Anecdotes About Politics in a Small Town

I posted last week about how it’s mistaken to think that most leaders in a small town are direct, forthright (see Plain-Spoken in a Small Town? Not Most Leaders).

Here are two stories about how politics sometimes works in a small town.

At a candidates’ forum last year, I had the pleasure of seeing a few residents speaking about their candidacies for a local office. One of the questions for each candidate was what he or she thought of Act 10. (For new readers visiting from out-of state, first a welcome, and second an explanation that Act 10 is the provision of Wisconsin law by which, among other provisions, Wisconsin restricts the collective bargaining rights of most public workers.)

Act 10 has been controversial, and so there’s really no one in the state who doesn’t have an opinion, one way or the other. Among candidates for office – those who are actually thinking about politics – anyone should have a clear opinion, whether favorable or unfavorable. (I opposed Act 10 as I doubted it would save money, and more fundamentally because I believe that anyone, in any vocation, should be able to organize vigorously against government for any lawful reason. That, by the way, would be the traditional libertarian view. My opposition has been clear.)

As it turns out, the oldest of the three candidates, having been in local politics for decades, couldn’t give a straight answer. Instead, he ventured that he once supported Act 10, before the felt that perhaps it might have gone a bit too far, before his voice trailed off and he had nothing more to say on the matter.

All those decades in office, so eager to be a town notable, and on one of the biggest political topics of state politics – affecting every community in Wisconsin – nothing but an ambiguous, let’s-not-make-waves answer.

That’s a scene from small-town politics.

(An aside: After the forum, this same candidate saw me in the audience, noticed that I had a notebook, and walked over to speak to me. He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but he did point to the notebook and ask, “where are you from?” One could guess his meaning, but I decided to give an unexpected answer, so I told him the name of the street on which I live, to see how he would react. He showed no sign that I was teasing him, not the slightest sense of humor or irony, and instead replied, “No, I mean what paper are you from?”

I smiled, and told him that I wasn’t from a newspaper, but was merely taking notes. He politely reassured me that it was okay to take notes during a public candidates forum. For a moment I thought that I would thank him for his gracious reassurance, but I decided against it, as he might have taken that, too, as a literal reply.)

Here’s my second anecdote, from public ceremony, a few years ago. While introducing a guest speaker, a local politician stopped to ask how long that speaker had lived in the community, and the speaker replied that he had been in Whitewater for (if I recall) about thirty years or so.  On hearing this, the politician approvingly replied that he guessed the townies (a term I don’t use) must have thought that after so much time he was one of their own.

Now I’ve lived in Whitewater for many years, have been an American all my life, from a family that was American before there was an America (so to speak), but it would never have occur to me to think what others thought on the matter should ever matter to me.

To think otherwise is to be mired in an identity politics.  Identity politics is strong in a place like Whitewater, but such strength as that only leads to a weak economy of empty streets, empty stores, low-wage jobs, and deteriorating buildings.

If someone came here a lifetime, a year, or a day ago, my first thought would be the same: what does one believe, and how will one carry on in advancement of those beliefs?  What does one think, and what will one do?

The proper question isn’t where or when, but what.   Where should be about what, about those principles that uplift and improve.

The gap between successful and unsuccessful towns is measured in the distance between where and what, each additional inch of separation being a community loss.