Local Politics

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Local Politics


Politics consists of the process by which goods, services, and privileges are allocated by government or the rules are established for their allocation by other social institutions. Local government is a political subdivision of a national or regional government which performs functions that are culturally defined as being “local” in character, which in nearly all cases receives its legal powers from the national or regional government but possesses some degree of discretion in the making of decisions and which normally has some taxing powers. Local politics, therefore, consists not merely of local activities which relate to national political matters, but it involves a degree of choice to be made within the boundaries of the local unit of government relative to the selection of office holders and the making and execution of public policy. These decisions are not necessarily made unilaterally through a local political system and its institutions. Often decisions are shared with other governments, and local political institutions and processes are commonly interwoven with those of neighboring localities and with regional and national political systems.

The patterns of politics at the local level are greatly varied. They assume a particular character in a particular locality according to the prevailing influences of ideology, social structure, and technology in the society. In primitive social systems there may be little in the way of recognized political institutions, but of those that do exist, the local political systems are often more important than the national so far as the typical citizen is concerned. In more complex societies, where governmental bureaucracies are specialized, where much is expected in the way of governmental functions, and where rapid means of transportation and communication exist, the activities and relative importance of local government become largely a function of ideology–the belief systems and traditions that condition the minds of a politically significant portion of the population. In some cases, as in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, local government is of little importance; in others, as in the United States throughout its history, local government has been important in theory and quite important in practice.

In societies in which the concepts of change, “progress,” specialization, or economic interdependence are little developed, local government is dominated by a politics of consensus. Traditional functions are accepted and honored. Politics may center largely on particular politicians, with the size and importance of personal followings determining political power. One of the functions of politics may be that of entertainment for the ordinary citizen who has little else to amuse him. Innovation is not expected from the local political process. The notions of ameliorating social problems or elevating the standard of living may be unrecognized or unaccepted concepts. African, Asian, and Latin American village societies tend to follow this pattern. Even in fairly complex, industrially developed societies, the dominant ideology in rural areas may call for this kind of function to be performed by local government. The village, in all societies, tends to have a politics based on face-to-face relationships, with the behavior of politicians tempered by considerations of the expectations of friends and neighbors.

In complex industrialized societies, local politics may be analyzed according to (1) images of the ideal function or goals of local government, (2) the degree to which local government is integrated with or insulated from the national political process, (3) the degree of autonomy of local government in relation to the national government in terms of discretionary powers in policy making, or (4) the distribution of power within the community.

Images of local government . The leaders in each community, irrespective of the amount of discretionary power vested in local government, seem to have an image of what the ideal community would be like and they seek to convert the image into reality. No one has attempted to develop a world-wide typology of such images, but some information concerning them is available. In primitive societies, the image is generally well established by a prevailing set of values and an absence of a desire for change: that which is—if uncorrupted by outside influences—is right.

In the United States, three types of images have been identified by Williams and Adrian (1963):

(1) Those designed to utilize government for specific policy goals constitute the first type; they can be divided into two subcategories, those with (a) production goals and (b) consumption goals. In the case of production goals, the common one in the United States is expressed in terms of “boosterism.” The emphasis is upon public support for extending water supply, sewer lines, and other services into areas where industry or large commercial enterprises might locate, so as to help attract new jobs and broaden tax bases in the community. Land-use planning and controls designed to reserve sites for industrial parks, efforts to annex new territory suitable for industrial development, and special tax inducements for new industry are among the other attempts to lure new sources of wealth to the area and keep them there.

One special version of the production-oriented community is the “company town.” This institution (in which the owners of a mine, lumber company, or factory own all property and businesses in the community) is disappearing in the United States. It so exclusively emphasized production goals or interests that it became unacceptable to the contemporary American culture. In some communities a single firm still dominates the local economy and takes a large part in social and political life. With the decline of locally owned industry and the dispersion of members of high-status “old” families, this pattern of noblesse oblige (and the development by these elites of a unique community and one attractive to live in) has become much less common.

