America has local political institutions but nationalized politics. This is a problem.

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This post is part of Polyarchy, an independent blog produced by the political reform program at New America, a Washington think tank devoted to developing new ideas and new voices.

A newsprint mailer menaces me every time I come home. It’s the District of Columbia Voter Guide. I keep it on my front entranceway table to remind me of the upcoming June 19 District primary election, the only election that matters in my 90 percent Democratic-leaning city. But Election Day is approaching, and I’ve still just glanced at it, only to realize how little attention I’ve paid to local politics.

This is bad. I own a home in DC and pay local taxes. I send my daughter to public school. I also write about and analyze politics for a living. But it’s all national politics; the local is only a blip. Honestly (and ashamedly), I don’t really know what’s at stake in this election. I assume not much, since none of my neighbors seem to be paying much attention either. They all want to talk about national politics too.

I’m not alone. The overwhelming majority of Americans consume disproportionately more news about national politics than about state and local politics. In one analysis, 99 percent of respondents in a typical media market never visited websites dedicated to local news. In a typical local election, fewer than one in five citizens bother to vote.

There are at least half a million elected officials in the United States. Only 537 of them are federal. And yet almost all of our collective attention is on those federal officials and in particular, just one of them: the president. As a result, elections these days, at every level of government, increasingly operate as a singular referendum on the president. Candidates matter less and less, party more and more.

This disconcerting disconnect between national political behavior and localized elections is the subject of an important new book, The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized, by the political scientist Daniel J. Hopkins. (Full disclosure: Hopkins and I co-wrote an academic article together, and I participated in a workshop for his book, so I’m not an unbiased critic. Nonetheless, I earnestly believe he’s written an extremely important piece of work that deserves widespread attention.)

If you’re looking for a single takeaway, it’s this: America’s Constitution created a system that prioritizes place-based voting. We now have nationalized political behavior in which local politics are only interesting to most people as they relate to national politics. “Today’s nationalization,” writes Hopkins, “stands in sharp contrast to some of the core assumptions made by the framers of the US Constitution.” This is a serious problem. The disconnect undermines electoral accountability and exacerbates polarization. Something has to give.

A lot has changed since 1787

Once upon a time, there was no internet. There was no television. There were no trains, no canals, barely any roads. Everyone stayed close to home. Thirteen states, all former British colonies, largely viewed themselves as independent nations, with independent cultures and loyalties. When the framers came to Philadelphia in 1787 to improve on the Articles of Confederation, they had to wrestle with these local loyalties. There was no such thing as a national, American, identity. Not yet.

A political system in which states would have strong independent authority and their own equal political representation (the Senate) was a peaceful political solution to integrating these 13 states into a single union. It also could fit into the emergent political theory of the framers — that decentralization was the key to preventing tyrannous majorities from forming. Thus, as Hopkins writes, “For the framers, citizens’ state-level loyalties were a crucial counterweight to the centralizing tendencies inherent in a federal system.”

For the first century and a half of the American republic, the states mattered more than the nation, in the hearts and minds of the people and in the ways the spoils of politics were allocated. Two national parties existed, but they were primarily confederations of state and local parties, which retained unique state and local identities and could offer jobs and other perks in exchange for support. As Eisenhower quipped as late as 1950, “There is not one Republican Party, there are 48 state Republican parties.”

But by 1950, the conditions that sustained local variations on political culture and politics were already disappearing. Local, patronage-heavy parties were in decline because, as Hopkins writes, “civil service laws reduced already-limited supply of patronage jobs available at the same time that rising affluence reduced demand for them.” The older generation of spoils-seeking party men without fixed principles gave way to a new generation of activists attracted more to abstract moral issues than clerkships. State parties withered.

In the 1960s and ’70s, candidates developed their own independent organizations, relying on television to reach voters directly. Since the 1980s, the national party organizations have become the dominant political players, controlling more and more money and messaging. As national politics polarized, Hopkins writes, “two major parties have been sending voters increasingly clear, consistent, and distinctive signals about their policy preferences.”

There are no longer 48 state Republican parties (and not just because there are now 50 states). There is one national Republican Party, just as there is one national Democratic Party. Organizationally, state parties are now little more than clearinghouses for voter rolls and pass-through vehicles for national parties’ fundraising efforts. Programmatically, Hopkins finds, the party platforms are more or less the same everywhere. There’s not much variation.

