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All Politics Is National?

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Tip O’Neill, who held the same seat in Congress that John F. Kennedy had won in 1946 before Kennedy himself went on to higher office from 1953 until 1987 and served as Speaker of the House for ten years, is credited with the aphorism that “all politics is local.” In essence what O’Neill meant by the statement is that, in the end, a Congressman or Senator is re-elected based on what he or she has done for their district or state rather than national political issues. On some level at least, it’s an observation that always seemed to make sense at least in the sense that a politician who forgot about his constituents would end up paying a political price on Election Day. To a large degree, this is what happened to Eric Cantor in that he lost support among 7th District Republicans largely because he was perceived as spending more time focusing on his own rather obvious ambitions to be Speaker of The House than what his constituents were telling him. Cantor, though, is only the latest example of what can happen to a politician who keeps his or her eye off the ball.

In recent decades, though, it has seemed as though O’Neill’s observation may have less weight than it used to. Several times during the Reagan Administration, for example, the Republicans tried to “nationalize” the elections for House and Senate in the hopes that a focus on national issues would lead voters to support Republican candidates over Democratic incumbents even when the incumbents have been very good at paying attention to their constituents.  In 1994, thanks in no small part to several political mis-steps by the Clinton Administration and an economy that still had not filled recovered from the early 90s  recession, Republicans were able to do that with the “Contract With America,” and were able to take full control of Congress for the first time in forty years. Since then, Congressional and Senate elections have become more and more nationalized, and this year’s midterms are providing a prime example of that:

For all the talk about how partisan polarization is overwhelming Washington, there is another powerful, overlapping force at play: Voters who are not deeply rooted increasingly view politics through a generic national lens.

Friends-and-neighbors elections were already a thing of the past in congressional campaigns. But the axiom that “all politics is local” is increasingly anachronistic when ever-larger numbers of voters have little awareness of what incumbents did for their community in years past and are becoming as informed by cable television, talk radio and the Internet as by local sources of news. In this year’s primaries, the trend is lifting hard-liners, but it has benefited more moderate candidates in general elections.

“They don’t know who the heck Thad is,” said the Republican strategist Karl Rove, of Mississippi’s newly arrived voters. “There is no 40-year history with him, knowing that this is the guy who built up the state’s modern Republican Party. The same with Eric, people who have just gotten to Richmond don’t even know what the House of Delegates is, let alone that he served there.”

Voters in both places were chiefly interested in who would take a hard line against President Obama and most lacked, for example, some long-ago fraternity connection to Mr. Cochran at Ole Miss or a relationship with Mr. Cantor’s politically active parents — the kind of links that once were so important in primary politics.

(…)

In recent decades Mr. Cochran, a six-term veteran, has used his senior status on the Appropriations Committee to make these very neighborhoods possible: He steered nearly $80 million to DeSoto County to help build new wastewater treatment facilities to meet the growing demand that has come with the surge in commercial and residential construction.

Mr. Cochran’s backers note that the earmarking of such money — now taboo in the Tea Party era — has kept utility bills in the county reasonable and prevented higher local taxes.

“People in DeSoto County, many of whom work in Memphis and have not been there very long, they don’t know about Ingalls shipyard, they don’t care about Columbus Air Force Base, Meridian Naval Air Station, the Army Corps of Engineers center in Vicksburg, the Stennis Space Center,” said former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who backs Mr. Cochran, reeling off places and projects that mean precious little to many voters here.

(…)

In recent decades Mr. Cochran, a six-term veteran, has used his senior status on the Appropriations Committee to make these very neighborhoods possible: He steered nearly $80 million to DeSoto County to help build new wastewater treatment facilities to meet the growing demand that has come with the surge in commercial and residential construction.

Mr. Cochran’s backers note that the earmarking of such money — now taboo in the Tea Party era — has kept utility bills in the county reasonable and prevented higher local taxes.

“People in DeSoto County, many of whom work in Memphis and have not been there very long, they don’t know about Ingalls shipyard, they don’t care about Columbus Air Force Base, Meridian Naval Air Station, the Army Corps of Engineers center in Vicksburg, the Stennis Space Center,” said former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who backs Mr. Cochran, reeling off places and projects that mean precious little to many voters here.