Since the end of World War II the residential suburb has been more likely to emphasize consumption goals, i.e., more of life’s amenities provided by local government than by the central city; these include effective sewage systems, palatable water supplies, beautiful parks, quiet traffic, good schools, imaginative recreation programs, and ornamental street lights. To maintain life styles desired by the politically dominant, there is likely to be interest in a comprehensive community plan to help clarify and program goals, as well as in effective land-use controls. Emphasis is generally upon the professional administration of these activities, with the council-manager plan often the preferred urban structure.

(2) A second type of community image calls for local government to perform, at a minimum level, only those traditional functions that are viewed as strictly necessary for the community, such as education, police, fire, and water services. This approach, sometimes called the “caretaker” image, is often associated in the United States with a low-tax ideology. All over the world it is associated with traditionalism and opposition to industrialism and the breaking down of established life styles.

(3) A third image of the proper role of local government, never dominant in the United States, is that of an instrument for the administration of central government policy with no local policy making. This is the prevailing image in countries where strong central control over local government is traditional, as it is in France and in many Asian nations.

Probably no single image is held exclusively in any given community of a complex society, although in some cases one is clearly dominant. Where images compete for acceptance, compromise seems to be the ordinary result, with some concessions to each of them.

Insulation or integration . The politics of local government may be closely tied to that of national politics or may be quite independent. In many democratic (e.g., Great Britain) and nondemocratic nations (e.g., the Soviet Union), national parties are active at the local level. On the other hand, in some democratic nations (e.g., the United States) or nondemocratic ones (e.g., some African states), national political party activity may be sharply separated from local.

In European democracies national parties commonly include in their platforms proposals relative to local government policies (although national and local elections do not necessarily coincide). It is assumed that politicians active at the local level are also committed to work for a national party. Whereas this is normal in European democracies, in the United States the pattern has been more complex. The American political arrangement in the last half of the nineteenth century was similar to that of European democracies. Political machines of that period were closely linked to national politics, and this remained the case past the midtwentieth century in some cities, particularly in the East and in Chicago. But the reform movement that affected many communities, beginning in the 1880s or thereabouts, placed emphasis upon the separation of local from state and national politics. The result was a nonpartisan movement, based on the assumptions that local government issues are unrelated to the activities of national political parties and that the political aspects of recruitment for local offices should be reduced as much as possible. In the 1960s, even where party labels continue to appear on the ballot, it is common for local elections to be largely separated from other elections in terms of election dates, issues, and personnel. Parties continue to be important in most non-school-board and nonmunicipal elections and particularly in county and township elections. But because relatively few counties in the United States have meaningful two-party competition, even where the office seekers are active in a party, the real competition for office is often within a single party [see Parties, Political].

The amount of organization for politics at the local level has been declining in the twentieth-century United States and elsewhere. The great urban political machines that emerged during the period of rapid urbanization following the American Civil War were examples of near-complete political organization in a democracy. With their well-financed, ably led, city-wide party structure, they had ward, precinct, and block workers who looked after the party’s interests and provided welfare services for party adherents. These machines achieved an intimacy concerning the problems, expectations, and political mood of constituents that rivaled that of the rural county and township machines, which also flourished during this period. [See Political Machines.]

