Democracy From the Sidelines: How U.S. Politics Became a Spectator Sport

If you live in the United States and I ask you what’s on your mind politically, what might you say?

My guess is that you’d be thinking about the latest Trump tweet or twist in the Mueller investigation. Maybe it’s the recent summit with North Korea or the contentious international trade negotiations that’s captured your attention.

What you’re unlikely to be thinking about is your city council’s upcoming vote on rezoning, the local school board’s position on school safety, or the planned levy for your neighborhood public library.

Yet if I asked you in which political arena you felt you could have a larger impact, the national stage or your hometown, the answer is obvious. You’re a heck of a lot closer to the building where your city council meets than you are to the Capella Resort in Singapore, where President Trump recently convened with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

Book cover for The Increasingly United State, by Dan Hopkins

But aren’t Trump’s tweets exciting? And the summit, what drama! They make school board meetings and rezoning votes seem like snoozefests.

There’s a puzzle here: Why are those of us in the U.S. more likely to be engaged and interested in national rather than local politics, even when we know our chance for impact is at the local level?

Dan Hopkins, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, has a few ideas. In his latest book, The Increasingly United States: How and Why Political Behavior Nationalized, he explores how politics in the U.S. have largely become a spectator sport. That is, politics have become more nationalized—issues are more likely to be argued and adjudicated at the national rather than local level. This stands at odds with the historical intent of our framers, who envisioned that political power would favor states and municipalities.

I had the chance to speak to Dan about the evidence and reasons for nationalization, its consequences, and what it means for the future of U.S. politics.

Evan Nesterak: You write that the goal of your book “is to stop taking today’s highly nationalized political behavior for granted and instead make it a puzzle to be documented and explained.” What is this puzzle of nationalized political behavior?

Dan Hopkins: The puzzle of nationalized political behavior is that voters are disproportionately engaged with national politics. If you approach somebody on the street and ask them what they think about politics overall, without specifying what kind of politics you’re talking about, people are going to assume that you mean national politics. You mean what’s going on in Washington, D.C. You mean Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

That represents a change from where American politics used to be, and that also represents a really important departure from the way that our politics was originally set up. The Constitution gives tremendous authority to states, and indeed the framers of the U.S. Constitution expected that state politics would be more engaging and of much more interest to Americans than would the remote issues of foreign affairs and how the post office was dealt with by the federal government. So the puzzle of highly national politics is that we pay disproportionate attention to Washington, D.C., even while we acknowledge that states and localities have a real impact on our day-to-day lives.

What evidence do we have that political behavior has become more nationalized in recent years?

We have a range of evidence. We have evidence that how people vote for governor is increasingly integrated with how they vote for president. There are fewer and fewer swing voters, people who go from a Democratic candidate for president to a Republican governor or vice versa. There are also fewer and fewer states where you see a governor whose partisanship is unexpected given the presidential lean of that state.

We also see this in voter turnout data. Whereas voter turnout at the presidential level in recent decades has roughly held steady, voter turnout in state level, and especially in big city mayoral elections, has been declining markedly.

A third we see in survey evidence when we ask people to name their least favorite politician. Almost all of those least favorite politicians aren’t state level politicians. They’re national politicians. Or if we look at search data from Google, we see that people are much more likely to be searching for the president of the United States than for the governor of their own state. So there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to this conclusion that contemporary political behavior is really nationally oriented.

Why do you think there’s been a shift toward more nationalized politics?

There have been two causes, and we need to distinguish between the two sides of nationalization. One element of nationalization is that differences between the Republicans and Democrats animate the entire political system, and they are consistent. People’s perception of what the Democrats stand for in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or Virginia is very similar to their perception of what the Democrats stand for nationally. There’s a single animating set of divides that you can find at all levels of our politics today.

I think that that has largely been driven by parties that are increasingly ideological, that are increasingly similar [within the party], that are no longer oriented around patronage but are much more oriented around pursuing shared ideological goals. And those kinds of parties are offering voters the same choices across the country, in much the same way that a McDonald’s or Burger King offers customers similar choices across the country. So when we’re thinking about nationalization, one key explanation has been our polarized and increasingly ideological parties.

Two-thirds of the direct donations from individuals to candidates that we can track are coming from outside of the state. That’s going to influence who these members of Congress think they’re representing.

