If you are a U.S. citizen, do you think of yourself as an American, or as a Pennsylvanian? A Californian? A New Yorker? (Okay, we know the answer to that last one.) Wherever you live, it’s likely that you look at politics in national terms—seeing more coverage of national than local issues, and perhaps even donating to candidates from other states. Then the responses to COVID-19 became a reminder that local officials pack a lot of power in America’s federalist system.
Two years ago, Daniel Hopkins, Professor of Political Science, wrote a book called The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized. Now, with measures to combat the new coronavirus putting a spotlight on state and local governments, we asked him what has changed.
Your book argued that Americans are paying less and less attention to local and state elections. Why do you think that is?
In recent decades we've seen a real shift in American politics, with voters paying increasingly disproportionate attention to federal-level politics to the exclusion of state and local politics. The U.S. has a federal government and a federalist structure that gives substantial authority to states and localities. So, we are now in a position where voters are overwhelmingly focused on and attentive to the machinations of national politics while many of the meaningful decisions that are being made about their lives are made by state and local officials.
I think there are a number of factors driving this. One is shifts in the nature of the news media. It used to be that if we, a generation ago, woke up here in Philadelphia, we would have been expected to read, say, The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to watch local TV news. Nowadays, news outlets target people not based on where they live but based on who they are and what they're interested in—whether it’s cooking or right-leaning or left-leaning politics. So, we are partly in a nationalized media environment, or at least one where people can watch Fox News or listen to NPR in most parts of the country.
Now our two major political parties increasingly are like McDonald's and Burger King. They're offering basically the same product nationwide.
I would also point to the broad trends in political polarization in the parties. It used to be that our American political parties were big-tent, broad coalitions that often brought together people across the country with pretty different views about politics. There used to be a substantial number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Both of those groups have basically disappeared.
Now our two major political parties increasingly are like McDonald's and Burger King. They're offering basically the same product nationwide. When you walk into a McDonald's, you don't need to know where that McDonald's is to know what you're going to order. I think something very parallel is happening in politics where we no longer need to give adjectives by saying, for instance, that someone is a Blue Dog Democrat, or a Southern Democrat, or a or a Northeastern Republican.
What accounts for increased polarization?
Patronage used to be much more important. Our politics were a bit less about the policies that the winning parties would implement and more about controlling the spoils of office: to be able to appoint your side to different important political positions.
I think the end of the Cold War played a role. I think that one of the central factors has just been that in national politics in recent decades, the two parties have been highly, highly competitive. Given the frequency with which we hold elections, it's a rational strategy for those parties to fight the other party tooth and nail. In the last 20 years, in every single election there has been the very real prospect that at least one chamber of Congress was going to change hands. So, there was very little incentive for legislators to work with one another because by not working with one another, they could hasten returning to the majority.
What is the effect of this lack of attention to the more local offices?
I think that both COVID and deep concerns and protests about police brutality have reminded us yet again that we have issues that affect different localities in very, very different ways. One of the challenges is that you see the rise of symbolic issues and symbolic gestures. We talk a lot about, for instance, statues, or who's standing for the national anthem, in part because those are issues that can command broad attention. If we start to talk about the funding formula for the Philadelphia school district, immediately you lose most of the national attention, and, in ways that are both good and bad, you lose a lot of the energy that animates national politics.
Do you think people will pay more attention to the local elections in this upcoming cycle?
People now should have a better sense of their governors and their mayors. I certainly think that there will be some governors and mayors who may face penalties or be rewarded for how they've handled different circumstances. But at the same time, so much of this is refracted through the same lenses.
In survey data I've been doing around attitudes toward COVID and policies to respond to COVID, I’ve seen that partisanship is now such a central way that people refract information even when they are trying to figure out, "Is my governor doing a good job or a bad job?" Often they're going to rely much more on partisan cues than on-the-ground experience. But I do think that it's going to be a really interesting question to see if places that are thought to have handled this better or worse are going to reward or punish their state-level leaders.
Do you think much will change about how people think about politics?
We have such a nationalized media system, and President Trump is also very effective at drawing attention to himself. Many governors are often thought of based on how they relate to Trump. Local newspaper subscriptions aren't way up as far as I know. The national tides are too hard to swim against if you don't have an information environment that can give people a lot of information. If two coworkers never ask each other what they think of the governor, never talk about what's happening in state politics, then state politics isn't really a very robust, meaningful target of action or of interest.
Political behavior and people's identities are incredibly hard to change. So then the question is, "Can we modify our political institutions so as to bring them into line with our realities, or can we shift things on the margin to get people to pay more attention to local news?" I think that bolstering local news is one valuable thing to do, and I think that there are a variety of regulatory changes that would help encourage people to acquire local news.
I think that we should strongly consider shifting our campaign finance regime. It's hard, given current constitutional law and jurisprudence, to prevent people from donating across state lines. I think that we could, for instance, match local dollars and so incentivize politicians to spend most of their time raising money from the people who actually vote for them. It's crazy if you look at fundraising numbers and realize that in 2012, for instance, two-thirds of fundraising of members of Congress came from outside the state that they represent. So, they are necessarily going to be spending a lot of their time talking to people who are not actually their constituents but have some prospect of giving them money.
With all these challenges, what are the benefits of a federalist system?
To some degree a federal system at a time like this is a blessing because it does allow states and localities to chart their own course in the face of a pandemic. But one of the factors that has profoundly limited those benefits is partisan polarization and the fact that political leadership, particularly democ governors, may have a very, very hard time imposing some of the necessary rules or getting people to comply with some of the necessary rules because of the partisan baggage that it comes with. And I think that's just a symptom of the challenges of nationalized and polarized politics.