Why Don’t Californians Talk About Politics?

A 21st Century Agora?

That was the question posed by a Zocalo forum this evening here in Los Angeles.  I wasn’t there — I was actually at my daughter’s school’s ice cream social, talking with other parents about politics, actually.  But had I been at the forum, I would have mentioned one partial theory that a friend of mine, a developer in Brooklyn, told me.

If you live in New York City, he said, you probably spend a good bit of time on the subway, which means you spend a good bit of time either waiting around or riding the train.  And that means that a tabloid culture surfaces.  People don’t subscribe to the Post or the Daily News (or the late, great, New York Newsday), he said: they buy it to read while waiting for the train or riding it.

In Los Angeles, people spend a lot of time commuting, too, and not necessarily longer than in New York City: but they spend it in their cars.  If they get any news — and particularly any local news — then they get it in 10-second snippets on AM radio in between weather and traffic.  That just doesn’t create a culture of local politics.  So the built environment and urban form matters not only for the quality of our personal lives: it matters for the quality of our political lives as well.

Does this explain everything?  Hardly.  After all, lots of people take rail transit in the Bay Area through BART and Muni, and last I checked, San Francisco is hardly a newspaper mecca.  (And no, that’s not because suave and intellectual San Franciscans are reading Proust).  I suspect it might have something to do with the relative size of city governments within a region: when the Mayor of New York City or Chicago does something, it really affects everyone in the region.  That’s hardly true of the City of Los Angeles, which, while the biggest single unit, is only one municipality among 88 in Los Angeles County.  Indeed, this would be an interesting way to invert the question: what are those cities and states where people do talk about politics?  When and how do they do so?  What are the contexts?

But the environment, I think, matters a lot here.  It’s not just for tree-huggers anymore.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Why Don’t Californians Talk About Politics?”

  1. Apparently one of the speakers at that event told of a study saying that L.A., S.F., Oakland and Minneapolis had the worst rates of civic participation. But then said that the study methodology was questionable. Or maybe it’s just that people there are happy enough?

    The best rates of civic participation were said to be in the cold states of the northeast. But then Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies pointed out that if California had the same population-to-legislator ratio as in Vermont or some such state, there would be a million billion members of the California Legislature. (Mike Feinstein, of the Green Party, and former mayor of Santa Monica, pitched proportional representation to give more groups a seat at the table — and doing that would be easier if there were more legislators.)

    An actual panelist said part of the problem is that community orgs are not getting members younger than “baby boomers” . . . but, really, who younger has the time? So Jonathan, your point about commuting time rings true. And on the Zocolo website, a pre-event faux “chat” had a former Calif. Assemblymember, an R, noting “the rapid reduction of newspaper reading” as part of the problem. http://bit.ly/lqdtdQ (The faux chatters were all from Northern Cal, suggesting that to bridge the North-South geographical divide in CA, non-profits must use the Internet, because travel funds are limited.)

    BART stations are pretty sterile, as are L.A.’s subway stations. So a little bit of grit helps? And I believe I heard of people being booted from BART stations for handing out political flyers.

    Anyway, the renowned public health leader Richard J. Jackson, M.D., once found himself at the CDC in Atlanta with no path to work on his usual issues, perhaps because he was so progressive. So he was more or less relegated to a project on the health effects of the physical/built environment, and produced some very convincing evidence that concentric streets and cul-de-sacs that force driving, and escalators that suggest pauses in effort, and things like that, were hurtin’ folks. It’s interesting to think of possible political participation dimensions of the built environment, too, and if just maybe they have a relationship to public health indicators . . . . Tell your developer friend in B’klyn. Meanwhile, if you want to talk with Dick Jackson, ask Tim Malloy. They just co-authored a paper.

  2. This is an interesting question. As a regular BART rider, I can say that I do see a lot of newspaper reading on the trains, but much more iPod listening and iPhone emailing and game playing. Generally people in the Bay Area read the New York Times if they’re going to read any newspaper. The Chronicle just doesn’t cut it (although I’m a junkie for local news). But at the same time, there are pockets of communities in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles that are extremely political — think Berkeley and Santa Monica or West Hollywood. And they don’t necessarily ride trains or buses more than others.

    My guess is that the level of interest in politics is culturally determined and influenced by family tradition. If you were raised to care about politics, you’ll probably care about politics. If you grew up in a family that loves hockey, you probably love hockey. Lots of people came to the West to pursue careers, escape families, or leave the entrenched institutions and cultures of their birth places. Those “founding” members just may not care that much about government, and as their descendants, we carry on the tradition.

  3. Tabloids may not matter much in Southern California, but I have a strong suspicion that sports talk radio does. (Not to mention regular AM talk radio.) Driving around in an insulated, air conditioned bubble (luxury late model import, leased) for hours listening to such self-assured, often intolerant banter has to have an effect. The general attitude and underlying politics seem ideal markers for the freshman Republican class in the House. There was a little mention in the New Yorker a few months ago about a fitness craze among the Paul Ryan types on the Hill–the K31 program or something–and then I heard it, that same routine pitched on a sports talk radio show alongside ads for listeners with credit and virility issues.

    While the references to politics are reductive, even hostile, the sports chatter can be anything but. Perhaps it has to do with the fantasy sports thing, but the sports banter isn’t that partisan. Callers aren’t appreciated so much for their fanship as for their insights, what are called “takes”. Trades, salary caps, player stats, strategy, it’s amazing what these guys know. I’m often like, wow, if you folks could just apply this amount of knowledge and interest to the real world.

  4. The event summary is here: http://zocalopublicsquare.org/thepublicsquare/2011/05/19/we-need-to-talk/read/event-rundown/ , with links to photos and full video.

    Not mentioned is that one of the panelists mentioned the terrible traffic getting across town in L.A. as a participation-killer. Insiders know you can call your councilmember in advance of a meeting or hearing and arrange free parking beneath City Hall. Free parking takes some of the edge off the drive.

    The most welcoming cities with the most vibrant pedestrian scenes around L.A. are the ones that provide free short-term (2-hour or so) parking in large structures. Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, old town Pasadena, Culver City. You want a participation hub in L.A.? Provide lots of free parking! A little mass transit too.

    Most of BART is not a subway, and nobody’s selling food and drink to go with papers on BART, because you aren’t allowed to eat or drink. And there weren’t many newsstands in BART stations last time I checked, outside of downtown, where an afternoon paper would be a better seller.

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Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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