, even if begrudgingly, in decisions regarding local public policies.

This is a positive trend for a number of reasons.

First, not only does it provide for more direct democracy, there is also not as much room for petty partisan politics at the local level.

In his 2014 book, If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin R. Barber argued that mayors solved problems. There was not time for political posturing or “passing the buck.”

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Barber speculated whether or not the nation-state had outlived its usefulness in the age of globalization. He said that local rather than national institutions were best suited to respond to the everyday needs of citizens. Political gridlock is a luxury only afforded to our national politicians.

Republican or Democratic talking points often obfuscate situations that require immediate action. However, the health and safety of our children and communities transcend partisanship. As this crisis has demonstrated, divorcing national rhetoric from local politics is difficult but necessary.

Second, higher levels of engagement require increased civic education to support it. Sadly, the state of civic education is low.

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, in 2018 about 24 percent of eighth-grade students were at or above proficient levels of performance for civic education achievement.  A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation revealed that only 4 in 10 Americans could pass a multiple-choice test based on questions taken from the US citizenship test.

Further, while investment in STEM fields is justified, especially in a globalizing world. It should not come at the expense of civic education.

Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, reported that the federal government spends $54 per student to support STEM education versus 5 cents per student for civic education.

A basic understanding of political institutions and actors, including concepts of federalism and separation of powers, will illuminate the challenges of coordinated collective action and guide informed political decisions. Awareness of the need to increase civic education funding will follow higher levels of civic engagement.

Third, the pandemic has ignited a renewed purpose for building social capital. Social capital, according to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, is the “collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.”  When social capital wanes, citizens are more emboldened to snipe at one another and are less likely to empathize with opposing points of views.

While social distancing and quarantining reduce our ability to be social in the ways we typically think of such as getting to know your neighbors or volunteering for community events, technology via social networking apps and video conferencing are helping to overcome these obstacles.

Virtual social interaction with a purpose towards addressing local issues, such as virtual town hall meetings and school board meetings over Zoom, is a good start to rebuilding or strengthening social capital.

The upcoming presidential election will be nastily and bitterly contested, and it will be tempting for Americans to fully engage in the mudslinging. Rather than take their cues from national politicians who have failed us on both sides of the aisle, Americans should elevate the problem solving, ‘buck stops here’ mentality of local politics to the national level.

Jonathan C. Rothermel is an associate professor of political science at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @ProfJCR