The machines declined with the coming of alternative group associations (e.g., trade unions and ethnic and racial social and benevolent societies), middle-class reform efforts(especially to provide a secret ballot and accurate election results and to mobilize those who once believed it was unavailing to “fight city hall”), a higher living standard for a greater portion of the working class, and the profession alization of welfare services, particularly after 1933. Local politics in the United States is today characterized by the presence of few professional politicians. Candidates are commonly amateurs, recruited (sometimes self-recruited) from business, labor, or the professions, often by groups of lay citizens who have banded together into a part-time political-action group. Some candidates are clearly the choice of, and spokesmen for, particular interests (realtors, builders, merchants, labor unions), and the current pattern seems to encourage such candidates more than did the political machines. The boss’s brokerage concept of the role of the councilman or mayor was broader than the concept of the guardianship of some specific interest. Political communication at the local level remains more on a face-to-face basis than it does for politics in general, but radio and television have become important, especially in the larger urban areas. Much communication is through associations that are only in part political, such as labor union locals, neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce, farm organizations, church lay groups, and community councils. The leaders of these organizations are also important opinion leaders, for many ordinary citizens rely upon them as sources of political guidance [see Interest Groups; Political Clubs].

Discretionary decision-making powers . The variety of local politics is accounted for in part by the political stakes involved in local decisions, and these vary according to the social significance of decisions that can be made at the local level. In some traditional societies local politics may involve no expectation that the actors will make decisions affecting the allocation of goods, services, and privileges. In nations such as France through much of its modern history, where powers are centralized but political parties cannot provide effective leadership, or many Asian nations where innovation is encouraged by the central government, local politics may center on actors who seek to protect traditional local standards and values against the views and policies of the professional national bureaucracy.

In some countries, such as Great Britain and those of Scandinavia, where political parties seek to tie the various levels of government together in a common move toward agreed-upon governmental service goals, local politics tends to be oriented toward the activities of national parties. Political actives, rather than civil service specialists, provide the principal coordination in programs. In countries with a strong tradition of decentralized decision making, such as the United States, local politics combines showmanship, questions of relationships with national parties and state and national bureaucracies, and the settlement of many policy questions which are left to local governments by the states. Although the process of cooperative federalism, which has been developing for many decades in the United States, has reduced local autonomy in decision making, many decisions that affect the allocation of goods, services, and privileges are still made by actors in local political roles. As a result, the viewpoints of those who occupy particular offices are often important. But local politics is not necessarily on a higher plane in the United States because local government is a power center. The patterns of recruitment and contesting for office and of decision making may depend chiefly on whether or not there is consensus regarding the image of the proper policies for local government [see Federalism].

The distribution of community power . A central problem in the analysis of local politics has been that of identifying the power holders. Studies designed to do this have generally ignored the question of how much power local governments actually are able to allocate (the amount available may, in theory at least, bear some relationship to the status levels of persons who become involved in the local political process). The concentration has been on identifying those who are wielders of power over whatever decisions can be made locally. By the mid-1960s questions of power were still of keen interest to social scientists, but many questions concerning its character remained unanswered. Among the issues the following were of critical importance:

(1) Is power deliberately used by an elite in a conspiracy to control society or is it essentially a socially useful device serving to provide an orderly social system? The conspiratorial theory stems from Marxian ideology and holds that a relatively few persons dominate local decision making for the benefit of the business and industrial leaders andmiddle-class citizens generally. In contrast, another theory holds that in a pluralistic democracy power may be distributed widely among various classes and groups in the community, with a variety of resources (e.g., money, votes, status, intensity of concern) as a basis for power. In support of the latter position, some have argued that the rising importance and numbers of functions of government have made the formal holders of elective office and the professional civil servants powerful in their own right and not mere satraps for hidden leaders.

(2) Is the power structure monolithic or internally competitive? Early studies tended to find a monolithic pattern in which power holders met informally to decide policy relative to major items on the community agenda and to compromise any differences within the group. More recent studies indicate that power holders compete with one another, posing power against power, and negotiate with one another as diplomats and politicians. The concept of a “power structure,” or simple pyramid of relatively powerful persons ranged in hierarchical order, is being replaced by that of a “power complex” of often competing persons from downtown businesses, neighborhood businesses, industry, organized labor, religion, education, politics, and sometimes other areas.