The other element of nationalization is our engagement with different levels of government. Nowadays we know much more about what’s happening in D.C. than we know about state or local politics. We’re more engaged and more likely to turn out in presidential elections than in gubernatorial or local elections. So the question is what caused that.

One of the central explanations has to do with the transforming media environment. A few decades ago, if we woke up in Philadelphia we very likely would have read the Daily News or The Philadelphia Inquirer. We would have been exposed to locally produced political information, and that may well have told us something about the mayor of Philadelphia or the governor of Pennsylvania.

But now people are much more likely to be getting their political information from national outlets. Maybe they’re reading The New York Times online. Maybe they’re watching Fox News. Those national media outlets are not providing anywhere near the level of coverage of local places. And, of course, they don’t have any incentive to do so. Why would Fox News cover Philadelphia when Philadelphia viewers are just a small fraction of their overall audience? The transformation of the media market has been really important in explaining why voters don’t know as much about state and local politics as they used to, and so they don’t care as much.

How do you anticipate the media influencing nationalization going forward?

It is hard to predict. In recent years, through cable television, through satellite television, and through the internet, one of the broad trends has been the decline of spatially bound or spatially oriented media sources, whether that’s local TV broadcasts or print newspapers. One of the central questions for the health of any of our local democracies is, Can local media find a sustainable business model in this era? The jury is still out on that question, and I think that there are some really promising and innovative approaches to addressing it.

But the trend in recent years has been very nationally oriented. The Trump presidency, and before that the Obama presidency, has attracted a lot of attention in this nationalized media market and has put us into a feedback loop where the politics people are talking about are overwhelmingly national politics. We get into a cycle where politics and our political engagement becomes ever more nationalized.

What are the consequences of political behavior becoming nationalized?

There are several. Some of those consequences are most visible in state and local politics, and they have to do with whether politicians will be held accountable for their actions in office. If I’m a governor in today’s highly nationalized environment, I may know that whether I do a good job or a bad job in my specific state matters less for my re-election or my long-term prospects than whether I cultivate the donations from like-minded ideological donors or what my role is in the national party. That is going to lead to a politics that is inflexible, that is polarized, and in which our state-level debates just seem to echo national political disagreement. So one real challenge in nationalized politics is that we’re not voting for state and local officials based on the job they do in office or the responsibilities that they actually have.

One of the things that I worry about as politics become more heavily nationalized is that voters will increasingly perceive themselves to be spectators and will feel less and less efficacious, will feel less that their individual activism, that their votes and that their engagement can make a concrete difference in the policies that affect their lives.

A second consequence in highly nationalized politics is visible in Congress, is visible at the federal level, and that’s increased polarization. In a world where voters care a lot about what happens in their local communities, members of Congress have some leeway to strike deals that may not be ideologically attuned with their district but might deliver specific, tangible policy benefits to their district. If you think about, say, the 1986 tax reform, that was a case where Republicans and Democrats were able to work together and pass a major overhaul of the tax code by appealing to a variety of members’ local interests.

Now those local interests just aren’t as important in how members of Congress think about their job. If there’s a case where a president from another party proposes a policy, they’re going to oppose it, and it’s going to be very, very difficult to negotiate with them on some specific local provision, even if it provides tangible benefits to their constituents.

Is some of the stagnation that Congress has had on big issues under both Obama and Trump not just because members of congress are afraid to support an idea from the opposing party but also because they’re afraid to break from their party’s national platform?

Yes. Candidates on both sides of the aisle are increasingly incentivized to focus on cultivating national donor networks and playing to a nationalized set of activists. As late as 1990, the average member of Congress was getting two-thirds of his or her individual itemized contributions from people inside the state that she or he represented. Now that figure is reversed. Two-thirds of the direct donations from individuals to candidates that we can track are coming from outside of the state. That’s going to have a significant influence on who these members of Congress think they’re representing. If they’re worried that they’re most likely to lose their job not because of running afoul of specific interests in their district but because they’ve offended an activist network nationally, that’s going to really change the issues that they’re bringing up and their willingness to break with the president.

I’d like to ask you more about the break between what happens locally and what happens nationally and its relevance to an individual citizen. Could you define the presidential paradox and what it reveals about how people think and behave politically in the U.S.?

