Many of the people I spoke to seemed to have zero awareness of our local and state government. Given that I have an oversized interest in these things, I was surprised. We could change so much with a very small shift in our willingness to learn and participate in these systems.
Personally, I did not start caring about local or state government until I became involved in local advocacy and learned how many things that occur in our neighborhoods that may seem unfair are actually not "writ by God" or just someone's natural right via capitalism, but are actually things decided by politicians we have the opportunity to vote for.
One young woman I spoke to asked me why she should bother voting locally. It seemed like too much work, and in her eyes "New York City is fine." I became quite certain that she was not paying attention.
This was particularly ironic to me because she was walking out of the subway with a few bags of groceries and a broken bike. I asked her how she thought we could improve the subway or bicycle safety without a local government. She simply seemed irritated by the question.
This is one of my biggest frustrations. Our system only works when we participate in it, and so many of us opt out.
I was discussing this with my friend Yaneth, who is a social worker. She told me that her clients often do not have the mental or emotional space to engage with these issues, because they are busy trying to pay their rent and keep their family alive.
Personally, I have had a different experience. I have seen more people who were struggling as participants than privileged people. So many of us who are privileged to not be living in a near-emergency situation take our well-being for granted. In my experience, it is sometimes more likely to be a privileged person who opts out of local political participation than someone whose future is on the line.
I often see my friends whose housing or job is at stake seeking out who they need to talk to, writing petitions and showing up to events.
But this isn't the right solution either. We shouldn't have our participation in government vacillate between emergency missions and complete disengagement.
A light, steady participation would make a big difference.
I was thinking about this especially because our non-participation is a well-known fact. It has opened our government to influencers that I think many of us would prefer stayed out of our lawmaking.
For example, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the most powerful lobbying group in our state, regularly funds and provides support for State Senate campaigns, since many of our protections around housing and development are decided by the State Senate.
This week in The Real Deal, it was revealed that a spin-off group of REBNY has piped $93,500 to the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), who are New York City Democrats who caucus with Republican leadership.
The reason why the IDC has had success is because we have blindly voted for Democrats without examining them, so those whose values were extremely different were able to slip right through the cracks and become our representatives, making decisions on our behalf that do not represent the values of the party they claim to be a part of.
It is quite clear that we are not paying attention and everyone knows it. The consequences are real and concrete, and it will take us as neighbors waking up and getting more steadily active to protect our own interests.
What will it take for us to wake up?