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All Politics is Not Local

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at local elections. See his previous OUPblogs here.

As we follow the NJ and VA gubernatorial races, and the special election for the 23rd congressional district in New York (NY23), the debate has overwhelmingly been about whether or not these races are wind vanes for the electoral weather to come.

So some thoughts in this vein, before the main point of this post. Obama is campaigning hard for NJ Governor Jon Corzine because he needs to show errant Democratic members of Congress that he still has coat-tails. If Corzine pulls off his re-election bid, members of Congress seeking a presidential endorsement in 2010 will at least think twice about voting against the president in 2009. If both Creigh Deeds and Corzine lose (and in the former’s case, it is practically a foregone conclusion) in their respective gubernatorial races, then the rationale for party unity suffers and it is every politician for her/himself here on out. If this happens, Obama will face an even more recalcitrant Democratic aisle of Congress than he does now.

Meanwhile, with the exit of Dede Scozzafava from the race in NY23, the conservative movement looks set to shake up the Republican establishment, as Sarah Palin has promised. The soul-searching of the Republican Party continues; may the most powerful faction win.

Notice that none of these observations pay any attention to local concerns and local consequences. The significance of these races is entirely predicated on their potential impact on the balance of power in Washington, DC. When the punditry agrees without acknowledging that they do, their consensus is worth examining. There was a time when all politics was local. When the media establishments were not yet centralized in a few major outlets and the coverage of issues nationalized. A time when voters came out to vote for candidates at the local and state levels. Such races did not depend on huge television advertising budgets or endorsements by nationally elected officials, and they were not seen merely as divinizing tea leaves for the future but as important contests in their own right.

Today, voter turnout for local and state elections is paltry, and turn-out off-year elections is abysmal. An army of national media, however, has descended in Virginia and New Jersey and even in upstate New York, to cover the races not for the benefit of local and state residents, but for the impact it will have on the balance of power in Washington. Even conservative, states-rights oriented politicos understand that all local politics is national. (The revealing contrast is the high turnout for national elections in Europe and the low turnout for elections to the European parliament owing to the different balance of power between the center and its confederal parts in Europe.) Power resides in Washington, not in states, cities, or communities, because Washington’s potential reach into every state and locality is extensive. Even those who want to invert this balance of power have been compelled to concentrate their attention and energies to the Federal City. We are all Federalists now.

Politics is no longer local because the return to turn-out is minimal at the state and local levels. In the 19th century, local party workers toiled to get the vote out because there were patronage jobs to be earned if their candidate won. Parades, torch-light processions, rallies, barbeques, banners, buttons, and insignia got people worked up and ready to go to polling booths. Contrast this level of enthusiasm for a 22 year old voter in Virginia who had voted for Obama last year. “Politics is boring,” he said. “I know Obama is making changes, but it takes so long to make things happen.” And that is why he is probably not going out to vote next Tuesday.

The lesson to be learned in next week’s contests is not what they will predict about the future, which will be endlessly debated even if only time will tell, but what they reveal about the transformation of American democracy, which time has already told.

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