In an era of national political dysfunction, choose community engagement

Nelson Del Tufo

For a four day stretch between Jan. 3 and Jan. 7, thousands of Americans tuned into C-SPAN to watch a curious drama unfold on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The nation’s citizens saw the newly elected GOP House majority repeatedly fail to elect a speaker of the House. The election of a speaker, done at the start of each new Congress, is almost always a formality. This January, however, the House failed to elect a speaker for 14 consecutive ballots, as far-right Republican representatives capitalized on their party’s slim majority and refused to accede to more moderate former Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speaker’s chair. A speaker’s election has not required more than one ballot since 1923.

McCarthy was finally elected speaker on the 15th ballot after a number of concessions were made to the most radical members of his caucus. These concessions, largely codified in a set of new rules that will govern the 118th Congress, may only serve to amplify the sort of dysfunction that was put on display during the speaker fight. Among these new rules are ones complicating the process for passing vital appropriations bills and a provision which allows for a single member of Congress to force a vote on ousting the speaker of the House, severely weakening McCarthy’s leadership position. 

Not only will McCarthy’s term in the speaker’s chair be defined by a set of rules that will complicate the passage of legislation, but McCarthy’s majority in the house — at present only 10 votes with one vacancy — is small enough that it can be held hostage by the party’s most uncompromising members. To pass anything, he will either need the help of the 20 Republicans who consistently voted against him for speaker or the minority Democrats who have every incentive to avoid working across the aisle in order to make the GOP look more inept. 

The fight over the speaker’s election and its aftermath make one thing painfully clear: National politics will not produce positive change in the short term. The GOP majority in the House of Representatives is either disinterested in or incapable of governing. Gridlock in the current Congress may even trigger a rollback of federal spending if a deal cannot be reached to raise the debt ceiling. Regardless, the next two years will produce little meaningful action by Congress. 

In this climate, it is easy to despair or to feel exhausted by politics. If our governing institutions are barely capable of organizing themselves, let alone solving persistent issues of policy, then what are we to do? In the face of national dysfunction, rather than withdraw from a politically active life, we should collectively redirect our energy toward local and communal action, where individuals possess more agency and can tangibly affect the lives of those around them. 

This is not to say that we should disengage entirely from national politics on account of  Congress’s current state. On the contrary, we should continue to vote, volunteer, or donate if able. However, our inclination to direct our attention toward Washington — and the disappointment we see there — should serve as a reminder that we needn’t look so far away. Congress, the president, and the courts each have the power to shape our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens, but our power to affect these institutions as individuals and students is limited. Rather than holding ourselves responsible for what we cannot directly change, we should focus on what we can. This means looking to our neighbors and our local communities.

Whether in Williamstown, Brooklyn, or San Juan, every community has issues that can be addressed through volunteerism. When driving for Meals on Wheels, a volunteer ensures that an elderly community member is well-fed. When translating documents at a local community center, a volunteer ensures that an immigrant family has access to the resources they need. Through civic engagement, a student can make the world a better place regardless of whether or not Congress is capable of producing positive legislation.

Students at the College are, by and large, well-informed and well-intentioned. For those seeking to do good in the absence of effective national government, local civic engagement provides a myriad of opportunities to make a difference.

Nelson Del Tufo ’25 is from Big Indian, N.Y.