There’s much we gloss over when talking about the role of place in our politics.
Every election in American politics is now about a single national concern: Donald Trump. Voters who fueled the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June’s Democratic congressional primary, for instance, were supposedly fueled by antagonism towards the Trump Administration, so the conventional wisdom goes.
What has long been reported has now been verified and explained by a fantastic new book, The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Politics Nationalized. Author Daniel J. Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has compiled and created the best empirical case yet that all politics is really national now, and the best explanations about how we got here.
Hopkins identifies several forces that led to nationalization. First, national political party organizations rather than state or local ones increasingly determine the candidates and causes that state and local party organizations then support. Second, media has increasingly reframed its coverage for a national audience, with new digital outlets centralized in major hubs like New York and Washington, while other local outlets are decimated by flailing business models. Whether you are consuming conservative media or liberal media, you are more likely to be consuming national rather than local media.
In reality, though, the nationalization of politics is in some ways really just the selective localization of politics. The people, priorities, and perspectives of these few specific places control the politics of those places—and of all other places. The excluded in the rest of the country are not rejecting truly local candidates as much as they never get to hear from them in the first place.
Nationalization is not a story about the declining power of place, but instead a story about the increasing power of a few places to determine politics everywhere. Our economy increasingly features place winners and place losers. For more than a century, state incomes were becoming much more similar—until the last thirty years. Now, in New York City, there are close to 400,000 millionaires (based on net assets), while the entire state of Mississippi features one-twelfth that number.
Our politics features similar place winners and place losers. Candidates for office benefit from prior careers that qualify them to run for office and win, and those careers are easier to assemble if one is from and lives in places with greater professional opportunities. The millionaire financier has an advantage in running for office compared to the underemployed service worker.
Candidates also benefit from knowing others who will promote their campaigns for office, yet those people are geographically concentrated as well. Donors needed to fund campaigns are in just a few places but control elections in many places. One study found that 5 percent of the nation’s zip codes contributed 77 percent of federal campaign money during a recent election cycle. Journalists who provide needed exposure for campaigns are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas. Particularly with campaigns now relying more on large data sets that those with higher levels of education are trained to handle, more and more highly educated individuals who could be valuable campaign staffers are in a few places.
Being connected to the most powerful few places benefits not just federal or state politicians, but even local politicians. Local politicians benefit from using big donors, big media coverage, or big data. Consider, for instance, Pete Buttgieg, the rising star in the Democratic Party currently serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttgieg worked in Washington for former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and presidential candidate John Kerry before returning back home to Indiana, and referenced this experience and the connections it generated to launch his first mayoral campaign in 2011.
Americans themselves are concerned about not letting a few specific places dominate our politics. This is why candidates for office on the left and on the right this year have referred to their opponents as tied to other places apart from the congressional districts they want to represent. One candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the North Country in far upstate New York, for instance, noted that the incumbent Republican member “has never actually lived here, paid taxes, or survived a North Country winter with us.”
The place losers, meanwhile, often do not get to choose between the local and the national, but instead between the Democratic candidate tied to the powerful places and the Republican candidate tied to the powerful places. After all, the two candidates for president in 2016 both were centered in New York City. With no one speaking to their local identities, they do not rank them as important, nor do they get to vote for candidates that rank them as important.
The empirical evidence of this is still emerging, but consider some suggestive results. One study, for instance, found that candidates for statewide offices “virtually never emerge out of rural areas or small towns.” Another data analysis by a doctoral student at the University of Maryland found that the percentage of members of the House of Representatives born in their district has declined very rapidly in the past forty years. And a review of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama found that—even in swing states—the staff was dominated by staffers from elsewhere.”
On the occasions when citizens are exposed to local political influences, they often respond favorably. Several empirical studies have found that local campaign volunteers are more effective in convincing people to vote. Candidates themselves—like Obama in 2008—believe that local helps, and so encourage their volunteers to sound local and try to make themselves sound local.
Take June’s Democratic primary election. Ocasio-Cortez not only ran as a candidate of the left, but of the local. The powerful Democratic incumbent she challenged, Joseph Crowley, was portrayed as a creature of wealthy Manhattan and Washington, not a creature of the Bronx and Queens. Ocasio-Cortez attacked Crowley for not living in their congressional district. In her campaign video from May, she noted that Crowley “doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us.” And she won.
Trump has primed the underlying cleavages that have always divided Americans into two categories: those who see place as predominant, and those who see place as passé. In reality, though, many Americans may actually want officials to be more of and for their place. Their desire is more often silent than significant because for many important elections, their choices are between strangers rather than between neighbors. We therefore cannot be sure how much all politics is national by choice—or by command.