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Media attention and dysfunction – a recipe for political cynicism?

Note: two updates at the end of this post.

I’m not very active in local politics. I follow international news more closely than the news of my hometown. In my defense, Western Massachusetts is a pretty sleepy place in political terms – this part of the state is so blue that the Democratic primaries tend to be the only elections that matter, and often major offices go uncontested at that level.

But one local issue has caught my eye… quite literally so. I live in a mountainous area, where some of the major employers are ski areas. One – Jiminy Peak – had the clever idea that their windswept mountaintop would be an excellent place to site a wind turbine. They used state grant money to research the feasibility of their site, then spent $4 million of their resort revenues to install a 1.5MW turbine. It provides a substantial portion of their energy needs and has helped the resort position itself as a green company.

Turbine atop Jiminy Peak

The turbine has become a local point of pride. So I was thrilled when one of the companies involved with installing Jiminy’s turbine started building 10 1.5MW turbines about a mile from my house. These turbines were sited atop another ski hill, this time Brodie Mountain, a ski resort that was mothballed in 1999, sold to Jiminy Peak and later sold to a real estate develolper. The developer, Silverleaf Resorts, began a legal campaign to shut down the wind farm that had been approved by local zoning and permitting boards, and which had already installed four turbines. They found a technicality and got an injunction that has held up construction for the past year.

I wrote a letter to my state representative, state senator and to my US congressman complaining about the injunction and the stalling of the project. I figured that, at worst, it would be a voice in favor of the windmills, helping counterbalance the sometimes shrill voices that are trying to stop wind development in the county. I also figured it would be an interesting test of the responsiveness of local government – would I get any response from my local politicians? Would they send form letters or have something insightful to share?

I sent the letter a little more than a week ago, and was surprised – stunned, shocked and thrilled – to get a phonecall Monday morning from Ben Downing, my state senator. He apologized for not responding to my note immediately – he wanted to wait for the outcome of a meeting so he could give me the good news that the project was likely to go forward in the next few weeks. He filled me in on several details I hadn’t known about the project and the legal battles surrounding it, and basically – without being pretentious about it – made it clear that he knew vastly more about local renewable energy projects than I ever will. I came away with the strong sense that I was represented by someone who had deep insight into local issues, was happy to hear from me, wanted me to understand local issues fully, and was going to be advocating for a point of view close to my own.

It obviously helped that I’d picked an issue that’s close to Senator Downing’s interests – who knows whether I would have gotten a similar response to a question about property taxes or the quality of local roads. But I pretty damned impressed, and it got me thinking about the political and media climate in the US today.

It’s not news that there’s a populist upsurge in American politics, based on widespread dissatisfaction with various institutions of government. Only 16% of Americans recently polled by Rasmussen think Congress is doing a good job… and that number is higher than it was a few months ago. And only 12% of polled voters believe their representatives are interested in helping constituents more than they are interested in advancing their own careers. This seems like it should spark a wave of anti-incumbency – as some are predicting, watching the rise of Tea Party-backed candidates in Republican primaries.

But the oldest truism in American politics is that people hate Congress but love their Congressperson. Since 1964, the lowest re-election rate for incumbents in the House of Representatives has been 85%, and lately has been approaching 95%. Incumbents have the advantage of name recognition, of being able to promise pork-barrel projects to voters, and the profound advantage in fundraising that comes from being in office with a near guarantee of election. If you were a company or indivdual hoping to influence a legislator, betting on the incumbent is a safe bet… which helps fund the incumbent, making incumbency a safer bet.

I wonder if there’s a different theory that might explain this disjunction: media attention is proportional to government dysfunction. I live very close to two other states – Vermont and New York. I know far more about New York state politics than I do about politics in my home state. In part, that’s because the most powerful of the local NPR stations is based in Albany, the state capital of New York. But it’s also because New York State politics is such a dysfunctional mess that it’s endlessly fun to report on. (Don’t believe me? Listen to the first story of this episode of This American Life and thank your lucky stars that your legislature isn’t this broken.) I probably know more about the budget crisis affecting California than I do about my own state’s budget… which is proving difficult to balance, but doesn’t face the sort of massive crisis California does.

