The national media spotlight is focused on the 2016 presidential campaign, and attention to national politics will only intensify as we move into the primaries and the general election season in the next few months. But next Tuesday in locales throughout the country, many of us will have the opportunity to vote in local elections. Although local elections in “off” election years have notoriously low voter participation rates, Catholic social teaching calls us to be attentive to local politics for at least two reasons. First, it is at the local level that we build the bonds of solidarity and inclusion necessary to transform society on a larger scale. And second, the principle of subsidiarity suggests that local forms of participation ought to be strengthened while also being attentive to the interconnections among local communities and between the local, state, and national levels.
The Ecology of Everyday Life
In his recent encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis asks us to consider the “ecology of everyday life,” that is, the way “the setting in which people live their lives . . . influence[s] the way we think, feel and act” (no. 147). And although the ecology of everyday life clearly reflects broader national and even global patterns, we have the most influence over it—the “buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities” (no. 150) in which we carry out our lives—through local politics. Francis affirms that with effort, even the most alienating urban environment can be transformed into a “network of solidarity and belonging” (no. 148).
Northern Virginia, where I live and work, is experiencing demographic and economic growth, and therefore a good deal of the local politics here is focused on the expansion of infrastructure and public services. One of the primary concerns of local officials in Prince William County, where I live, is the expansion of public transportation for commuters who work in Arlington or Washington, DC. For example, some are advocating for the expansion of the Blue Line, part of the DC metro area’s Metrorail system, from its current terminal point in Fairfax County further south into Prince William, and also for the expansion of the regional rail system (the VRE). Such expansions could ease commuter traffic and the associated pollution and make transportation more affordable. As Pope Francis notes, the transportation system has a great impact on a community’s quality of life (no. 153).
Last year the County Board of Arlington County, where I work, voted down a proposal to build a streetcar line servicing south Arlington. The DC Metrorail extends through other parts of the county, but south Arlington lacks a metro station. This not only makes it more difficult for the residents to access the rest of the DC metro area, but also hinders economic growth by discouraging the establishment of restaurants and stores around a potential transport hub. The proposed street car line was intended to remedy this situation. This problem is compounded by the fact that south Arlington’s population is disproportionately African-American and Latino compared to the rest of the county, and is also experiencing higher rates of population growth than elsewhere in the county.
Pope Francis writes, “It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighbourhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others” (no. 151). With the failure of the street car proposal, the leaders of Arlington are faced with the question of how they can promote this “sense of the whole” in a community where others will “no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a ‘we’ which all of us are working to create” (no. 151). Our ability to develop this sense of solidarity with our neighbors whom we encounter face to face sets the pattern for how we will respond to the larger issues we face as a society.
The rapid growth of the population in Northern Virginia has led to overcrowding in the schools in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties, as well as in the city of Alexandria. This has led to pressures to expand existing schools and to build new ones. Since much of this growth is due to the increase in the immigration population, the public schools have also had to expand their ESL programs and other student services. Add on top of this the ongoing national debate about standardized testing and teacher compensation and you have an explosive mix.
Prince William County experienced a rapid period of population growth beginning in the 1970s, in part as a result of “white flight” from Washington, DC and Arlington. By the 2000s, however, the sources of population growth shifted significantly to immigrants, as well as Hispanics and African-Americans from Washington and other parts of Northern Virginia, searching for more affordable housing than that found closer to the center of the metro area. Today Prince William is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States. These different “layers” of population, however, have contributed to tensions over immigration and race which bubble over into the education question, as well as other issues such as policing and crime.
The principle of subsidiarity, a key part of Catholic social teaching, is often discussed in terms of finding the appropriate “level” of action to address a particular issue, but it has just as much to do with the interaction between different levels—local, national, and global. For example, while immigration is rightly an issue of debate at the national level, much of the work of actually addressing the issue has to take place locally. Government leaders in Prince William County must work with the local communities to make the schools and other public institutions inclusive, while also ensuring that the costs of school expansion are distributed fairly. And addressing immigration at the national level must include providing assistance to regions such as Northern Virginia to help these communities respond to the bread and butter issues like schooling that, when left unaddressed, fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.
In the past few weeks my television and radio have been bombarded with advertisements focused on a proposal to begin tolling on part of Interstate 66, which residents of northern Prince William County (and Fauquier County, further to the west) use to commute to Arlington and Washington, DC. The proposal would toll drivers without passengers on I-66 inside the “Capital Beltway” (I-495), which in Northern Virginia encircles Arlington County and parts of Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria. The proposal is controversial because part of the funds generated from the tolls—primarily paid by residents of Prince William and Fauquier counties—would be used to expand bus services and bike lanes in Arlington County. On the other hand, the tolls would also help pay for the already ongoing widening of I-66 outside the Beltway, which will help ease rush hour congestion.
The issue of tolling I-66 shows how the concerns of local communities can be intertwined and how their interests need to be carefully balanced. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II insisted that the principle of subsidiarity means that the government must take on the role of “harmonizing and guiding development” (no. 48), helping to coordinate the interests of local communities and enterprises without taking over the latter’s legitimate functions. In this case, the Commonwealth of Virginia must work to ensure that the interests of both commuters and the residents of the I-66 corridor inside the Beltway are balanced and the costs of the project distributed fairly. Representatives of these local communities must not only advocate for the interests of their constituents, but also recognize the valid concerns of other stakeholders and strive toward a workable solution.
Every local community faces different issues, and I have only chosen examples from Northern Virginia to show how the vision of Catholic social teaching can guide reflection on these local issues. Catholic social teaching insists on our responsibility to be informed about and participate in the political process, and that is true even when that process is not in the national media spotlight.