Look to 'civic watersheds' to calm the political turbulence of our times
If "politics is downstream from culture," an observation shared by commentators on both the right and the left, then it's worth paying more attention to the upstream experiences that shape our political views.
Cue the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC), which recently explored how our day-to-day experiences in our neighborhoods and communities feed a cooperative civic culture that is barely visible beneath our turbulent politics.
OVBC surveyed nearly 2,000 Oregonians last month on what "neighborliness" or "a sense of community" means to them. Half were asked about neighborliness, half about community. Each group was asked to share their observations in their own words.
Reading through the responses from each group, it's clear we share experiences and values at the local level that run counter to the dominant political narratives of polarization and distrust. We see neighborhoods as places to respect, look out for and care for each other. It's the little things that matter most.
"Getting to know your neighbors. Talking with them when you are both outside and see each other. Borrowing from each other. Watching each other's places when one is away. Looking in on each other. Having little gatherings sometimes."
"Being friendly to your neighbors and helping them out with things such as giving them a cup of sugar to finish a recipe, taking their garbage cans to the curb when they go out of town."
We see communities a little differently -- as people working together for common purposes. Notably, we have higher standards for them.
"A community for me is defined as a collection of humans with shared values who work together to ensure a viable present and future."
"Community is a group of people coming together with shared resources to support the collective."
"Invested in, contributing to and looking out and being willing to further invest in for the future of one's neighborhood and city its inhabitants (all of them)."
"Feeling like we are all working toward making our neighborhood and surrounding areas livable, inviting, thriving and safe."
"Having a sense of community means wanting what's best for everyone and working together toward that goal …"
Respondents used similar language to describe the unifying qualities they find in both their neighborhoods and communities. Trust, kindness and respect were terms cited most often in their responses to the survey.
So why is there so much turbulence, even menace, in our politics today?
One explanation is that culture wars and power politics at the national level are migrating upstream and infecting our local institutions.
But counter-currents persist at the local level. Recent surveys showed a majority of Oregonians think the state is on the wrong track. But this survey found that only 17% of us think that our neighborhoods have become a worse place to live over the past year.
Generally, we're happy with our neighborhoods. A sizable majority of us think that our neighborhoods are places where "you can trust people" (65%), "people talk to/help one another" (65%)" and "if I needed help, there are people who would be there for me" (64%). And, although there are variations by age, gender and race within these findings, the differences are small. Majorities agree with these observations across all subgroups.
These findings are encouraging. But OVBC found in an earlier survey this year that an even larger number of Oregonians (74%) are worried about the future of their communities.
Our civic watersheds, like our natural ones, are under stress. Fights over density are creating new divides in our urban and suburban neighborhoods. Local school boards have been roiled by protests over curriculums and their handling of diversity. Rural counties are in revolt over issues like the state's new gun safety law, barely enacted by an overwhelming vote from the state's urban areas.
Issues divide us and always will. How we work through them can either moderate or intensify our divisions, whether we resolve our differences or simply agree to disagree and get on with our lives together.
This survey confirms that our civic culture is strongest when sustained by person-to-person interactions and cooperation in our local communities. The more we pay attention to the health of our civic watersheds, the better we'll be able to calm the troubled waters of our politics today.
Tim Nesbitt is a former union leader in Oregon and served as an adviser to Govs. Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber.
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