If timing is everything, I’m in trouble. As a lifelong organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, I made a habit of instigating trouble for those who tried to exploit the leaders in the communities I worked with, but rarely made trouble for myself.

Can we retrieve and expand an appreciation of meaningful politics that is locally based and locally generated in a time of intense national polarization and division?

Yet now I am choosing to write a piece defending politics a few days before a national election roils the nation and troubles the world. This is a moment when the words ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ are usually spoken as curses, smears, charges, indictments, not as descriptions, much less as constructive activities and urgent titles.

I’m also writing in another, albeit less immediate, shadow cast by a short book of approximately 270 pages written by the late British social critic Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics. The book was first published in 1962, when the catastrophic shadows of the holocaust alongside the horrors of totalitarian fascism and communism were still the stuff of our daytime dread and our 2:00 a.m. nightmares.

I should say up front that Crick was a socialist. I am not a socialist—I never was and I never will be. Despite this obvious difference of opinion, Crick’s book remains one of the most penetrating and important critiques of ideology and ideologues. Even as Crick aligned himself with socialism, he simultaneously tried to convince his fellow socialists of the errors of their ways. I recommend his book to all of my fellow non-socialists, and even anti-socialists.

Crick’s book begins with a table of contents listing matters that politics, as he defines it, must be defended from: “ideology,” “democracy,” “nationalism,” “technology,” and “false friends.” These defenses come between an opening chapter on “The Nature of Political Rule” and a closing chapter titled “In Praise of Politics.”

Let me start with Crick’s definition of what politics is and what politics isn’t. He writes:

Politics is too often regarded as a poor relation, inherently dependent and subsidiary; it is rarely praised as something with a life and character of its own. Politics is not religion, ethics, law, science, history, or economics; it neither solves everything, nor is it present everywhere; and it is not any one political doctrine, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, or nationalism, though it can contain elements of most of these things. Politics is politics, to be valued as itself, not because it is ‘like’ or ‘really is’ something else more respectable or peculiar. Politics is politics. The person who wishes not to be troubled by politics and to be left alone finds himself the unwitting ally of those to whom politics is a troublesome obstacle to their well-meant intentions to leave nothing alone… Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule… For politics represents at least some tolerance of different truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid open canvassing of rival interests. Politics are the public actions of free men, freedom is the privacy of men from public action.

• • •

About a year ago, I was sitting in the Bossard Library in the small river town of Gallipolis, Ohio. I had been exploring the possibility of working with local leaders in the region to create a new citizens power organization in a mostly rural corner of the state. In my travels, I had met interesting, complicated, innovative individuals trying to cope with the challenges of daily life—opioid addiction, decades of job loss, limited or no broadband access, lack of affordable housing, and, of course, others still. As a result of those meetings, the head of the library, Debbie Saunders, along with a small team of leaders that included an Episcopal priest, a specialist in addiction recovery, and an evangelical pastor, decided to host a meeting with other local institutional leaders to discuss the broadband issue. We reached out to one of the five Federal Communications Commission commissioners, Geoffrey Starks. He agreed to attend.

People with different beliefs can gather, engage, debate, and focus on a common challenge. This is the starting point from which meaningful change can occur.

So there we were, in the heart of Trump country, in a well-run and inviting local library, with about forty hospital administrators, school superintendents, librarians from seven counties, ministers, addiction service professionals, community college deans, and many others, discussing how to remedy the lack of broadband access in that region. The gathering was a textbook example of how people with “at least some tolerance of different truths, some recognition that government is possible” could gather, engage, debate, and focus on a common challenge. Geoffrey Starks is an African American man and a Democrat, appointed during the Obama administration. No one in that room cared. Nor did he care that the majority of people in that room, if polled, would have probably confessed to voting for Trump in 2016 and considering voting for him again in 2020.

This gathering, receiving no media attention, was “politics”—the public action of free women and men.

A month ago, about 2,000 leaders and members gathered virtually for an assembly sponsored by another Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate, New Jersey Together, to discuss issues of criminal justice reform, education, and affordable housing. The leaders of the group—among them Pentecostal bishop Dr. Joshua Rodriguez, Episcopal priest Rev. Laurie Wurm, Baptist pastor Dr. Alonzo Perry Sr., Lutheran minister Rev. Jessica Lambert, and housing leader Uche Akpa—had invited the five most powerful elected officials in the state. The two considered the most progressive—Governor Phil Murphy and U.S. Senator Cory Booker—did not attend. The three considered more moderate (and even conservative)—Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and U.S. Senator Robert Menendez—all made appearances and responded to the discussions raised by the group.