The presidential paradox is the idea that when we ask voters what level of government has the most impact on their day-to-day life, they often point to the state and local governments. That makes a lot of sense, because states and localities oversee schools, they collect property taxes. Given that two-thirds of American adults live in homes that they own, it’s state and local governments whose actions are likely to affect that sizable investment. Voters know that state and local governments have real effects on their lives, and yet the presidential paradox is that, nonetheless, they consistently report being much more interested in and paying more attention to the presidency. I think that it provides a real insight about voter behavior and about voter psychology.

The presidency is, on the one hand, highly salient. It’s on the news all the time. But at the same time, presidents are relatively remote. A given presidential election may well have between 100 and 200 million people voting. The chance that any one voter is going to decide the next president is infinitesimally small. Local elections, by contrast, often are animated by concrete local issues, and the electorates are far smaller, so my probability of casting the ballot that decides the local election is much, much higher. Yet we turn out to vote in local elections at much, much lower rates. I think that suggests that people’s motivations to be engaged in politics are less instrumental. My motivations are not any rational defense of my own self-interest. Instead, they are much more symbolic. They’re oriented toward the two national political parties as teams that voters want to affiliate with.

I want to return to the point you made earlier about how the Constitution was originally imagined in terms of the relationship between citizens’ national and state loyalties. You argue that the framers of the Constitution assumed citizens’ state loyalties would outweigh their national loyalties, and that assumption was built into how democracy would function in the United States. Why did the framers make this assumption and how does this assumption influence politics today?

If we adopt the perspective of 1787 and the framers of the Constitution, that was a time when it took many weeks to travel the length of the U.S. colonies. For instance, the Georgia delegation took about six weeks to brave mud-choked roads to reach Philadelphia to deliberate on the Constitution. The U.S. was, in a very real sense, a set of states that could have become either sovereign nations or that didn’t necessarily have the interdependence we do today. At the same time, as originally conceived, the U.S. government was fairly weak, and it didn’t deal with many of the tangible issues that were likely to affect voters day-to-day lives.

If we take what the Democrats and Republicans stand for nationally and then project it into all of these disparate places where there are different challenges, I worry that we’re not making full use, or even much use at all, of our federalist institutions.

Both Madison and Hamilton give voice to the idea—and this appears multiple times in the Federalist Papers—that states were more proximate and people were more likely to know state officials than distant federal officials. The state government dealt with more of the issues that were likely to be of interest to voters.

Take America’s transportation infrastructure at that time. America was not a coherent, singular nation where there was lots of people moving across state boundaries. Given those factors, the framers very much envisioned that state-level politics would be paramount and that in any contest between Washington, D.C., and people’s state governments, the people were likely to side with the state governments. And that’s important. It’s not just of historical interest. Those assumptions were written into the Constitution. Our Constitution gives substantial weight to states, and it does so in part because the framers’ outlook emphasized the centrality of the states in our federalist system.

As we think about politics today, with all the focus at the national level, are people focusing on the part of government that they’re least able to change?

Democracy is premised on the idea that citizens influence policy not only through voting but also through their organizing and through their activism and advocacy. In many instances state and local governments are more proximate, so they are arenas in which it’s easier to organize and to influence policy. It’s easier to get in touch with local representatives or state representatives and make your voice heard. It’s possible, then, that national politics by contrast is much more of a of spectator sport. It’s the realm of identity-laden symbols but not a realm that most people think they themselves can influence. One of the things that I worry about as politics become more heavily nationalized is that voters will increasingly perceive themselves to be spectators and will feel less and less efficacious, will feel less that their individual activism, that their votes and that their engagement can make a concrete difference in the policies that affect their lives.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Nationalization has for decades characterized American politics. But I think that the current level of nationalization risks undercutting one of the real virtues of federalism. A federalist country allows us to address very different political issues in the different corners of the nation. Here in Philadelphia we might be worried about charter schools or about gentrification. In the Rocky Mountain north they might be worried about wolf hunting. In the Southwest they might be worried about water and droughts. The genius of federalism is its ability to let these different jurisdictions address—and indeed develop—a politics divided on different issues. But if we take what the Democrats and Republicans stand for nationally and then project it into all of these disparate places where there are different challenges, I worry that we’re not making full use, or even much use at all, of our federalist institutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Disclosure: Dan Hopkins is a member of the Behavioral Scientist advisory board.