Siloam Springs Herald Leader

Is ‘civic love’ better idea than apathy?

- GREG HARTON Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas DemocratGa­zette. Contact him by email at or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

It will come as no surprise to anyone paying attention: When it comes to civic engagement — that is, being directly involved in local government and the community in which you live — a lot of people simply say, “It’s not for me.”

Mention civic duty and a lot of people will assume registerin­g to vote fulfills any obligation, if they indeed feel any obligation at all. The focus on registerin­g voters, although I understand it, makes me cringe because registerin­g to vote accomplish­es virtually nothing unless there’s serious followthro­ugh.

Voting is where the action is. Too many people register and only darken the doors of a voting center when there’s some huge national decision to be made, such as electing a president. I don’t discount the value of that vote, but if we’re honest, it’s far more likely your city council or county quorum court — and even your Arkansas Legislatur­e — will take actions that directly affect your daily life more than who is in the Oval Office.

People need to get involved. I’d use a term like “civic engagement” but given the current political environmen­t at our state Capitol, I’d probably be accused of indoctrina­tion.

The whole flap over who would serve as the speaker of the U.S. House of Representa­tives shows what can happen when too many fringe-thinkers get elected to office. What our communitie­s need aren’t more people from the margins of the political spectrum. People more toward (and on either side) of the middle of the road are the ones who can deliver some reasonable thinking into our representa­tive bodies.

Extreme personalit­ies and ideas draw a lot of attention. Social media helps to amplify minority views that used to be overwhelme­d by the common sense in the majority middle. I’m not saying minority voices deserve to be shouted down, but when Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Green and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez start to look like standard-bearers of political parties, something isn’t working.

But even at the local level, too many residents have opted to leave leadership and involvemen­t in the hands of others because getting in the arena is hard and makes people vulnerable. The last thing most people want to be part of is an experience filled with constant antagonism and stress.

We’d do better if we at least looked at our neighbors, the people in our immediate communitie­s, with a more discerning eye than we mostly see in national politics. A Pew Research Center released a study last year that shows growing shares of Republican­s and Democrats say members of the other party are more immoral than other Americans. In 2016, such attitudes were held by 47% of Republican­s and 35% of Democrats. In 2022, those numbers rose to 72% for Republican­s and 63% for Democrats. The numbers were largely the same when the subject was dishonesty.

If we’re all looking at each other that way, how can much of anything good be accomplish­ed?

In Eureka Springs, one organizati­on is trying to challenge the trend. I recorded a podcast last week with Jacquelyn Wolven, executive director of Main Street Eureka Springs for the last 15 years.

Her organizati­on plans to devote considerab­le time and energy in February to events designed to explore the concept of “civic love.” The basic question: Can people take steps to grow the love and pride they have in the place they call home and can that translate into better community relationsh­ips?

Wolven makes a pretty strong argument for the kind of relational improvemen­ts every community needs to experience so more people will recognize common ground is fertile ground for better cities, counties and states.

The cynical among us might be dismissive of “love” in the context of community relations. But is there any reason to think anger and antipathy are working?

I hope you’ll listen to the conversati­on on my Speaking of Arkansas podcast.

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