Built Against Substantive Change

Over time, no matter how small the city, national conditions and trends make their way to the edge of town. Some towns will address these conditions, but others will be resistant to substantive change. For those towns in the latter category, business as usual and rhetorical feints suffice in response to powerful forces to which other communities more significantly respond.

A culture of boosterism – accentuating the positive regardless of actual conditions – is the single most evident cultural trait of Old Whitewater. Politicians, office holders, many town figures: their principal job has been to promote the city positively, real conditions notwithstanding. (From their point of view, boosterism is policy.) This sweet talk unforgivably diverts attention from residents who are in need. When boosterism is combined with a metaphorically narrow perimeter fence (in which decision-making is confined to a few), the town becomes even more resistant to effectual (rather than rhetorical) change.

The same few people occupy multiple positions sometimes because they feel themselves entitled and sometimes because other residents won’t join this insular culture.

These last dozen years have seen a Great Recession, opioid epidemic, economic stagnation, repeated incidents of sexual harassment, a pandemic, and now another recession. Whitewater has been deeply affected during this time (over the last decade, she has more poverty than before), but her governmental approach has been mostly business as usual, with the occasional – and brief – rhetorical nod to national conditions and movements.

If most of the same policymakers haven’t ventured farther than rhetoric (if that far) after so many significant events, they’re not likely to do so now. 

Indeed, there’s no notable official expectation – or desire – for those hired for public positions in Whitewater to be agents of significant change. Hiring committees don’t want that sort of change – they want more of the same, with perhaps a slightly more presentable, professional manner from their selected candidates.

It would better – of course, of course – for officials to make much greater changes, but having been recalcitrant for so many years, it’s unlikely to happen now. In any event, many longtime policymakers wouldn’t know substantive change if it bit them on the ankles. (They may think that press releases are an expression of change, in the way a child thinks declaring a thing makes it so. Another version of this approach is insisting that while officials elsewhere might be in the wrong about something, that couldn’t possibly happen with our officials, in our town.)

Fortunately, no matter how hard the conditions, Whitewater will not collapse as long as she has some sort of public university (even if a smaller one). She is likely, however, to continue a sad, relative economic decline. A commuter class of daytime professionals has neither the ability nor likely the desire to bring substantive change to Whitewater. Those who are brought in, like those homegrown, are often mentored poorly (since boosterism is superficial and calls for no lasting insights).

There is deep tragedy in this, but it is a tragedy that policymakers have, themselves, brought about by an unwillingness to act far earlier. People choose freely, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. Having chosen poorly for so long, and defended those choices so often, officials have consigned the city to a more difficult near and medium future.

In this way, while writing about the city has a necessary, meaningful aspect of advocacy for a better way, another (profoundly sad) aspect of writing involves chronicling missed opportunities and their debilitating effects.

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2 years ago

[…] populist or two thinking otherwise could fittingly be described as politically obtuse. See Built Against Substantive Change. […]