Want To Make a Difference? Forget National Politics

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I’ve never lost an argument.

I have, however, been royally exasperated at times by my inability to convince my opponents of that fact. And nothing exasperates me more than arguing with people who spend inordinate amounts of time thinking they’re influencing what’s going on in Washington, D.C. by talking about it. Watching American Idol, by my way of thinking, is equally as politically productive as watching the evening news or, say, the Daily Show. While I appreciate the passion that my friends apply to to the national political debate, I do so with the mental image of an ant on a log, swearing he’s steering it.

Don’t get me wrong. I vote. Voting is to democracy what clouds are to rain. Necessary, but not very close to the action when people start getting wet.

So, what does this have to do with my never having lost an argument? Well, the argument I keep having — the one my opponents swear I’m not winning — concerns my view that national politics, compared to personal, neighborhood, organizational and community life — are pretty insignificant.

Many consider it blasphemy to suggest that anything so dynamic as national politics and as big and powerful as our federal government could be anything but the guiding forces in our society and our lives. I’m just not buying it. It’s a Grand Soap Opera, and like the Days of Our Lives, you can come back every few years and realize the plot hasn’t moved very much.

National politics, after all, are not cause, but effect. Issues, movements, trends and society-shaping events all start at the local level. Tip O’Neill, even with 34 years in Congress, said it best: “All politics is local.” Issues work their way up, not the other way around.

Historically, to win my argument, I pull out the example of the time when children were crawling into refrigerators in landfills and suffocating. By the time legislation worked its way up to require that doors be removed when refrigerators were to be discarded, not a child had suffered that fate in five years.

Put another way, Washington, D.C. is old news, a stamp of approval, a formalization, a standardization of what Americans long ago had decided…and done. To get on the front end of the political spectrum, you want to get as far away from the nation’s capital as possible.

I’ll grant you the example of an abandoned refrigerator hardly impresses someone who just watched his 88th straight day of analysis on why Hillary Clinton criticized Barack Obama — or vice versa. With politicians playing on such a grand stage, the argumentative deck has always been stacked against me.

That is, until I came across an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. I’ve been told, over the course of this election cycle, that health care is making a comeback on the national political scene. Having just celebrated our five-year anniversary of our victory in Iraq and convinced, even if we think we can affect the direction of national politics, that we cannot affect the price of gasoline, well, by golly, health care must be important. And it is.

For one thing, consider the stakes: Americans spend $2.1 trillion a year on health care. And with 47 million of us who aren’t covered and our collective health status pretty much in the tank, compared to other developed nations, well, by God, someone had better do something about health care. Harrumph. Harrumph.

But here’s the rub. There’s not a politician alive — with or without a plan — who can do much, if anything, about it.
Getting to the bottom line of the health care issue — whether you live or die — the New England Journal published the “Shattuck Lecture” through the Massachusetts Medical Society about what really ails us. Dr. Steven A. Schroeder examined the five top contributing factors in premature death. Notably, “inadequate health care” accounted for 10 percent of those deaths, meaning the other 90 percent aren’t really going to be affected by the national debate. Individual behavior is the obvious culprit, and virtually ALL of the realistic solutions to this health care issue are local. When we support Girls on the Run, Meijer Kids Fun Run, youth sports and daily exercise; when we ban smoking in public places; and when we take pop out of our schools and replace it with nutritionally balanced lunches, then we address health care. With that approach, it might even be affordable.

In my mind, I’ve won the local vs. national involvement arguments so many times and so convincingly, I’ve never really chosen to play my trump card — logic. But, I will now, lest my adversaries would attempt to sway your thinking with the notion that something big is about to happen in the Grand Soap Opera. Logically, you know you have more effect on what is close to you.

Logically, you understand what affects your health and your community’s health. Logically, you know you can go to work on it — at the local level where, logically, you know you can make a difference.

And then at the end of a hard day working on this important national issue, you could still watch the Daily Show.

Blaine Lam and his wife, Bobbie, own Lam & Associates, a community relations firm with the mission “to help improve the quality of life in Kalamazoo County.”