COVID-19 and the relocalization of politics

Once the dust has settled on COVID and life resumes, some trends that began in the pandemic might stick while others might simply pass. One area to watch in the coming years will be local civic engagement. In the coming years, politics might be relocalized.

Beginning in the 1980s, the trend in politics has been towards nationalization. Driven by a changing media landscape, Americans became more knowledgeable and engaged with national politics, shifting their focus away from local issues. In turn, local elections have become referendums on the state of national politics.

As Dan Hopkins, author of “The Increasingly United States: How and Why Political Behavior Nationalized,” explained on FiveThirtyEight,

In recent years, though, our reliance on spatially bound media sources has eroded. Cable television and the internet have introduced a host of new competitors that attract audiences based on a shared interest in politics rather than a shared geography.

While not completely reversing the trend, the changes brought on by COVID might have opened the opportunity for a new cadre of local organizing to take hold. Two trends, in particular, are worth watching.

First off, local government responses to COVID have been varied, to say the least, but many large cities have transitioned city council meetings online. Additionally, local politicians have begun to hold their townhall discussions online. These changes have made older ways of organizing more difficult, but they have also brought fresh voices into the fray.

Speaking to NPR, Maryland’s Montgomery County Council member Gabe Albornoz said that the transition to online-only hearings has been difficult but it has expanded representation, “I did notice that there was a larger number of participants speaking in different languages, which I think is an indication that it’s more accessible for people to be able to provide public testimony from their homes, not having to travel to Rockville and feel more comfortable in that space.”

DC City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson confirmed this sentiment, “I would go out to a coffee shop on Saturday morning, and if I was lucky, 13 people would show up [to a townhall]. I think I had 50 people on this call, maybe even 70. And that was really good. There was much more participation.”

Second, COVID has upended the social media landscape as well. Users on the hyperlocal social media site Nextdoor have surged, partly due to the virus and partly caused by the tumult in other social media sites. Organizers of the pro-housing YIMBY movement have used the platform to get their message out, contributing to at least one win in San Francisco.

These trends won’t likely change the broader nationalization of politics. But they might just open up a space for a new breed of politics to emerge. That’s a welcome change that I’ll be following in the coming years.