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

A crowded room of residents attend a local public forum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
A crowded room of residents attend a local public forum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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 noRepublican 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…

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