Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy

Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy

Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy

Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy


Local government is the hidden leviathan of American politics: it accounts for nearly a tenth of gross domestic product, it collects nearly as much in taxes as the federal government, and its decisions have an enormous impact on Americans' daily lives. Yet political scientists have few explanations for how people vote in local elections, particularly in the smaller cities, towns, and suburbs where most Americans live. Drawing on a wide variety of data sources and case studies, this book offers the first comprehensive analysis of electoral politics in America's municipalities.

Arguing that current explanations of voting behavior are ill suited for most local contests, Eric Oliver puts forward a new theory that highlights the crucial differences between local, state, and national democracies. Being small in size, limited in power, and largely unbiased in distributing their resources, local governments are "managerial democracies" with a distinct style of electoral politics. Instead of hinging on the partisanship, ideology, and group appeals that define national and state elections, local elections are based on the custodial performance of civic-oriented leaders and on their personal connections to voters with similarly deep community ties. Explaining not only the dynamics of local elections, Oliver's findings also upend many long-held assumptions about community power and local governance, including the importance of voter turnout and the possibilities for grassroots political change.


Many people would say the United States is ruled by the president—as the single office selected by all Americans and the head of the executive branch, the presidency commands more power than any other elected position in the land. Others might say that America is governed by Congress—with its ability to pass legislation, approve executive and judicial appointments, and exercise the “power of the purse,” Congress ultimately wields the upper hand in any political contest. Still others point to big corporations, unions, and other special-interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) or the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). These groups “govern” America not only through the direct lobbying of the various branches of government, but also in their ability to shape elections. Because candidates for congress and the presidency are so dependent on the efforts and campaign contributions of such interest groups, they repeatedly bow to their preferences.

This debate is probably familiar to most readers. It has animated American political discourse since the writing of the Federalist Papers. It speaks to fundamental concerns over the distribution of power and popular governance. It dominates the coverage of politics in the popular media. and its focus on national politics encapsulates the way most people conceptualize American governance. But this debate also suffers from a major problem—it overlooks an enormous part of America’s governing structure.

Outside of Washington, there exists a largely unrecognized political entity that exerts an enormous influence on American society. It accounts for over $1.6 trillion in spending every year, roughly a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product. It collects more

the amount of political writings on this topic are too numerous to document, but some recent notable examples include Bartels 2008, Hacker and Pierson 2010, and Frank 2004.

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