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The Dartmouth
February 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

de Wolff: All Politics Are Local

Young Americans should not give up on being politically involved in their communities despite the messiness of federal politics.

This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Dartmouth is not an activist’s campus. 

This may come as a surprise, considering that the government major is one of the most popular choices for undergraduate students, although our small size and rural location may also play a part in the lack of campus activism. Our stability on campus in recent months relative to many of our peer institutions has proven this point. Yet, despite Dartmouth not being quite so outwardly demonstrative as other campuses, there is still a spirit of political engagement present among our student body. In the countless conversations, op-eds and classroom discussions I have witnessed this year, there is a courageously persistent drive among students to do something to address the problems of our age. 

The inscrutable question tormenting the bright minds of this campus revolves around what that something might look like. To solve it, we must reexamine our attitude towards politics and recommit ourselves to the great American political experiment.

Although the theme of this special issue is “Polarized,” one thing Dartmouth students can agree on is that whatever Washington, D.C. is doing, it’s not working. Except for a few blinkered partisans, most students are not thrilled with how our country is being run into the ground. We may differ on the particulars as to who’s responsible and how it’s happening, but the general sentiment remains the same.

While there is an admirable desire among our generation to right the ship, there is also a pervasive sense of apathy that our best efforts may all be for naught. This attitude reflects itself in the growing disenfranchisement with democracy among Generation Z, and it is this defeatist mindset I wish to address.

The truth is, we have grown up in an era dominated by ugly partisanship, characterized by politicians’ broken promises and defined by a measurable decline in the standard of living previously enjoyed by our forebears. As the French Counter-Enlightenment philosopher Joseph De Maistre noted, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” This quote has been used by those such as former President Barack Obama to lay the blame for our national dysfunction at the feet of lazy, unengaged citizens. However, I believe that there is a deeper, more inspirational grain of truth contained within it.

It’s easy to let the negativity of national politics dismay you and lull you into a state of inactivity and despair. It’s easy to look at radicals on either side of the spectrum and hope against all odds that they will go away if we ignore them. In short, it is easier to strip yourself of any responsibility to solve daunting problems than to face them. Cancel culture compounds this issue by beating down anyone who dares challenge current orthodoxies. In the words of former President Theodore Roosevelt, “There is only a very circumscribed sphere of usefulness for the timid good man.” If we remain too timid to address our problems, we will continue to have a feckless government that reflects this.

This is why we must reorient our vision of what it means to be involved in politics. Too often, today’s self-styled activist youth use Instagram infographics to absolve themselves of any responsibility to effect tangible change in the real world. Your city councilman or congressman is probably not looking at your umpteen story posts, unfortunately.

Instead, quietly working on meaningful projects outside the scope of national politics is a far better way than haranguing your friends on social media if you want to secure a better future for our country. Politics is a means to this end, and Dartmouth students would be better served by engaging in the politics of their local communities rather than directionless partisan antagonism. Remember that politics is a means of keeping America safe, prosperous and free — but not a means of reshaping society in one’s image. If we believe that our government ought to work for us instead of its self-serving occupants, we must not relinquish our involvement in all of its various levels.

While staggering sums of money are funneled into federal elections, you can have an even greater impact with small donations to campaigns at the local and state levels. If you are concerned by crime overtaking your community, donate to candidates in District Attorney or Attorney General races who will work to keep you safe. Additionally, donating your time can take more forms than just working for a local campaign (although this is a solid approach). If you are concerned by radicals on the school board or city council, attend their meetings and make your thoughts known — or even run for these positions yourself. My own experience working in state politics has taught me the value that one well-timed testimony by an ordinary American can have in swaying the minds of local legislators.

However, your involvement can take on less traditional forms as well. Most people do not want to run for office or work on a political campaign. Like many Dartmouth students, you may seek a lucrative career in fields such as finance, tech or medicine. You can then put your earnings to good use via philanthropic causes and political donations. The philanthropy of billionaire David Rubenstein is one positive example of this. His donations to restore and refurbish landmarks of American history, such as the Washington Monument and Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, have enriched the ability of ordinary Americans to appreciate these sites. A historically conscious electorate that is cognizant of its heritage is a powerful bulwark against mob rule.

In the same vein, you should educate yourself about the history and traditions that undergird our political system. Voting in presidential and congressional elections is the bare minimum for considering oneself an involved citizen. If we are to extricate ourselves from our various present quagmires, we must learn from our past mistakes that led us here to avoid repeating them in the future.

Wherever you may live, there are issues that your Dartmouth education equips you to address. We are incredibly fortunate to receive such an education, but it comes with the responsibility of putting it to good use. As you decide how to involve yourself, consider President emeritus John Sloan Dickey’s dictum that “the world’s problems are your problems.” This does not mean that you should shoulder the weight of the world like a modern atlas. Rather, treat it as a call to uphold your responsibilities as active participants in the great American political tradition we have all inherited.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

Thomas de Wolff

Thomas de Wolff '24 is from St. Louis, Missouri, and is majoring in History and French. He currently serves as opinion editor and as a member of the Editorial Board, and has written for the opinion section in the past. Outside of The Dartmouth, Thomas enjoys playing guitar, reading, and learning to juggle.