Culture, Institutions, and Urban Officials' Responses to Morality Issues

By Sharp, Elaine B. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Culture, Institutions, and Urban Officials' Responses to Morality Issues


Sharp, Elaine B., Political Research Quarterly


This article focuses on city officials' actions when morality issues (gay rights, pornography regulations, etc.) are at stake. Cases drawn from a systematic sample of cities reveal a continuum of local officials' actions ranging from actions unfavorable to activists to evasion of the issue to actions favorable to activists. In order to account for this variation, hypotheses are developed that identify institutional arrangements, ideology of issue activists, and the community's cultural context as key explanatory concepts. Empirical tests show that (a) officials in cities with more developed counter-cultural elements handle morality issues differently than officials in cities where orthodox/traditional sub-cultural elements dominate, (b) narrower measures of community demand/preferences specific to particular kinds of incidents are less useful in predicting governmental action on these issues, (c) institutions (ward versus at-large council elections; mayor versus city manager executive) are important in mediating the expectations or pressures stemming from the local sub-culture, and (d) official actions vary considerably depending upon the ideological stance and degree of controversiality of issue activists, but this too is contingent on the mediating effects of institutional arrangements.

A considerable body of research devoted to "morality" politics and policymaking has now emerged. That literature focuses on issues in which the primary stakes, for at least one if not all sides on the issue, are matters of fundamental religious value or deep-seated belief about the propriety of a behavior or activity. While there are some exceptions (Bailey 1998; Button, Rienzo, and Wald 1997; Sharp 1999; Chong and Marshall 1999), work in this genre has typically been conducted with respect to politics at the state or national level, such as Meier's study of drug and alcohol policy (1994), Smith's study of state regulation of pornography (1999), Haider-Markel's studies of federal policymaking on lesbian and gay issues (1999) and hate crime (1998), studies of state abortion regulation by Mooney and Lee (1995) and Meier and McFarland (1993), Pierce and Miller's (1999) study of state lottery adoptions, Brisbin's (2001) study of censorship of sexuality in movies, Mooney and Lee's (2000) study of death penalty reform, and many others.

The investigation reported here moves the analysis of morality politics to the local level, where morality issues involve city governments in important ways. Some local governments have been engulfed in strident controversies over the handling of anti-abortion protests at local clinics. Others have been at the forefront of the development of gay rights policies and have, as a result, been the setting for heated controversies over the issue (Button, Rienzo, and Wald 1997). There has been such an increase in conflict over locally funded arts projects deemed morally objectionable by some element of the community that one analyst calls the local level "the new battleground" in the war over artistic freedom, morally controversial projects, and tax dollars (Dobrzynski 1997). In still other communities, controversy has erupted over needle exchange programs designed to prevent the transmission of HIV infection that occurs when intravenous drug users share "dirty" needles (Kirp and Bayer1993). In addition, controversies are sparked at the local level by passionate crusades against pornography (Downs 1989) and prostitution or controversies over gambling casinos or other gainbling-related activity.

Consistent with the literature on morality policy at the state and federal levels, morality issues at the local level are here conceptualized as including all issues in which the primary stakes, for at least one if not all sides on the issue, are matters of fundamental religious value or deep-seated belief about the propriety of a behavior or activity-i.e., these are issues that involve perceptions that some activity is sinful. …

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