All Politics National? All Power Local

Newark      I recently read a fascinating argument by Yascha Mounk, a Harvard instructor in The New Yorker that was wrapped in the cover of a review of some new books trying to puzzle through the political life of the nation currently.  The heart of the argument Mounk and some of the cited authors made, to boil it down, was that in these days and times “all politics is national” a rejoinder to the classic expression from former Speaker of the House and Democrat from Massachusetts Tip O’Neil that “all politics is local.”

Much of this argument was hung on a current book by the University of Pennsylvania’s Daniel J. Hopkins called The Increasingly United States.  So, full disclosure, I’ve just added the book to my Kindle, but haven’t read it yet, so I can’t pretend to do justice to him and the rightness or wrongness of his argument, but I can follow Mounk’s argument pretty well.

There is a lot going for it.  National party platforms have become more easily distinguishable.   Issues are more ideological, though the divisions in both parties between moderates and extremes within these platforms are stark, there are signposts that are easily observable by most voters.  Certainly, communications through daily news channels have become heavily nationalized with less and less local coverage past the blood and gore, traffic and crime beats.

The point is made that voters “have grown less able to name their governor and less likely to vote in local elections.”   The structure of the ballot and the diminishment of standard civics undoubtedly plays a role as well, but there has been a falloff from the top to the bottom of the ballot virtually forever unless there are heated local contests.

I don’t want to quibble though.  The real issue that leaves me scratching my head as I try to absorb this argument is less about politics and more about power.  Parties are still pretty weak in resources, structure, and their roles in daily life outside of the direct election cycle, so it is hard for me to believe that they have reached peak power in our democracy in the way being speculated in these reports.

Power is still very diffuse.  The impact of money is huge and the right with the Koch’s and the left with the Steyer’s have proven that money is especially powerful in moving the dial in the more localized frameworks of states and cities.   The way power devolved to the states and the stark differences between life and citizen expression and benefits in blue versus red states, Democratic versus Republican states, continues to make a case that pretending that all politics is national puts all of us in peril.

The truth still remains that without a strong local base, it is hard to move the political needle nationally.  My advice for what it is worth continues to be:  don’t move to Washington.  If you want to change the country, dig deep, and do the job where you are.

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