All politics is local, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say. Presidents and senators have big plans about the broad strokes of history, but most local government means providing important services to people without a lot of fuss or theatrics.
Fill the potholes. Pick up the trash. Keep the schools and parks open. None of this requires much in the way of ideology, just honest work. The job of a mayor should not need much theorizing.
Here is the problem, however: theorizing is easy. In our postmodern moment, it is far simpler to talk endlessly about what is problematic than to fix the problems. National and international issues grab headlines while the minutes of a city council meeting go unread. Mass media and the internet have blurred the differences between cities and states that once had their own local culture, but the nature of government has not changed: the people in charge of zoning and local ordinances affect your life much more than anyone in Congress does.
Mayors and local politicians could use this fact to advance their careers if they wanted to. Imagine a mayor who governed with a basic five-item agenda: efficient trash collection, competent police and fire departments, clean parks, reliable utilities, and no potholes. That sounds like an ideal town but, in actuality, it is just basic competence and no-nonsense efficiency.
It should be an easy path to political success for a local pol that wants to work hard. But what do we get instead? Bloviating on issues beyond their control while the cities burn. During the summer of 2020, while Washington, D.C.’s local government was as inept as ever, as the city convulsed with protests and riots, it seemed like nothing worked.
Yet Mayor Muriel Bowser was able to mobilize the power of her city’s government quickly and efficiently — to paint Black Lives Matter in huge letters across 16th Street. That does not fix a single broken piece of infrastructure, but it shows where the mayor’s heart is. Improving people’s lives takes effort and might offend some entrenched interests. Sloganeering is free.
In Chicago, the story is similar. Mayor Lori Lightfoot ran as an outsider, having never before held elected office. She promised police reform, something Chicago needed. But that project has gone nowhere.
Meanwhile, Lightfoot takes the easy path to national headlines by announcing she will not speak one-on-one to white reporters under certain circumstances. The weird, racist policy does nothing for the average Chicagoan and infringes on the independence of a free press, but it costs nothing, takes no effort, and earns the plaudits of the far-left critical race movement.
In Philadelphia, the people find a sclerotic city government, high taxes, and an increasingly fraught relationship between the politicians and the police. Mayor Jim Kenney came to office with no program, in particular, just the inclination to steer a middle path among the factions of the city’s Democratic Party.
But Kenney has not fixed anything in his city, choosing instead to merely drift along with the currents of left-wing opinion. Pull down a statue of Frank Rizzo? No problem. Open the schools? Maybe next year.
City government works best when it concentrates on working, not talking. No one knew this better than the last mayor to be elected to the presidency: Calvin Coolidge.
In rising from the Northampton, Massachusetts, city council to the White House, Coolidge absorbed valuable lessons about the nature of government. In a speech to the Massachusetts State Senate in 1914, he summarized some of them:
Do the day’s work. If it is to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it is to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a stand-patter, but don’t be a stand-patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don’t hurry to legislate. Give the administration a chance to catch up with legislation.
Like another famous New Englander, Bill Belichick, Coolidge exhorts us all simply to do your job. That applies doubly to the government. Don’t talk about doing it. Don’t make grand pronouncements about how it could be a better job. Just do it.
If that sounds prosaic: it is. But prose precedes poetry. The efficient performance of these quotidian tasks forms the basis of trust. People look to institutions — including the government — for answers at times, but they will only do so if those institutions show that they can do what they promise. After that trust is earned, after those needs are fulfilled, then can leaders inspire the people to higher things.
Coolidge knew this, too. In that same speech, he reminded his fellow legislators:
Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole. … Let the laws of Massachusetts proclaim to her humblest citizen, performing the most menial task, the recognition that all men are peers, the humblest with the most exalted, the recognition that all work is glorified.
These are sentiments that all of our local leaders should proclaim, but no one will listen unless those speaking to them first do the day’s work. Painting slogans on the street is fine, but who will care when every other block is full of potholes and litter?
Critical theorists tell those who question them to “do the work”; that is, read a hundred books of tedious philosophy. But those in government should take that lesson more literally. Reading Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida is not work; administration is.
It may be boring and arduous at times, but so are many of the things that make life function, endure, and prosper. Deeds, not words, will rebuild the cities and restore the people’s trust. Fill the potholes and the rest will follow.