In any given election, this makes it easier for voters to choose without much effort. If all local Republicans and Democrats are just stand-ins for the national Republican or Democratic Party, candidates themselves don’t matter all that much. Why bother doing any extra research, or following local politics? “Like customers choosing between Burger King and McDonald’s,” Hopkins writes, “voters today are faced with very similar choices irrespective of where they live.”

But the short-term convenience of standardized brands comes at a long-term cost for democratic accountability: If local candidates know that they won’t be evaluated on anything more than the D or R after their name, it changes how they think of their role. What can they do if their electoral fate depends almost entirely on national tides? As Hopkins writes, “Today’s vote choices are simply too nationalized for politicians to build much of a reputation separate from their party’s.”

Hopkins shows that gubernatorial elections these days can be almost entirely predicted by state presidential vote share. This is also the case for congressional elections, and for state legislative elections. There’s not much candidate-based accountability going on.

One consequence is that conservative state policy networks have figured out how easy it is to provide model bills to enact extreme state-level policies with almost no accountability, taking advantage of the fact that state legislatures are populated by political amateurs with few independent resources (as Alexander Hertel-Fernandez has documented). This is incredibly consequential. State governments still wield significant power over a wide range of policy areas, quite independent of Washington, particularly in social welfare provision.

Interestingly, Americans tend to view state and local governments much more favorably than the federal governments. But this is probably more a sign that they’re not paying close attention. In general, the more Americans pay attention to governing, the less trust they have in the process. It is also likely that since many state and local governments are now basically one-party fiefdoms, there’s not much of the public partisan conflict that also tends to reduce trust in government. In short, high trust shouldn’t be confused with high performance. It probably just equates to no visible scandals or conflicts that would interrupt blissful ignorance.

Are states still laboratories of democracy? Not so much.

One longstanding case for American federalism is that it can provide a fertile ground for policy experimentation, for so-called “laboratories of democracies.” But in this era of nationalized partisanship, it seems as if we’re now basically operating just three labs: the solid red ones where Republicans are making policy, the solid blues ones where Democrats are making policy, and the handful of purple ones where hyperpartisanship is particularly nasty and very little gets done.

Here’s Hopkins again: “American federalism is no longer facilitating the expression of various issues and conflicts. Instead the debates in states and even some localities have taken on a national hue, as state political conflicts become an extension of national conflicts, albeit with a different balance of forces.”

A just-published analysis of state policymaking by Jacob Grumbach makes a similar point: “Rather than a decentralized federalist system with vertical differences across levels and horizontal differences across regions, American governmental institutions look increasingly like a single arena of partisan combat over public policy.”

In short, if federalism is to provide a space for policy experimentation, local political parties have to be somewhat separate from national political parties, and not easily captured by narrow interests that can pursue extremist policies without accountability. This is simply not the case.

How nationalization and polarization reinforce each other

Over the past four decades, American politics has become both more nationalized and more polarized. As Hopkins argues, these two phenomena reinforce each other. As parties grow polarized, they have clearer and more distinct brands that make it more likely that voters evaluate state and local candidates through their national affiliations. And if this is how candidates think voters are evaluating them anyway (based entirely on party affiliation), why bother with the boring local issues? Why not instead build a reputation for supporting so-called sanctuary cities, or some such national cause, that will excite voters and build a following? But this only increases polarization, which increases nationalization, and so on, until …

Until what? “There is now a critical disjoint between Americans’ political institutions and their loyalties,” writes Hopkins. “Americans are political monogamists, not the polygamists their institutions propose.”

Take Lou Barletta, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania. Barletta launched onto the national political scene in 2006. As mayor of Hazleton (an old coal town in northeast Pennsylvania), Barletta enacted some of the most aggressive local anti-immigrant ordinances, gaining a reputation that endeared him to hardline conservatives and helped him become a Congress member.

He’d probably still be mayor if he only focused on local roads. Instead, he’s a model to ambitious local politicians everywhere, a model of the ways you can ambitiously ride a divisive, polarizing, partisan issue. I suspect many of the Democratic governors and mayors fighting to protect sanctuary cities have a similarly ambitious twinkle in their fight.

