America’s framers expected citizens to be preoccupied with state and local government. What happens when all they care about is Washington?
After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional district on June 26, it didn’t take long for her nemesis to emerge. Politico fingered the Bronx liberal’s “chief congressional antagonist” in July: US Rep. Ron DeSantis, who represents 2,682 square miles of pine forest, agricultural land, and seaboard between Orlando and Jacksonville. After five years in the House, the Florida Republican was gunning for the governor’s mansion—and had just pocketed a quick $10,000 after a fundraising email bashing Ocasio-Cortez generated five times more clicks than the standard boilerplate.
What bearing does an aspiring representative for the eastern Bronx and north-central Queens have on the executive branch of Florida? One might as well ask how former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney finds himself campaigning “to bring Utah’s values” to the US Senate. Or why Conor Lamb C’06 L’09’s successful campaign to represent the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania attracted nearly twice as many contributions from outside the state as from within it.
We are living in The Increasingly United States, contends associate professor of political science Dan Hopkins in a new book bearing that title. News audiences have flocked from local papers and broadcast stations to national cable and internet sources. The closer an elected office is to a voter’s home, the less he or she seems to know or care about its occupant. Between 1998 and 2012, financial contributions to the average Senate campaign doubled while the money directed to governors’ races flat-lined. So of course Ron DeSantis went out swinging at Ocasio-Cortez; these days Florida Republicans care more about a potential backbench Bronx Democrat than their own next governor.
And by Hopkins’ lights, she in turn would face more pressure in Washington to toe the party line than buck any part of it that disfavored her own constituents. The days when Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill struck his famous deal with President Ronald Reagan on the 1986 tax reform legislation—partly by cutting side deals with New York legislators of both parties who feared facing wrathful constituents emptyhanded—are long gone. By the time Democratic Senator Ben Nelson negotiated a “Cornhusker Kickback” worth $100 million to the state of Nebraska to make the Affordable Care Act more appealing to its voters, ideological purity trumped O’Neill’s brand of compromise. That deal was stripped from the final legislation, and a thoroughly scorned Nelson scrapped his bid for reelection.
As national political discourse and loyalties increasingly commandeer the attention America’s founders expected citizens would pay to state and local government, the consequences ripple out far from Capitol Hill. “Americans are political monogamists,” Hopkins writes, “not the polygamists their institutions presuppose.”
He spoke with Gazette senior editor Trey Popp about “How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized”—the book’s subtitle—and what that portends for the future of self-government in the United States. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
“All politics is local.”True or false?
Definitely false. It’s a dictum that comes from Tip O’Neill and has come to have lots of meanings—all of which are limited today, because when American voters think about politics they default to thinking about Washington, DC.
Has it always been that way?
I think it’s been shifting in stages. When Tip O’Neill was first running in the 1930s—when his dad told him that all politics was local—that really was true. Then the New Deal moved a lot of authority to the US federal government. And as a consequence, controlling Congress and the presidency became more important.
So we’ve seen nationalization rising since the 1930s, but in ebbs and flows. It rose in the ’30s and ’40s and then tapered off in the ’50s and ’60s. Partly what was happening in the ’50s and ’60s is that the parties were realigning, and a lot of people who for a long time had been Republicans or Democrats were reevaluating those connections. And during that period of uncertainty, we saw a lot more ticket-splitting. We saw a lot more people who were voting for a Republican for president, but otherwise chose Democrats down the ballot.
Since about 1980 we’ve seen nationalization in various guises really take off. Nowadays voting for president is increasingly predictive of how people vote for governor. And turnout has been declining in state and local races, so there’s an increasing turnout gap. Turnout in mayoral elections has been on the decline. Americans are focused on the presidency and turn out in presidential elections.
You set out to find instances where local concerns might presumably trump national level political allegiances, like whether living near a military base might be a better predictor than party registration of someone’s support for defense spending, or if living next to the ocean might shape attitudes toward climate change. What did you find?
If all politics were local, then one of the things we should expect is that people living in different places, who have to face different issues in their day-to-day lives, should have different political attitudes.
Here in Philadelphia we may talk a lot about charter schools, for instance. And we understandably don’t talk a lot about wolf hunting. But in the Rocky Mountain North, the delisting of wolves from the endangered species list and subsequent questions around state permissions to hunt wolves, is a real issue. Some communities in the US face very real challenges from climate change, whether it’s the shifting weather patterns that could threaten their agricultural livelihoods, or the rising ocean levels that could threaten their homes.
So I looked at a whole set of these potentially local issues to see which might lead people to adopt different political attitudes depending on where they live. And the broad summary is simply that knowing where somebody lives tells you very little about the political issues that they care about and the political attitudes that they adopt—particularly once you take into account whether they’re a Republican or a Democrat.
The title of the book, The Increasingly United States , invites some cognitive dissonance, given the Red versus Blue rhetoric that has dominated the 21st century. But I think you see a paradoxical origin to that polarization.
The title is designed both to provoke people but also to get us thinking about the fact that the United States today is much more of a singular political battleground. We are increasingly united by the fact that we all share a common political discourse. And we’re all, in the various corners of this great, large, and diverse country, nonetheless debating very, very similar issues with one another.
One of the things that I really worry about is that there’s a real disconnect between the varied issues that face different places across the country, and the fact that we have a two-note political conversation in which Republicans versus Democrats, or conservative versus liberal, is just applied to every debate in a kind of thoughtless way that often distorts it. It refocuses our attention away from tangible local issues that we can actually act on.
