The Nationalization of U.S. Elections
by Dan Hopkins
December 31, 2020
What were the original assumptions in the Constitution about state-level loyalty versus national government loyalty?
It's a good question. The Constitution is now far enough back in our collective memories that I think it's really valuable to start by having some sense of what the U.S. was like at the time. There were some scholars who argued that the Constitution is well understood as a peace treaty between sovereign states about how they were going to govern their affairs.
In 1776 and even in 1787, when the Constitution was drafted, the U.S. was a collection of 13 quite different colonies. It took the Georgia delegation six weeks to travel to Philadelphia in order to participate in the Constitutional Convention. Different colonies had very different economies and different religious heritages. This was a quite diverse country and, thus, the Constitution was designed to protect substantial levels of state-level autonomy. I think it is really important to recognize that at the time, many of the people thought of themselves as Americans, but also to a certain extent, as New Yorkers or Virginians or Pennsylvanians.
When do you start to see a shift towards politics in the U.S. becoming more nationalized?
To some degree, it's an ongoing process that has unfolded in fits and starts over our 200-plus year history. I do think that the Civil War is a critical turning point. In the run-up to the Civil War, you see many more implications of state-level identities. I'm a Georgian, I'm a Virginian. And obviously, the Civil War pitted state against state.
It's generally been the case that the Republican party has been more likely to invoke federalism. Of course, the exemplary issue is the issue of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Even in more recent times, the Republican party has advocated for there being less of a role in the federal government asserting itself to protect the rights of African-Americans, especially, but not only in the South. I think it's fair to say that if you've heard a state rights argument in the last 50 years, it's more likely to be coming from the Republican party.
There's also an element in which as power shifts, we see changes. When the Republicans control the federal office, sometimes it's Democrats who say, "Hey, it's important to let California write its own laws with respect to clean energy or car emissions standards." At the same time, the extent to which we see Republican states moving to block sanctuary cities, for instance, is surprising.
If you're a principled federalist, then presumably cities shouldn't be punished for diverging.
In general, I see very few principled federalists in American politics. I think that all too often in contemporary American politics, federalism is just the clothing we use to dress up certain arguments instead of being a principled approach to a range of policy problems.
What factors contribute to a nationalized political landscape?
I actually think there's a relationship between the transformation of campaign finance, the transformation of voting, and the transformation of what's getting covered in our newspapers. There's a unifying element to all of this.
Let's look at campaign finance first. In many of the most competitive 2020 Senate races, large majorities of money came from out-of-state donations. What does that do to the candidates, and how does that affect the way constituents perceive elections?
I think that the nationalization of the campaign finance structure is an example of our nationalized set of divisions. What we're trying to do is refract these highly nationalized divisions through our federalist system. And the result often distorts representation in critical ways. One of the key facts about campaign finance has been that as late as 1992, two-thirds of all donations to federal candidates, to members of Congress, were coming from within the state that they represent. 20 years later in 2012, only one-third of all dollars were coming from the states that people represented.
The danger is that the representatives and senators increasingly have one constituency where they get their votes, but a separate constituency from where they get their money.
That is not how our system was designed to work. It was not designed for members of Congress to spend four hours a day raising money from people who are not their constituents.
And simultaneously, there has been a collapse of local media. I wonder how the decline of local news plays into this landscape?
When the internet first became a sizable presence, there was a hope that it might actually lead to a proliferation of local news. With the internet there are very, very low production costs, so, theoretically, I could put up a newsletter about my neighborhood. But in fact, as you said, the rise of the internet and the rise of cable television led to this dramatic concentration of our attention on a very, very small number of nationalized news sources. Partly that's because the news media would target us based on where we lived. The Philadelphia Inquirer targeted a set of people who wanted to know about life in and around Philadelphia.
But more recently we instead see that the business model for many media companies is to compete based on who voters are and who readers are and who consumers are, rather than where they live.
Rather than providing me with information specific to Philadelphia, they will identify me as someone who likes the National Football League or cares about politics.
That has led to the fragmentation of our media environment. One of the real losers in this has been people's attention to state and local politics. State and local politics have never been on the top of people's priority lists. It used to be that if I were reading the Philadelphia Inquirer, as a by-product of learning what the Eagle's score was, I also learn a little bit about who my mayor was or who my governor was. And nowadays, since I can go right to ESPN or I can go right to Fox News, I can skip over all that state and local information.
In a world where state and local politicians want to be well-known, they're much more likely to attach themselves to a lightning rod federal issue than they are to actually dive into the challenging, complex issues that face their local community.
Which really allows issues to be manipulated. When we focused on immigration, something I found interesting was how much immigration was used as a campaign tool in Ohio or Maine. It’s easy to make a border terrifying when you don’t live near one. Do you feel like campaigning has changed based on the ability to take issues that don't have anything to do with your constituents, but are made to look like they have everything to do with constituents?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the real challenges with a nationalized political environment is that it encourages attention to issues that are evocative and emotionally charged and often have to do with specific groups of people, but ultimately do not have clear policy effects. I think one prominent example of this is not long after President Trump was elected he attacked football players who refused to stand for the National Anthem. I think it's a very instructive case because he wasn't proposing any policy. This was purely about symbols.
I worry that in the nationalized political environment, it's very hard to put together a political coalition that speaks to auto workers and nurses in the suburbs of Detroit, and retirees in Maricopa County. This is a very diverse country. One of the easier ways to knit together a political coalition is to reach for these divisive, identity-oriented issues, even if that's not actually what's going to motivate the policies that you're proposing.
I do think that there's been a real connection between the way in which our politics has nationalized and the way in which our politics has become more identity oriented.
It's these kinds of identity charged issues that can have an intuitive meaning to people in places from Montana to North Carolina.
Has your work clarified your opinion about how national politics should work? What do you advocate for moving forward in terms of policy and campaigning?
I certainly think that voters do better when they have the information that they need, and I think that we are missing an opportunity to really use our federalist system, because there are so many different kinds of issues that face the different communities in our country.
If we are trying to force all of those issues onto a single divide between Democrats and Republicans, we're going to miss a lot of critical issues.
I think some of the disaffection with contemporary politics stems from the fact that many of us deal with problems in our day-to-day lives that are not represented by the Republican-Democrat divide.
I do want to be wary of nostalgia — or suggesting that some earlier period of history was markedly better. Yes. I worry a lot that today's voters just don't know much about state and local politics, but state and local politics wasn't always vibrant and democratic in previous generations, right? As a social scientist, I think part of my job is to lay out trends. I do think that nationalization is something that we should forecast as being a major part of our politics moving forward.
I also think that there are some policy changes on the edges that I would advocate for that I think would help reinforce the connections between places and voters, and to make better use of our current federalist system. For instance, I think campaign finance matching, so that every dollar you get locally is amplified, is a great idea. I think that could encourage politicians to lay down roots in the specific communities they represent and to spend less time trying to raise money from Manhattan or Dallas.
I think we should also do everything in our regulatory capacity to help promote, protect, and foster high-quality, non-partisan coverage of states and localities.
As a country that is hemorrhaging reporters who cover states and localities I do think that given how many important decisions are made at the state and local level, as a society, we have a real stake in the quality of local news media. There are fewer statehouse reporters, there are fewer city hall reporters, and there are fewer people who are tracking state and local politics to hold our politicians accountable. I think that has been underappreciated, and one of the real dangers in contemporary American democracy.