Politics can become all-consuming in a year like 2016, and certainly in the last month until Election Day it seems that Americans can talk about almost nothing else. But what happens when the polls close and the excitement of the presidential election is behind us?
“When we think about political engagement, we need to look beyond elections. Presidential elections matter enormously, but they only happen every four years,” said Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner, an assistant professor of politics and global studies at the University of Virginia. “We also need to be paying attention to what happens in between, at all levels, so we can continue to hold our elected officials and appointed bureaucrats accountable.”
Kruks-Wisner, who joined the UVA faculty this fall, is preparing a new spring course that will focus on local politics and the ways in which the local arena impacts citizens’ lives. “Grassroots Politics” will examine processes of local governance, as well as citizens’ tactics for political engagement at the local level, comparing different cases and methods from across the United States and around the world.
“In many cases, the local arena is where politics really unfolds,” Kruks-Wisner said. “It’s where we see whether large-scale policies are actually implemented or not. It’s also where we can see this enormous level of experimentation and innovation at the regional scale.”
The decisions and actions of local officials and community members are often crucial in determining whether national policies are actually carried out. Kruks-Wisner has studied this process internationally, but her primary area of expertise is in rural India. She plans to bring case studies from that region to compare and contrast with cases from America and elsewhere in the world.
“India is the largest democracy in the world and has had regular elections for almost 70 years. At the same time, there’s this enormous gap between the formal trappings of democracy and how citizens actually engage the state at the local level,” she said. “We’ll look at how average people, and poor people in particular, actually get the things that they need from the state.”
Many citizens of India have to work hard to get things from the government that Americans usually take for granted.
“For example, when I turn on my tap, clean drinking water comes out and I can get a drink of water whenever I want,” Kruks-Wisner said. “That’s not the case for many in rural Indian villages, so citizens have devised a whole array of really savvy strategies to navigate through these local systems and make demands on the state for things that we often take for granted.”
Cases like the recent lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, or the many low-income households in Detroit that have seen their water cut off, are a stark reminder that there are also many in America who struggle to access government services. Kruks-Wisner hopes that her students can learn about the importance of these local political struggles, both at home and abroad.
A common strategy in India is to use social engagement and everyday interactions to attempt to hold local officials accountable for the policies they’ve promised to implement. Citizens will pay visits to officials in their home, or wait to speak with them at community water sources or other gathering areas where they are known to appear regularly. These strategies, though, vary depending on a person’s social standing: men and women, richer and poorer, as well as higher- and lower-caste residents develop different approaches to the state.
Her class also will examine strategies that local governments use to keep citizens engaged beyond just voting. They’ll study activities like participatory budgeting – a common practice in Brazilian cities that gives citizens direct input on the allocation of community funds – and look at the varying success of localities that have tried to implement similar programs in the United States.
“I’m new to Virginia and new to Charlottesville, so I’m trying to develop some case study material that will help us focus on politics right here in Charlottesville as well,” Kruks-Wisner said.
Students in her class will have the chance to directly observe local dynamics in Charlottesville, while also studying other communities that matter to them – whether their home towns in the U.S. or abroad. Kruks-Wisner is dispelling the notion that the average citizen’s political clout ends outside the voting booth and hopes that students will also use the course to think about their own avenues for local political action.
“The point is not to bemoan or look away from national politics or national policy-making. We can’t overstate the importance of those,” she said. “But where the rubber really meets the road, where policies are implemented, where local challenges and experimentation unfold, is all at the local level. This is where we live and where we experience the state.”