But aren’t people connected to place?

The nationalization of politics reflects a broad cultural transformation since midcentury, in which Americans have become far more attached to their national identities than their place-based identities. “When compared to their attachment to the nation as a whole,” Hopkins writes (based on his analysis), “[Americans] place-based attachments are markedly weaker. What is more, the content of state-level identities is typically divorced from politics. They focus on beaches and bayous — on unique geographic features — rather than on the values or political traditions that could give rise to a meaningful, indigenous political culture.”

Certainly, we care about the hyperlocal — we’re very interested in what happens in our immediate neighborhoods. But there is very little political authority at the neighborhood level. Most authority is at the city- and statewide level, which is more distant and more abstract, but not well-covered by the media. It’s only the politicians who attach themselves to national causes who seem to break through.

What then, is to be done?

American political behavior is nationalized. American electoral institutions are primarily state and local. This is a problematic disconnect.

Is there anything to be done? Assuming we believe this is a problem, it seems to me there are three main responses.

One approach would be to lean into nationalization and end the place-based system of representation. Replace most local elected officials with political appointees, and move to a more nationalized election, which would have to be done through proportional representation. If voters are laser-focused on national politics, why ask them to decide on the local politics they largely ignore?

This seems unlikely, given the serious constitutional obstacles in nationalizing elections, and the fact that most people like the idea of local representation even if they don’t pay it much mind.

Alternatively, could we deliberately return to the federalism of yore, in which local issues dominated over national ones? After all, as Hopkins notes, it has certain important benefits for national political harmony: “In decentralized political systems, politicians can work together in national politics while being grounded in quite disparate local policies or goals. One’s national affiliation does not determine one’s local views, as the parties contain substantial internal divisions.”

Perhaps Democrats’ newfound 2017 commitment to federalism will amount to more than a form of resistance to Trump. But this seems unlikely. In modern American history, federalism tends to be the fleeting refuge of the party that loses power in Washington — a refuge that lasts until the next power reversal.

Yet even if we as a nation collectively decide we want to cultivate state and local political loyalties over national ones, it’s not clear how we’d accomplish it, given the nationalization of political identity that Hopkins charts. Plus, leaning more into federalism could further fragment national political unity and hasten a secession crisis. It would also create some serious concerns about the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

Let me then propose a third approach: What if we had state and local parties that were different from national political parties — parties that could vary based on local issues and concerns, and therefore reflect divisions and conflicts that are most relevant at the local level?

Nationally, Republicans and Democrats are evenly divided. At the state and local level, most places are tremendously imbalanced, leading to a lot of one-party elections. Most classic definitions of democracy require some meaningful opposition and alternatives, and parties are essential for that to happen.

Separate local parties would almost certainly decrease national-level polarization, because they would be a source of cross-cutting national alignments. This would be sort of like what we used to have, in which national parties were less meaningful and clear because they were coalitions of overlapping state parties.

We’d need some electoral reforms to get there — ideally some version of proportional voting at the state and local level, like what’s on the ballot next week in Santa Clara, California. But that’s a conversation for another piece. And disparate state and local parties could also undermine national political coherence, a problem political scientists complained about once upon a time. So we’d also want to move toward a more national system of proportional voting.

Back now to that menacing DC Voter Guide. When it comes time to fill out my ballot, I’ll ask my friend who works in city government for his guiding advice. But not everybody has that friend. I could also look around to see which groups have endorsed which candidates, which will give me a good sense of which candidates represent people like me.

There are indeed factions within the local Democratic Party that represent different parts of what remains a quite segregated city. It would be clarifying if we had local parties that actually reflected these divisions. Ideally, we’d also have some additional parties that emphasized a few cross-cutting issues.

Yes, it would probably make city politics more contentious. But the controversy would make voters care a little more. We’d also have political parties with a stake in turning out voters.

After reading Hopkins’s book, I feel both less and more guilty about my ignorance of local politics. Less guilty, because I’m not alone; there is a certain shamelessness in numbers. But more guilty because I’m ignoring the political jurisdiction where my participation has the greatest chance of actually mattering. And in doing, so I’m fueling the polarization-nationalization doom loop.

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