The presidential campaign may seem exciting, but in fact it is lifeless. It has little to do with the important kinds of politics that most affect our everyday lives.

What’s more likely to impact your lives tomorrow: ISIS and Trump, or a decent place to live, a school you can trust, and a vibrant, safe community?

And if national government continues in gridlock, which it is certain to do regardless of who wins the presidency, where do you think the focus of change is going to have to be?

Earlier this year, Micronesians accounted for about 20 percent of people in Honolulu's homeless camps like this one in Kakaako.
A homeless encampment in Kakaako. Homelessness and the need for affordable housing are problems that define communities, and the most-successful efforts to address them will come from local sources, not the next president of the United States. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

In Washington? Really?  Or in communities and neighborhoods where small groups of people work to rebuild piece by piece.

Presidential races are about sweeping statements, big gaffes, and grandiose pronouncements. Presidential campaign coverage is about winners and losers.

Racehorse politics.

But there is another sort of politics that gets lost in this. It is the everyday, small-scale politics where groups of people plod and struggle under the radar to get the job done in their communities.

Plough horse politics.

For some, plough horse politics is a matter of life. It is a way of flourishing in small, bright pockets surrounded by decay. 

Some people have diverse political ideologies, but they do not get in the way. You get the feeling that avoiding ideologies is a badge of honor. National politics is something to work around.

For others less fortunate, this brand of politics (or the lack of it) causes pain, suffering, and even death.

So let’s take a close look at pieces of America that have, often surprisingly, flourished. James Fallows calls this “local resiliency and adaptability.” Then we’ll consider places that sadly show the opposite.

Understanding these differences between flourishing and failing will tell you more about what is important in American life than any analysis of Trump support or any discussion of the centrist-progressive tension in the Democratic Party.

In their recent Atlantic articleJames Fallows and his wife Deborah reported on their three-year study of some American communities that were going through successful “civic reinvention.”

These included diverse and surprising places like Duluth, Minnesota; San Bernardino, California; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Northern Mississippi; Holland, Michigan; and Pittsburgh.

None on your frequent flyer mileage destination list, correct?

Some of these places have been able to attract high tech companies, accommodate immigrants, reform their schools and develop arts colonies as a place of refuge for artists oppressed in their home countries.

What the revitalization processes in these places have in common are five characteristics that are quite different from national politics:

• Divisive partisan politics are not a concern. The people involved have diverse political ideologies, but they do not get in the way. You get the feeling that avoiding ideologies is a badge of honor. National politics is something to work around.

• It is easy to identify local social entrepreneurs, as well as grassroots leaders. They make themselves available.  They are not likely to be elected officials.   

• There are successful public/private partnerships that are often initiated by the community before it gets government help.

• As Fallows puts it, people share a common “civic story.” They actively share a narrative of the place’s problems and potential. They have big plans, but they are big plans for small places.

• They pride themselves on their openness and diversity.

Strong social networks are at the heart of this important small-place revitalization. They make everything go. It’s not simply that people have an inclination to change things. Even the most economically marginal of them have some kind of resources that they have the capacity to contribute.

Now let’s look at affordable housing, a situation that is about as far from this kind of revitalization as you can get.

Lack of affordable housing disempowers people, enhancing and creating civic decay.

Affordable housing is a national problem that is getting worse.  In Hawaii only 29 percent of extremely low-income people are in housing they can afford (the accepted standard is rent that is 30 percent of income or less).

It’s not simply a low-income problem. 

The average Hawaii hourly wage for all renters is less than 40 percent of the hourly wage needed to afford a market, two-bedroom apartment.

What often results from this is a spiral of awful consequences in which eviction is the central act.

This downward spiral creates a significantly large group of vulnerable people who constantly are either facing the possibility they’ll have to move or are in the process of moving — often to a worse place. They may even face the threat of living on the street. 

It destroys the possibility for Fallows’ civic reinvention for the people who need it the most.

As Matthew Desmond, who lived in and studied low-income parts of Milwaukee for two years, put it in his new book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in an American City,” “Eviction can unravel the fabric of a community, helping to ensure that neighbors remain strangers and that their collective capacity to combat crime and promote civic engagement remains untapped.”

Sure, the presidential campaign is important. But while you are glued to NPR’s coverage and marvel at Bernie’s Flatbush/Burlington charisma and Trump’s whatever, also do this: 

Think about how distant, abstract, and irrelevant the election is to a grassroots group rebuilding a rundown neighborhood in San Bernardino or a threatened-with-eviction Milwaukee mother whose infant daughter burned to death in their substandard home that she could not get her landlord to fix.

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