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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card February 13, 2005

Personal Government

I've seen local government, and it works.

If for some reason you get off I-40 somewhere between Statesville and Hickory, and then drive along US-70 for a while, when you come to the place where you have to turn left to stay on 70 and the road widens into four lanes -- well, you've already passed Claremont, North Carolina, and you didn't even notice.

You probably wouldn't guess that the little cafe you passed is a local institution, with an owner-chef who expects you to order briskly and who makes birdhouses as a hobby.

Nor would you realize that the town hall also contains a library that is a point of pride for the thousand citizens of this town, and a couple of thousand more who live in the surrounding countryside.

Pull off at a gated road, get out of your car, and hike along a stream, crossing a cement bridge and a decaying wooden slab bridge, and pretty soon you come to a barbed wire fence. It's OK, pull the gate open. Just inside it, there's an old covered bridge, the only one left in the world of its particular kind. Sorry I can't remember more details, but you can read what's written on the historical placards.

There are two Lutheran churches standing side by side right in the center of town. I have no idea of the story behind that -- but imagine living in a town so small that when half the Lutherans split off from the main congregation, the only place where they can build the rival church is right next door.

Glenn Morrison is a man of vision and passion. Not big visions -- he doesn't see skyscrapers or marching armies. Instead he sees a small town where people look out for each other and keep things clean.

And his passion can seem crazy. He's the kind of man who, when he sees that passing motorists have strewn one of the roads with ugly litter, he gets a couple of garbage bags and goes out and picks it up.

Doesn't get a committee to do a study. Doesn't hire some bureaucrat to form the Litter Removal Authority with a four-cent tax on Snickers bars to fund the office. Just goes out and starts picking up trash.

They had an election a while ago. A lot of people asked Glenn Morrison to run for mayor. He said no, and he meant it. He wasn't interested in politics.

So they elected him anyway. Wrote his name on their ballots and he won.

Why did they do it? How could they do it?

They knew this guy. They liked him. Heck, the way they talk, I have to say that a lot of them love Glenn Morrison. He has come to symbolize, not the town, but the way the town wants to feel about itself.

I was at a dinner in one of those Lutheran churches, where a significant percentage of the citizens of Claremont and its "metropolitan area" were gathered to dine and put up with a speaker, and I got the feeling that every person there knew Glenn Morrison and he knew them.

Have you ever, in all the "local" elections you've voted in, seen on the ballot the name of a person you liked and respected so much that if his name weren't already there, you'd write it in?

For that matter, when was the last time you actually personally knew a person running for local office?

I don't mean you heard them speak at a candidates' forum or shook hands once at a reception. I mean you know them, you've seen personally what kind of person they are, you've taken their measure.

Unless you work for the government, or are a lawyer or land developer, or happen to belong to the same church or other organization, chances are you don't really know any of our elected officials.

In Claremont, North Carolina, everybody always knows all the office holders and candidates because everybody already knows everybody else.

Claremont, North Carolina, has local government.

Greensboro, North Carolina, doesn't.

*

In the U.S. Constitution, the lower house was intended to have no more than one representative for every thirty thousand people.

In Greensboro, there is no office we vote for that represents so few citizens. Not county commissioner, not city councilman, not school board member.

So there is no elected official who is as close to the people as federal representatives were originally intended to be.

Americans don't have local government. Except in small towns like Claremont.

I think that's a shame. Because for us, politics is never personal, and we almost never get to vote for somebody we have any reason to believe in. We only get our impressions from what's written about them in the papers or what we see on TV; mostly, we only know the party label attached to them.

That means that our image of them can be manipulated -- negatively, by their enemies, or positively, by their supporters. But how can we possibly see behind the image?

Well, we can, much of the time. We knew what Bill Clinton was before he even got the Democratic nomination for the first time. There was no other candidate whose staff even had a term for "bimbo eruptions"; his staff coined that term because such things happened so often they needed a name for it.

But apart from obvious clues like that, what do we know? Kennedy was able to hide his sexual predations and his medical condition and the fact that he was drugged six ways from Tuesday to deal with the pain.

Lyndon Johnson got rich while in public office -- always a suspicious thing -- but I had to read a biography after he was dead to find out what a crude, unpleasant man he was.

Richard Nixon -- well, we have rather the opposite problem, trying to recover the human being from under the vilification that his enemies heaped on him.

Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan. The two Georges. And any of the politicians who ran against them. These were the most famous politicians in the world, at least during the election season. More was written about them, more shown about them, than any other candidates for any other office.

And we rarely knew them beyond their image.

How long did it take before we got past the self-created image of Thomas Jefferson, that "mild-mannered genius professor" who actually was a vicious dirty-fighting politician who flirted with Jacobinism and lied about his opponents whenever it served his political purpose? He invented borking long before Robert Bork was borked.

Yet in the opposite direction, Dwight D. Eisenhower is still smirked at for supposedly having an affair with his female driver -- even though no one has ever introduced a scintilla of evidence that any such thing ever happened. Smarmy speculation and gossip persists long after death, and so do propaganda and coverups like Jefferson's.

If that's how it is with the most prominent figures in American politics, how can we possibly be expected to know our "local" politicians, who don't get even a fraction of the scrutiny that presidents and presidential candidates get?

*

How can we have genuine local politics again?

I mean, besides moving to Claremont (which, if too many of us did it, would kill local politics there, too).

To have local politics, you have to have meaningful elected offices that represent populations of no more than a few thousand.

I know how I'd do it. I'd abolish our consolidated school district, fire the entire bureaucracy, and redivide the county into local school districts, each with exactly one high school of no more than 1000 students, with an associated middle school and elementary schools.

Each district would have an elected school board, to which all the principals would report directly. The school board would make all the decisions; the county would maintain a couple of financial auditors and a couple of educational observers to make sure the districts were all well managed.

But it won't happen. Too many interest groups believe they benefit from a centralized system. And too much depends on getting federal money that can only be obtained by having full-time employees writing grants.

Still, wouldn't it be wonderful to think that the largest single budget category in the county were actually administered by officials that you knew personally?

And when there was some problem at the school your kids go to, there weren't layers of bureaucracy to go through. There'd be the teacher, the principal, and the school board. And you'd know every member of that school board -- or at least know someone who did.

The candidates for school board could talk to every single voter during the election season. And they would see their constituents, not as numbers in the ballot box, but as real people -- neighbors, friends. They would feel responsible; they would be responsive.

Government would be personal again.

We might even find ourselves led, not by a person who covets the job, but by somebody like Glenn Morrison, who has no political ambitions, but really cares about the community and the people he serves.

Time to wake up now and get back to the real world ...

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.


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