Are Local Politics As Polarized As National? Depends on the Issue.

Residents vote in a town hall meeting in Calais, Vermont.

Residents vote in a town hall meeting in Calais, Vermont. Erika J Mitchell/Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Republican or Democrat, even if we battle over national concerns, research finds that in local politics, it seems we can all just get along—most of the time.

America’s national political scene is rife with polarization and dysfunction. The share of Americans who have trust in the federal government—including both Donald Trump and Congress—is at or near record lows. On the other hand, about 72 percent of Americans have trust in their local governments. As the old saying goes, “there is no Republican or Democrat way to run a city.” Local government is pragmatic and gets things done.

Now, a detailed new study finds clear and convincing evidence that, in sharp contrast to the extreme polarization of national politics and policy, most Democrat and Republican residents see very little difference on local issues.

The study, by Amalie Jensen of Princeton University, William Marble and Kenneth Scheve of Stanford University, and Matthew J. Slaughter of Dartmouth University, used data from recent YouGov surveys to examine the preferences of Democratic and Republican residents of eight U.S. metro areas (which includes the cities and suburbs): Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis, Memphis, Rochester, Seattle, and St. Louis. These metros are located in different regions of the country and have very different economic bases.

The researchers examined the preferences on six categories of local policies tied to economic development: investment and taxes, workers and entrepreneurs, local services, governance, education, and higher education. As they put it: “Do local development policy preferences—eg. policies designed to attract businesses, policies that educate and train local workers, policies that provide local services, etc.—vary by political partisanship and if so, do partisans have opposing and therefore polarized positions?”

Their study is particularly interesting because it looks at the preference and attitudes of citizens. Mayors and local leaders may or may not be pragmatic and ideological. But there are good reasons to suspect that local citizens who are polarized on national issues may also be polarized on local issues, especially development issues that involve taxing and spending. After all, Americans tend to sort based on where they live, and because the study covers more conservative and more liberal regions, we might expect significant partisan divide. “We know that voters in our MSA [metropolitan statistical area] data are divided on national policy issues and that this divide is partly explained by party affiliation,” the authors write. “However, is that necessarily the case for local policy?”

Not so much. While there are huge differences between Democrats and Republicans on a national scale—especially those who identify as “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans”—the study found very little difference at all between Democrats and Republicans on a whole slew of local development issues. The chart below summarizes the main findings across these key local issues.

There is a whole cluster of key local development issues on which Democrats and Republicans find near complete agreement: tax incentives, government consolidation, community college funding, and vocational and technical training. In addition, the study found no evidence of “contrasting preferences”—the effect of a policy alternative making one partisan group more likely to choose one policy while making the other group less likely to do so—for policies like paying teachers more, expanding students grants, or spending more for public safety. And these patterns hold broadly across all the metros in the study, with only slight variation across them.

In general, the researchers found broad bipartisan support for policies aimed at business investment, especially policies that use taxes and subsidies to incentivize investment. In addition, higher education proposals like investment in community colleges, technical training, and student grant programs garnered support across the aisle. Perhaps because, as the study’s authors note, “Though these policies are riskier in terms of attracting businesses—because people can move away after they are educated—empirically there is evidence that having skilled workers and innovation spurred by higher education institutions are important components of a thriving local economy.”

There are just two clusters of local issues where the researchers identified consistent partisan differences—labor issues about unionization and union power, and education policies toward school vouchers, charter schools, and free preschool. Here, they found Democrats to support unions and public schools, and Republicans to be anti-union and in favor of school vouchers and charter schools.“Given that these issues have played a prominent role in national politics, these differences likely reflect the strength of national partisan cues about these issues and the absence of sufficiently clear competing pressures to overcome those associations,” the authors note.

This notion of partisan cues may help explain why local politics is less polarized than national politics, the authors note. There is extensive literature on how political parties construct ideologies that bundle key issues together and send clear signals about what their members should believe in. But, the authors suggest, local development issues tend to be ignored by national parties, thus members have fewer and weaker partisan cues handed down from above. The Republican party has long been known as the party of low taxes and lax regulation, while the Democrats have been the party of higher taxes, and greater regulation. And yet, the study picks up little difference on policies which require more local spending and investment.

The researchers also suggest that since cities compete with one another for talent and investment, members of both parties may come to view policies that attract investment and build local development capacity as necessary. Though this may be beginning to change. We are starting to see some significant ideological differences over the use of large-scale incentives to attract new business investment, like the backlash over Amazon HQ2 in New York City.

Still, the study provides a useful counterpoint to the dominant narrative of an increasingly divided nation. When it comes the places we live and what we do to develop them, we are not nearly divided as over national issues.

“The low levels of polarization on these sets of issues run in contrast to the partisan divides seen on national policy issues—even among the same set of respondents,” the authors note. “This may be good news for not only the capacity of cities to develop bipartisan solutions to local development challenges, but also for the potential for partisans to update their policy opinions in response to incentives and information about effective public policy.”

It’s not just that local politics set a better example, it’s that local politics actually works. For me, the key to a better, less divided, and more effective future is to shift power away from our dysfunctional national government and towards the local level, in which Americans of all stripes remain far more unified.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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