There’s a lot at play in the two races profiled in the linked article, but the defeat of Eric Cantor and the fact that Thad Cochran is in danger of losing his party’s nomination notwithstanding the fact that he has served six terms in the Senate and played a large role in bringing Federal benefits to Mississippi, among the poorest states in the nation. Although Cantor’s failure to pay attention to his constituents clearly played a role in his loss, someone of his stature losing a primary election is so unique that it’s likely to stand as a singular event in American political history for quite some time. However, like Cantor it seems to suggest that, at least among the Republican electorate, incumbency and constituent service don’t mean nearly as much as they used to. If that’s a phenomenon that starts replicating itself across the country, then Congressman and Senators are going to find themselves having to respond to an entirely different set of incentives from voters in which questions like “what have you done for me lately?” don’t mean as much.

There are many likely explanations for why races like these have become more nationalized than they used to be in the past. The decline in the use of earmarks at the Congressional level certainly plays a role since it means that Members of Congress are less able to enhance their political fortunes by bringing Federal money home. The biggest influence, though, is likely the rise of talk radio, cable news, and the internet, all of which have expanded political discussions and served to get more people involved in and talking about politics. As a result of this, people are more aware of national political issues and more easily persuaded by populist voices on the left or the right. Whether this is a good thing is a different question, of course, but the impact of the creation of a nationwide 24/7 political culture that people can access at will, and which can be easily filtered so that the reader/viewer is only exposed to viewpoints they agree with is readily apparent all around us.

So, does this mean that “all politics is national” now? I wouldn’t go quite that far just yet. The Cantor race shows us that paying attention to constituents still matters and likely will still play a role going forward. However, we have entered an era where races for individual Congressional Districts and Senate seats are more focused on national issues than they are on what the candidates can do for constituents and it’s unlikely that is going to change.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben says:
  2. @Ben:

    You are aware that a Federal Judge shut down that investigation as frivolous, right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Todd says:

    This post reminds me of a kind of quirky idea I have for campaign finance reform, that I think might actually not violate people’s 1st Amendment rights (according to the Supreme Court) to spend money. I think we should allow unlimited campaign contributions and spending for House and Senate races, but donations would only be allowed by actual constituents. In other words, if you’re rich, and you want to influence a Congressional election, you’re free to give as much money as you want to the congressperson who represents your district, or the Senator candidates in your State. But who is elected from a State on the other side of the country should be none of your business.

    I suppose I have somewhat out of the mainstream views on these sort of related issues too. For instance, I’ve never seen a problem with earmarks. To my understanding, trade-offs and favors between the representatives of different geographical constituencies as a way of winning consensus is exactly how our form of government was envisioned to work. What was not envisioned was a system where representatives have more allegiance to a national political party than they do to the entirety of the people they are sent to Washington to represent.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. Ben says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Well aware. Although it’s not that Walker didn’t coordinate with national groups, it’s that it wasn’t illegal because it was protected by the 1st Amendment. It’s just interesting to see the evidence come out and see that Walker did, indeed, coordinate with outside groups. That’s why I said that it was related to this post. Because it supports the main thesis, that all elections are national now.

    I find it funny that you immediately misconstrued the point of my post. You just assumed that I was some Dem shill shreaking about Scott Walker. For as much as you heap scorn upon the naked partisan nature of most political discourse, you seem to engage in it yourself sometimes. All I was doing was providing another example of a local race being made national, and that it was the local side that was coordinating the whole thing.

    “The (Wisconsin Club for Growth and its treasurer) have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted. Instead, it should be recognized as promoting political speech, an activity that is ‘ingrained in our culture,’” Randa wrote, quoting from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  5. wr says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “You are aware that a Federal Judge shut down that investigation as frivolous, right?”

    That would be the federal judge who’d accepted all sorts of trips and goodies from the same people whose bribes Walker was coordinating? Why yes, I was aware. It’s nice to see just how much you can buy if you have a couple billion dollars. Apparently the libertarian philosophy is so in favor of free markets you now believe justice should also go to the highest bidder.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  6. bill says:

    @wr: true, but he was up against the teachers union- not known for being cheap when it comes to elections and their own view of what “justice” is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. Scott says:

    We find this to be true in Texas where the politicians spend more time talking about how they are going to stand up against the Federal government instead of telling us how they are going to fix our roads, ensure future water supplies, etc.

    Bottomline: As this nationalization of politics grow, Congress will become less and less effective. Congress is in a downward spiral and this may be the cause.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Tillman says:

    @Todd: If nothing else, it’d force the rich to pay more property tax as they set out to buy houses in every congressional district they want to influence. The real estate market would love it.

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