I hear a lot about the most dysfunctional members of Congress – the crooked and the crazy – and little about those who are serving constituents and getting legislation passed. It makes sense – the senator with the wide stance is lots better copy than the senator with a nuanced stance on a complex political issue.

With many small newspapers in dire financial straits, cutting back local political reporting, national media becomes inceasingly influential and important. My local government officials are extremely unlikely to receive national attention unless they do something criminal or crazy. And if I’m not hearing about the positive work they’re doing in local media, it’s likely that my impression of politicians, as a class, is that they’re criminal, crazy and the source, not the solution, to societal problems.

So let me propose an experiment. Pick an issue you’re passionate about, preferably a local issue. Write a (paper) letter to local elected officials… the more local, the better. Blog, tweet, Facebook or otherwise talk about the response you get or don’t get. I’m curious whether the surprisingly positive experience I recently had is the lucky convergence of a responsive public servant and an interesting issue, or a hint that our governments might not be as dysfunctional as we tend to hear.

Two updates/postscripts to this post:

– My timing was either terrific or dreadful – my letter reached my representatives a few days before a new agreement that appears to let the wind project go forward. The Berkshire Eagle story on the “pact” to allow the wind project to proceed is here. While my advocacy had absolutely nothing to do with it, it’s great to see the project go forward.

– I got a call from Representative Denis Guyer two days ago, wanting to talk about the project. We spoke this evening (September 3rd). Guyer isn’t the wind fan that Downing is and made the case to me that wind farms are “no different” from large gas, coal or oil projects, “except that they might be cleaner”. He was critical of how Berkshire Wind had handled themselves in the Brodie Mountain case, but told me that he agreed that an 80% complete project was embarrassing and frustrating. And he pointed me to a recent oped in the local paper and on his blog arguing against a statewide bill designed to make approval of wind projects easier for developers.

As with my experience with Senator Downing, I was impressed that he’d taken the time to call me and felt like he had a good sense of the local issues, even if we disagreed on aspects of the situation. In some ways, this made his willingness to call me even more impressive than Senator Downing’s call, as he knew I was on his side and likely to agree with what he had to say.

So… two for three in terms of constituent service so far. And I’m willing to give Congressman Olver a break, as this is really a local, not a national issue. As I said above, I’m impressed with the knowledge, dedication and communication of my local officials. Your mileage may vary, but I hope your experience isn’t too dissimilar from mine.

6 thoughts on “Media attention and dysfunction – a recipe for political cynicism?”

  1. Ethan, Thanks for this piece. I think Ben Downing is a gem of a politician, and even more a gem of a human being. I like your idea for the experiment. A bit more positivity in this world would be a great thing! Hope all is well with the family too! xx susan

  2. Man, you’ve got clout! Wednesday you post this, Thursday it’s settled! BTW I lived around the corner on Bailey Rd for 25 years and I think windmills in the backyard are awesome, too.

  3. Martin, perhaps I’m just so behind the times that I only manage to complain when issues are already settled and resolved. Thrilled this is going forward, and also thrilled it’s given me a chance to get to know my local legislators a bit better…

  4. Ethan–

    I’ve had a similar experience. I’m a member of Oxfam, Amnesty, Bread for the World, and a couple of other NGOs that ask members to contact legislators on a regular basis. A couple of years ago a staff member for Mike Capuano (MA 8th) called me at work to thank me for helping them work on issues of hunger, foreign aid, etc. and offering to speak with me any time I had a concern. And this is in a district with lots and lots of articulate folks (Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Brookline) who like to tell their representatives what to do!

    Thanks for your stimulating reflections.

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