Little Rock Tip O’Neil, the iconic old Boston pol, and former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, once famously expressed the dicta, “all politics are local.” Even as the modern world is increasingly knitted together, that observation continues to hold in many areas. What may be changing is not the fact that all politics are local, but that “all issues are national.” Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit, but increasingly the trend for national, even global, issues to provide the litmus test for local politics are advancing at supersonic speeds.
The evidence is all around us. The short list would include the way climate, inequality, criminal justice, immigration, and abortion, to name just a few, have all become litmus tests on local politics. And, yes, vaccine mandates and the Covid-19 pandemic are yet another 600-pound gorilla that have forced their way onto that list as well.
Many local elections are now proxy fights for national issues and interests. For example, a local runoff election for sheriff in New Orleans is turning on whether one of the candidates is a prison abolitionist wanting to defund the police. Who knows what the candidate’s position is on this, but big contributions have been made to her campaign by national organizations with that program, so in fairness, it does stick on her shoes. The media has a dominant role in this transition of the national to the local, because with decimated local news rooms, the score keeping on national issues for local actors is a shortcut way to package current events and controversy.
All politics remains local to the degree that even in a small way, local city and state officials are part of moving the needle on many of these issues. Something huge like climate is key on the Gulf Coast for example, even if Jane and Joe state legislator is but a cog in the wheel. Cities like Portland that try to go zero waste or states like California that are going to begin classifying heat waves and naming them, much like hurricanes, prove the point. Of course, some of this is ridiculous, like the Texas effort to leapfrog federal efforts to arrest immigrants at its border which has been a farce with thousands held and only 3% prosecuted at heavy expense to the state. Nonetheless, they all make the same point in succumbing to the dominance of national issues.
Advocates on all sides are marshalling at the borders of one state after another to prepare for the state fights and legislative election races that may determine the patchwork on the next round of abortion laws, in the wake of possible decisions by the Supreme Court on Roe vs. Wade. Blue states want to get prepared for a surge of women from out of state needing services. As many as twenty-one reddish states may be moving on “trigger” laws in the wake of Roe rejection. Any state in the middle will be battlegrounds for each race that might make the difference in how a state legislature might act.
There’s nothing inherently evil about national issues coming into local politics. The risk lies in the inability of individual citizens on a local level to obtain information on national issues equivalent to what they may have gained on local issues from their own independent observation and experience. These days with huge and largely irresponsible social media and information spreading untethered from the facts, the confusion gap for voters has increased. Critical local issues can also easily get muscled out in the process as well, unless there are strong local organizations and advocates that demand their attention, making it a critical fight, but one where our arms seem tied behind our backs and no even playing field in sight.