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Opinion | View From the Right: Virtue signaling isn’t virtuous

Political columnist Eric Drzewiecki explains how local government meetings devoted to topics local governing bodies can’t tackle is a strain on time, resources and relationships

By Eric Drzewiecki

If you’re anything like me, a brief glance at social media always results in exposure to political memes.

First, the annoying uncle laughs at a meme of President Joe Biden falling asleep. Then the activist cousin replies with a meme about eating the rich. Now everyone has exploded at—or even blocked—everyone else.

Regrettably, local politics isn’t that different from social media feeds. Engaged or curious citizens who pay attention to Green Bay city council and the Brown County board certainly notice the occasionally intense tit-for-tat exchanges over purely symbolic measures. Eventually these proposals derail entire meetings lost to the latest flavor-of-the-week spat.

In recent years, discussions and typically symbolic-only votes on issues such as marijuana use, gerrymandering, prayer before meetings, racism as a public health crisis, English as our official language, if we should investigate (or support) the mayor because we’re mad (or happy) about an election, if we should ban (or emphasize) Critical Race Theory at schools and if we should make Northeastern Wisconsin a supposed sanctuary for various different causes have made their way into local government meetings.

That’s a lot of virtue signaling—moral grandstanding without any action behind it—for an area still figuring out how to keep our roads repaired on a reasonable schedule.

I’m sure you and I don’t agree on some of the above topics. Maybe we would’ve voted differently if we were in those rooms. But you know what? As differently as you and I may think about those topics, we’re more impacted by the time wasted when governing bodies with no authority to effect change on said topic decide to hold purely symbolic hearings and votes on that same topic.

Of course, not all virtues are equal. But every meeting spent discussing an issue that isn’t solvable by the governing body at said meeting is a missed opportunity to solve real problems at home. And we’ve got no shortage of real problems. I don’t know about you, but I expect my local government to fix the roads of my city more than I expect it to fix racial tension in the United States. So why do they spend so much time doing the latter?

Politicians – and all people for that matter – use virtue signaling to pretend they’re doing something without actually doing something. Passing an advisory resolution lets politicians tell constituents that they’re one of them.

But advisory resolutions don’t help people. Fixed roads help people.

On the flipside, virtue signaling comes at a cost— loss of camaraderie. When deciding to make a statement is worth burning an entire meeting, it does more to alienate dissenting voters than to help people to whom we’ve given purely symbolic gestures. Think about it – how many times have you been more annoyed to see a t-shirt, meme or yard sign with a virtuous message that offended you versus being happy to see one you agree with?

As the seeds of lost camaraderie come back to bear fruit, distrust between fellow citizens rears its ugly head when it comes time to work together to get real things accomplished. Virtue signaling by local politicians is really the same as posting political memes on social media. No one who agrees with the signal is as positively impacted as the people who disagree are alienated.

And next time, we’ll need to work with those freshly alienated people to figure out how to accelerate road repair or optimize freshly vacant buildings of businesses that closed during the thrust of the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot afford the expense of creating new enemies when the only payoff is a symbolic gesture for a few friends.

At the same time, let’s approach this with humility. How many times have we shared a meme or post and later come to regret it after the fallout? Local officials are no less subjected to the same temptations to show loyalty to their allies. So the next time your local, elected official wants to make a symbolic gesture declaring Northeastern Wisconsin a “sanctuary” for God, guns or Guatemalans,
kindly remind them it’s a waste of time and camaraderie.

And in a world still trying to recover in the wake of destruction left by COVID-19, we simply cannot afford to waste either.

Eric Drzewiecki is a lifelong resident of Brown County. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and currently serves on the Astor Neighborhood Association Board, the Green Bay Board of Review, and is a youth leader at a local Green Bay church. He can be reached by email: [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed by weekly columnists, illustrators and community members submitting letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Green Bay City Pages, its advertising partners or its parent company Multimedia Channels. Editorials are clearly labeled and represent the views of the Editor who wrote the column. To submit feedback, a letter to the editor, pitch an idea for a recurring column or voice a concern, email Green Bay City Page Editor John McCracken at [email protected].

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