When we look at that omnipresent national map colored blue and red, it presents these blocks that seem very stubborn and unlikely to change from a given election to the next one. Are you saying that the less we attend to locally relevant issues, the deeper our geographical divisions actually become? Or is geography not the most useful way to look at polarization?
Those maps of the 50 states colored in red and blue, while obviously helpful in reinforcing the central role of the Electoral College in choosing the president and also the role of the states in choosing senators, is in an important sense really misleading. If I go to, say, a closely divided but Democratic-leaning state like Minnesota, and I talk to Democrats there, they are likely to prioritize a set of issues that are not dissimilar from the Democrats in New York or Arizona or other places. So if we focus too much on the red-blue map, what we miss is the fact that nowadays Republicans in central Pennsylvania are going to increasingly have a set of attitudes and a political profile that looks like Republicans in parts of South Carolina.
Some of political polarization’s most profound impacts, I think, are actually seen not in Washington but at the state and local levels, because we have a polity where, increasingly, even elections for very local races can be recast as Trump versus Clinton or Obama versus Romney.
The genius of the US federal system is precisely that there are lots of different places where we can address lots of different issues. And one of the things that I worry about is that Americans tend to be on average more trusting of local levels of government. But as we have come to focus on national politics, we’ve also come to be very distrustful of government and its ability to intervene in people’s lives generally, up and down the board. And so we’re just not taking anywhere near full advantage of the federalist institutions that would let us address different issues and have different debates in the different states and localities.
What are the consequences at the federal level? And is there an upside to the nationalization of political discourse?
One way this nationalization is good is that it increases the coherence of the signals the candidates send, and it in some sense then gives voters a better sense of what people are likely to do in office.
But that’s only on a set of national issues that may not be that relevant to their offices. What we gain is a sense of where people fall in national politics. I partly worry that we then lose the ability to have 50 different political conversations in the 50 different states.
Political systems also rely on some level of slack, some level of deal-making. And in a more localized Tip O’Neill-style world, there’s always the capacity to make deals. Because let’s say there’s a bill coming before Congress that a member is not particularly excited about. Well, there’s always some way that you could, by funneling money to that member’s district, potentially make the bill good enough that that member is going to support it. But nowadays voters care less and less about what it is that candidates and officials have delivered for them specifically.
In the 2014 Senate race, whether it was in Arkansas, Louisiana, or Alaska, there was a whole set of Senate Democrats who ran basically on the claim that they had done a good job bringing home benefits to their state. And, to a senator, they lost. And they lost because their constituents had come to care far more about whether they were with or against Obama than anything about their specific local service.
Voters are one aspect of this. Might the nationalization of political behavior have consequences on elected officials, as well—on who chooses to run for office, or how they behave once they’re elected?
Absolutely. For one thing, we’ve seen a tremendous shift in campaign finance patterns. Nowadays politicians, irrespective of where they’re from, will travel to a small number of “ATM districts” where they can raise money. And those are places for Democrats like New York or California. For Republicans, they’re places like Dallas.
As late as 1990, when members of Congress were raising money, two-thirds of the money that they were raising came from within their state. Now, two-thirds of the money they’re raising comes from outside their state. And that’s going to mean that politicians are more closely embedded in these nationalized networks and less likely to bring an Iowa-specific or a Nebraska-specific perspective. Indeed, as in the case of Sam Brownback, who was until recently the Republican governor of Kansas, they’re more likely to bring a national perspective to their specific states.
One of the real positive attributes of American federalism is its openness. That is to say, if one particular party controls Washington, it may well be that another party controls the state or the local level. So there are always avenues for committed conservatives, for committed liberals, to see their views enacted in policy, to work on policy problems.
Over the past several years, the Atlantic ’s James Fallows has done a bunch of reporting from mostly small communities around the United States. He contends that, even as our national politics have gotten increasingly ugly, frustrating, and monopolizing of our attention, there has been a flowering of initiative and experimentation among municipal governments. Do you think that there may be room for that kind of a dynamic to gain traction?
America is such a large and diverse country that it’s very easy for us either to point to local basket cases or local success stories. The question I would have for Fallows is, yeah, I think that at any given time you could point to specific localities where there’s real experimentation. But you can also point to localities where there are deep challenges—and where the mismatch between the depth of the challenges that those places face and the resources they have is really pronounced. And I think that there are a whole number of challenges nowadays that do require potentially a national solution, or at least some level of permission from the federal and the state governments for the lower levels of government to pursue them in an unimpeded way.
And yet there’s a lot of impeding going on. There’s been a rise in legislation by state governments seeking to quash the ability of certain localities to do something—for instance North Carolina preventing Charlotte from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances, [or Pennsylvania preventing localities from enacting local gun-control statues.]
Given the depth of contemporary national-level polarization, the federalist system could be a better safety valve—but it would require partisans on both sides to be willing to let the other side pursue policies in states and localities. And this national-level polarization is critical to why you’re sometimes seeing the federal government try to overrule the states, or the state governments trying to overrule localities … we’re basically all fighting over the same thing.
Ultimately, part of the flexibility of American federalism comes from forbearance—it comes when, even if one side may not like how the other side is using another level of government, that they should nonetheless, to the extent that it is permissible by law, try to find spaces [to let that experimentation take place] and not try to just immediately shut down these kinds of efforts.