(3) Is power integrated or multinucleated? That is, are the power holders all in communication with one another, ordered in a single hierarchy, concerned with all major issues, and equally powerful in relation to all major issues? Or is power distributed functionally, so that those who have much to do with decisions about education policy, for example, overlap little or not at all with those in the fields of transportation, parks, or sewage disposal? Early studies (Robert and Helen Lynd in the 1920s, W. Lloyd Warner in the 1930s, and Floyd Hunter in the 1940s) tended to see an integrated structure. More recently, research reports indicate functional specialization, but whether the differences result from improved research techniques or from a changing distribution of power is not known.

(4) How are power holders to be distinguished from power users? A number of problems have arisen in efforts to identify those who are powerful in local politics. Some of these are problems of theory construction (Is a person powerful if his wants are anticipated and met even though he does not directly participate in a decision?); others are those of method (Can the powerful be identified more accurately by collecting and classifying the opinions of the supposedly knowledgeable or by observing the actors in particular decisions?). The study of local political power is complicated by the efforts of decision makers to anticipate the wants of those who are believed to be important or potentially powerful. It is also complicated, among other ways, by the fact that respondents and researchers have varying definitions and concepts of power and by the probability that a person asked to name the powerful cannot accurately identify them all and may overdiscount (or alternatively, exaggerate) the power of persons he disapproves of or regards as lacking a legitimate right to be powerful. In the 1960s research was continuing on the problem of analyzing local political power. Some of the most productive work in sociology and political science was taking place in this area [see Community, article on The Study Of Community Power; see also Power].

Liberalism and conservatism . The concepts of liberalism and conservatism common in the Western world do not necessarily have the same meaning when applied to local politics as they do at the national level. The socialist, labor, and other reasonably well-disciplined parties of European democracies have tried to give the terms equivalent meanings at all levels of government. American national parties have not seriously attempted to bring local issues into their platforms or campaigns, and they have not themselves been clearly identified along a liberal-conservative continuum. In the twentieth century liberalism has become identified with the involvement of government in coping with a large variety of economic and social issues financed through a progressive tax system. While the social-service state has become the established pattern in the United States, home ownership has also become increasingly widespread. As a result studies have shown that persons who vote for liberal candidates for state and national offices may vote for conservatives at the local level, and vice versa. In particular, working-class homeowners with modest incomes sometimes oppose bond issues for capital outlays that would benefit them and vote for advocates of “caretaker” government, apparently because the cost of local government so clearly falls on the property owner. Sometimes they do this despite strong appeals for support of an issue or candidate by labor or other liberal leaders. Working-class persons have not pressed for social-service state and liberal reform programs (such as public housing or urban renewal) at the local level. Upper-middle-class persons, on the other hand, frequently are willing to spend local tax monies and subscribe to the images of “boosterism” and “amenities.” As a result the terms liberal and conservative are often quite meaningless when applied to local government.

Local politics and democracy . Studies of local politics since the end of World War 11 indicate that the bulk of citizens in American democracy do not exert much individual influence, even at the local level. In fact, the pattern at the local level appears to be not much different from that at the national, despite the prevalence of nonpartisanship and the supposed significance of physical proximity to the decision makers. The level of information possessed by the typical citizen is low, citizens take their cues from various political leaders, and decisions seem to be largely the product of bargaining among leaders. Voter participation at the local level is typically lower than it is for national and state elections, and some scholars have been concerned about the high level of alienation at the local level, although evidence as to the significance of this, if it exists at all, is inconclusive. The indifferent do, however, seem to move toward the extremes of the political spectrum when they become activated, just as is the case in national elections. In the 1960s, then, the study of local politics leaves unanswered some questions that are important for democracy. Particularly, it is still uncertain how much citizen participation is necessary for healthy democracy at the local level, what form this participation should take for the viability of democracy, or to what degree present systems of local government provide adequate or satisfying representation and access to decision makers by all segments of the local population.

Charles R. Adrian

[See alsoCentralization And Decentralization; City; Community; Local Government; Political Machines; Political Participation.]


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