international analysis and commentary

In America, all politics is local, even when it is not


In the very first pages his most recent book Fear, the renowned journalist Bob Woodward presents a revealing anecdote. In August 2010, Republican activist David Bossie approached Steven Bannon to invite him to a meeting with Donald Trump who was, according to him, “pondering to run for president”. During the subsequent meeting, Bossie gave the businessman a fatal piece of advice, should he ever decide to run, “I would recommend you run as if you are running for governor in three states – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” where the first three primaries are traditionally held. “A lot of nominees make the huge mistake of wanting to run in 27 states. Focus on three – and the other follow.”

It is easy to believe, judging from the events a few years later, that Bannon, and maybe Trump himself, never forgot this piece of advice: the surgical focus on a few winnable states in the Midwest (such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio) and on Florida was what by any means allowed Trump to achieve the upset that led him to the White House. A success that confirmed once again the ironclad law underneath Bossie’s pragmatic advice, which nevertheless is very often forgotten by many observers, especially in Europe: the foundation of US politics on the local level.

Billboard announcing a Trump’s rally in Michigan during the 2016 campaign


Historically, this truth has been famously presented by Tip O’Neill, the long-term Democratic Leader of the House, who said that “all politics is local.” Such a definition, founded on the understanding that all political activity starts at the local level and has real voters and their interests at heart, can sound therefore very obvious, in its generalist assertion; nevertheless it is particularly well suited to the US. Indeed, the federalist system set up by the Constitution is as pure as it gets in giving prominence to the local level in the determination of national politics. The members of the House and Senate are, although by different rules, both selected starting from local constituencies, and the president is rather famously selected on a state-by-state basis. As a consequence, in the US there is no purely national politics: the political system is purposely designed to put together local interests from the far-ranging corners of the nation and ensure the highest possible representation to the different states of the Union. The national interest is determined, according to this model, by joining together all the different specific interests in Congress, acting as a compensation chamber expressing the nation’s will.

Due to this constitutional set-up a distinctly American dichotomy is constantly present, between the primacy of the nation and that of the local level. In recent years, a trend towards the increased nationalization of US politics is evident. If in the golden times of Tip O’Neil what led him to create the phrase was the realization that, in order to win elections, candidates needed to cater to the “bread and butter” necessities of their constituencies, nowadays reality looks quite different. Elections at all levels are more and more based on national themes: as a 2017 Washington Post article by Paul Kane pointed out, congressmen going back to their constituencies during recesses are likely to have to answer about national issues, while traditional local concerns have almost vanished. The recent midterm elections, which have morphed into a referendum for or against Trump, stand to prove this point.

Such a process of “nationalization” of local politics is not, by any means, a Trumpian effect. Instead, it is a long-term development whose first manifestations can be traced back to the 1994 midterm elections, when then Republican Minority Leader Newt Gingrich had the intuition to base all electoral campaigns not on local interests, but on a single message of opposition to Bill Clinton’s agenda, promising a “conservative revolution.” The gamble paid off: the GOP gained 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, and even high-profile Democrats at every level suffered defeats. From then on, the center of gravity of elections, and the issues defining them have been increasingly national: as showed by Nate Silver, since the 1970s there has been a slow but steady decline of vote swings between state and national elections. Simply put, candidates’ party ties appear to be more important than personal characteristics or policy promises.

A variety of causes has been presented for this dramatic shift. First of all, the emergence of social media and nation-wide cable television has reduced the relevance of local concerns in the minds of the electorate: for a member of the House going back to his or her district in Iowa to talk with the population, it is now much more likely to receive questions about Russia’s involvement in the elections or on North Korea than on the impact of the ethanol policy on the state’s agriculture. Secondly, the geographical composition of the American population is also likely to have an important  role to play: with Americans increasingly segregating themselves in politically and socially homogeneous neighborhoods and favored by gerrymandering, the political landscape in constituencies moves towards one extreme or the other. The phenomenon of polarization, so evident in American politics in recent years, does not spare how politics is lived at the local level.

Does this mean that American democracy is destined to become increasingly nationalized? It might be too early to cast a definitive judgement. After all, if the midterm elections have shown a nationalized debate take form, they have also demonstrated the resilience of the local factor in the selection of the political class: due to the rules of the game, even in Trump’s shadow, the candidates still have to get enough votes from their constituencies to be elected. This means that, even in the current state of nationalized, hyper-partisan politics, winning candidates distinctly represent the characteristic of the majority of their electorate. There is no one-size-fits-all message throughout the United States: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s leftist political views are molded by the fact that she is a Bronx-based Democrat; a Democrat coming from a swing state would by definition tend to be more moderate in order to cater to the preferences of his or her electorate. This appears to have been the case with Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke: in a decidedly Republican state, he is likely to have lost a big part of his possibility of defeating incumbent Ted Cruz because of his positions that were too far on the left, instead of more centrist.

If this first point is closely connected to the unchanging functioning of the American political system, a second development is showing that the force of the local level in determining national politics is far from being weakened. In the current situation of  national politics paralyzed by partisanship, the center of gravity of political pragmatism is shifting back to cities and states. As the activism of California testifies, all across the country, mayors and governors are stepping up to solving some of the most complex challenges, such as climate change, immigration or unemployment – a development that has brought some observers to talk about the emergence of a new “constitutional localism”.

Far from endangering its resilience, these two different trends – on the one hand, nationalization; on the other, localization – are a lasting and founding characteristic of the American democracy. After all, the permanent tension between those two approaches is a natural effect of the ambition to ensure that all divergent, particularistic interests are not only represented, but also blended and elevated in the context of a functioning federation, concurring to shape the common interest of a complex nation. It is in this tension that it is possible to identify the true strength of the American democracy, where at the end, the true roots of all politics are local.