So there we were in Biden country—in a virtual setting, with 2,000 residents of the state who represented almost every point on the political spectrum, with political figures who were not the darlings of the left or progressive wings of New Jersey—trying to find common ground on challenges that affected every resident who lost a driver’s license for a trivial reason, or who could not find an affordable home or apartment if making less than $100,000 a year, or who had a family member or friend trying to connect with society and find employment after a stint in jail. This, too, was “politics”—mixed, messy, unpredictable, and partial, sure, but also real—the base and starting point from which meaningful and long-term change could occur.

Two weeks ago, 1,000 leaders gathered virtually in East Brooklyn, New York. Last week, 3,000 leaders held a founding virtual assembly in Wake County, North Carolina. In November, 1,500 leaders will do the same thing in Queens, New York, followed in February by a similar number in Prince Georges County, Maryland. In every one of these gatherings, “different groups, hence different interests and different traditions” engaged with one another before expressing shared concerns to a set of elected officials. These gatherings are examples of “politics.” These gatherings are the public actions of free women and men.

• • •

In 2013 I wrote a piece about the history of radical education expansion and improvement in the United States. It began in the 1820s, when religious organizations founded a set of small colleges in the Midwest. These organizations were abolitionist, open to women, and creative in their melding of social values and pragmatic scientific and mechanical instruction. In the twentieth century, local communities founded and funded thousands of new high schools, followed by hundreds of community colleges. This produced a large part of the infrastructure of mass public education that we now take for granted—and it was locally supported and locally driven. The history of this institutional innovation and maintenance is largely hidden as well. Why? Perhaps because it simply does not conform to the ideological constructs of the market promoters or the progressive activists. Perhaps because it occurred, for the most part, in the center of the nation—the so-called fly-over states—not in the two coastal regions favored by the elites. Perhaps because it took so long to unfold, at least 150 years, that we simply don’t have a lens wide enough to take in the breadth and depth of these trends. Whatever the reason or reasons, this tendency to ignore the productive social work done by local U.S. leaders is dangerous. It’s as if the teaching of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill—that all politics is local—has been turned on its head. What is local is not perceived as real or meaningful politics; only that which happens on a national stage is really seen as politics.

There is a dangerous tendency to ignore the productive social work done by local U.S. leaders and to disregard local politics in favor of the national. But people do not have to choose between local and national politics.

Can we retrieve and expand an appreciation of meaningful politics that is locally based and locally generated in a time of intense national polarization and division?

This would require, in part, an act of faith in the capacity of people to relate to those unlike themselves, people with different interests and from different traditions. That is something that can only happen, in my opinion, on a local level, where people maintain relationships that are mixed by their religious, work, recreational, and neighborhood lives. This would also be based on the notion that good government, with all its limitations, is possible. This notion is best tested in local and regional settings, where there are more opportunities to hold public and private sector players accountable. Local politics would test the proposition that Crick’s “open canvassing of rival interests” could lead to better and more long-lasting solutions. And it would challenge the assumption that fundamental change occurs from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.

But people do not have to choose between local and national politics. Indeed, the events and leaders I mentioned earlier clearly have not. However, I would argue that the balance has radically shifted, in both traditional and social media, away from local social change toward a focus on national policy and personalities. That leaves most Americans divided into two corners—one group completely frustrated if the national outcome does not go its way, while the ‘winning’ group assumes that the new national leadership will ride to its rescue.

Finding a better balance would allow millions of Americans to engage in the practice of politics that Bernard Crick described as “a way of ruling in divided societies without undue violence… inventive, flexible, enjoyable, and human.” No matter what the outcome on November 3, the American people must draw on the long but hidden history of healthy, complicated political activity. They are still doing it today, although in not nearly enough places and less and less in the middle of the country, once the quiet innovator of constructive civic solutions.

If Joe Biden wins, this civic culture will still need to deepen and expand. Biden, like former President Obama, cannot generate this kind of politics alone—even if he wants to. If Trump wins, the only antidote to despair will be to generate and expand new solutions at local, state, and regional levels.

No matter what the outcome on November 3, the American people must draw on the long but hidden history of healthy, complicated political activity.

In short, no national figure or party can start or stop this kind of politics—the public actions of free women and men. But it will take two things to reinvigorate this politics. First, an act of profound civic irreverence—a weaning away from the assumption that Washington is and should be the center of all power and influence. Second, a new generation of pragmatic leaders who do not consider local politics as a “poor relation” to national political activity, but who reclaim it fully as U.S. civic politics.