Baby boomer that I am, I'm old enough to remember when what Yascha Mounk writes about in a New Yorker piece, "The Rise of McPolitics," was the lay of the political land in this country:
For much of the twentieth century, the real power in American politics rested not with U.S. representatives or senators but with the governors, mayors, and assemblymen who controlled local purse strings.
In many cases, men like Chafin got people elected to Congress in order to reward them for years of loyal service or to rid themselves of ambitious rivals, but national politics was of comparatively little importance. “The politicians who were crucial to the operation of the organization normally stayed home,” one scholar of the period observed.
At the federal level, the two parties resembled loose associations of disparate interests rather than ideologically cohesive movements. They had few resources and virtually no means of insuring ideological discipline among their members. Many Democrats were more conservative than many Republicans.
All of that had real advantages: Congress was, for much of the past century, a place of remarkable comity, where politicians routinely struck compromises on public spending or judicial appointments. Even as Americans found themselves deeply divided on everything from foreign policy to rock and roll, high politics was relatively free of acrimony.
But for sure, the times, they were a'changing.
Now, Mounk accurately says, almost everyone identifies as Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative, since even independents are pretty much that in name only, since they tend to lean either leftward or rightward, not smack-dab upright in the middle.
As Daniel J. Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, chronicles in a new book, “The Increasingly United States” (Chicago), American politics has become thoroughly nationalized: voters pay vastly more attention to what is going on in Washington, D.C., than to what’s going on in their own town or state.
The Democratic and the Republican Parties have become much more homogeneous, offering largely the same ideological profile in Alabama as they do in Vermont. In each election, Americans now face a choice between two clearly demarcated alternatives of action.
This goes a long way toward explaining why voters here in Salem are much more likely to turn out in presidential election years than in the November mid-term elections, and why they also are much more likely to turn out in mid-term elections than in the May primary elections where, usually, Salem City Council and Mayoral races are decided.
(Since if someone wins 50% +1 of the votes, the "primary" turns out to be the final election for that seat).
Mounk goes on to write:
Once upon a time, every community in America had its own store with its own local products. Today, chains like Walmart and Home Depot offer the same wares all over the country. The parties, Hopkins believes, have undergone a similar process of homogenization: “Just as an Egg McMuffin is the same in every McDonald’s, America’s two major political parties are increasingly perceived to offer the same choices throughout the country.”
...Hopkins is a sure-footed guide to the twilight of local politics, and he’s aware of the risks that these developments may pose. Voters’ focus on national issues, he points out, is likely to “crowd out more local concerns.”
And since most Americans pay little attention to local politics and are likely to vote for just about any candidate who shares their party affiliation, mayors and governors no longer have as much reason to place the needs of their constituents over those of special-interest groups: “Their actions in office might well reflect the wishes of the people most likely to advance their careers, whether they are activists, donors, or fellow partisans from other states.”
We've seen this happening in Salem.
In the early 2000's the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce decided it was time to get rid of the liberal Mayor and City Council majority. The Chamber didn't target individual local politicians. The goal was to put conservatives in charge of City Hall, not progressives.
After this goal was achieved, a predictable counter-reaction occurred.
Progressive Salem was formed with the opposite goal: to put liberals in charge of City Hall. And that goal also was achieved, since currently progressives have a 5-4 majority on the City Council, which will change to 6-3 next January, since Jackie Leung unseated Steve McCoid in last May's election and will take office in 2019.
The New Yorker piece ends on an semi-optimistic note. Yes, we now live in an era of intense national political polarization. And this filters down to local and state politics.
Here in Salem, as in most places, local offices are nominally non-partisan. But as noted above, in recent years local elections have taken on a R v. D or conservative v. progressive tone, echoing the national Us versus Them mentality.
I don't think this is a good thing, but at the moment it is an inescapable thing.
Trump has made it very difficult for Democrats to support any Republicans, and Trump's high approval rating among Republicans makes it very difficult for them to support any Democrats.
Nonetheless, Mounk leaves us with some room for hope.
The nationalization of American politics has led to the rise of two political mega-identities. But it does not foreordain that they will be incapable of finding common ground, or that the current period of intense partisanship will go on forever. In the past, times of heightened animosity have often been followed by periods of unexpected calm.
Ordinary citizens are less polarized in their opinions than the political parties in Washington; many long for moderation. And, despite the central role that attacks on minorities played in Trump’s campaign, most Americans have grown more, not less, tolerant of compatriots who do not share their ethnicity, their religion, or their sexual orientation.
In ways that Schlesinger anticipated, the deep divide between supporters and opponents of President Trump is subjecting national unity to a fearful test. The danger that a highly nationalized and deeply partisan politics poses to American institutions is undoubtedly real.
But, just as it would be naïve to pretend that a happy ending is assured because our political institutions have managed to incorporate new groups in the past, so, too, would it be cynical to conclude that America is too riven with conflict—or too rotten with injustice—to be redeemed.