Politics Are Local

In state and local elections it’s been widely reported in voter data that older voters vote more often and reliably than younger voters; that minority groups vote in smaller percentages and less frequently than Caucasian voters; and that Republicans vote more frequently and in higher numbers than Democrats. Why does this happen?

Some explanations may focus on work schedules or conservative principles of civic duty. I want to discuss the differences in ideology or philosophical outlook, and the experiences and perceptions different voting blocs have toward federal versus local government and why that matters for voter turnout in non-federal elections.

First, it seems fair to say that the conservative creed is more suspicious of the federal government than they are of local government. They’re also much more suspicious than more progressive voters. As such conservatives, and hence Republicans, are more active in local government because that is where they believe more governmental legitimacy should reside. Furthermore, they are more vocal about, and resistant to, their property taxes and this is managed at the local level.

Contrast this with some experiences of minority groups. Many do not own property, but they also have a history of more negative experiences with local government, not federal government. The Civil Rights Movement needed to be a federal movement to protect minority groups from discrimination that was often carried out by the will of the local and state governments. It was the federal government who were the good guys. More recently, while local and state governments have made progress toward racial equality, the most intimate interaction many people have with local government tends to be the police. This relationship is still, to put it mildly, strained.

One may think this would make minority voters more likely to turn out for local elections, but I think the opposite may be true. Due to feeling alienated by their local governments they opt not to participate as they won’t feel represented anyway. This leaves the door open for conservatives to participate without equal opposition and therefore elect the officials they want to enact the policies conservatives desire.

Along this line, there is an argument, by Peter Beinart from The Atlantic, that Democrats tend to be more international and cosmopolitan about human rights than many conservatives. Liberals seem more suspicious of the idea of American moral exceptionalism than conservatives. This would help explain why liberals or Democrats feel there are bigger issues involved in federal elections than when discussing an election for a local police chief, mayor, city council, or even state governor.

If Democratic constituencies want to see more change for the good of their communities and lives, they need to get more involved locally. By abstaining they’re ceding the policy agenda to Republican or conservative interests.